These are unprecedented times in almost every possible way. One is the complete upheaval of absolutely everything about your daily routines, including the space you live in and how you're able to move around in it each day. Another is the amount you spend within staring distance of a mirror. For people with eating disorders, and even those who have never struggled with disordered eating before, these things can compound into a real challenge in managing mental health when it comes to their bodies.
“It’s kind of like the perfect storm, what’s happening when you’re isolated,” said Mayo Clinic psychologist Leslie Sim, who specializes in eating disorders and body image issues. “There are just millions of variables that make body image preoccupation a lot higher.”
Those variables include the fact that there’s so much time to fixate on… anything you feel stress about right now, including your ever-present flesh vessel. On top of that, so many strategies mental health experts would normally recommend to manage negative feelings about our bodies aren't possible when you’re trying to stay in the house, away from people.
“Everything around eating or prepping food right now creates additional stressors that we just haven’t seen in the past,” said Dani Gonzales, a staff psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California. “How do I even get to the grocery store safely? How do I sanitize my groceries?”
If you’ve noticed self-isolation is making you feel shittier than usual about your body, experts say you’re very much not alone. (Asked if USC students and those she works with in her private practice are struggling with this, Gonzales responded, “Absolutely.”) But there are still ways you can manage negative feelings about your body, even in our isolated times. Here are some ideas about how to adapt if your usual coping strategies aren't available to you.
(Note that these tips are meant to support, not stand in for, effective mental and physical health care from experts. If you have access to a mental health or eating disorder professional, even in a virtual or video capacity, that’s the best way to find help. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has a roundup of low-cost and free support options, as well.)
Unfollow what’s unhelpful.
Mid-April can be stressful in a normal year, body-image-wise, especially online. As if the perennial Instagram posts quietly pushing you to sculpt a "beach body" weren’t enough, how about a little pandemic pressure on top of it?
Instagram, especially and as ever, is full of diet and exercise advice. But those accounts might not belong to qualified health and wellness professionals, and even if they do, you could be watching fitness videos that were recorded long before COVID. Those people might have been in a very different place—like “able to leave the house”—at the time, so it’s not a standard you can reasonably hold yourself to. And, OK, say they are qualified professionals. Is watching folks who stay #cut for a living do squats really beneficial for you, right now? Or is it making you feel worse?
“With body image, a lot of it comes with social comparison," said Gonzales, who offered an alternative approach to how isolation could impact that thinking. "Having to be more isolated, maybe it’s not in our face as much, comparing our bodies to others.” In other words, “It might be a good time to limit or disengage” from Instagram and Facebook a little.
Enjoy social (distance) meals.
Missing your classmates or colleagues at the old lunch table by now? Even the guy who’s still talking about the Game of Thrones finale? That’s totally reasonable—studies have shown that people are happier and healthier when we eat meals together.
You’ve probably already been using video platforms for work meetings and happy hours—to counter loneliness's potential effects on your body image, add a midday social meal into the mix, too. “Eating socially can be an effective way for us to check-in with our bodies, feel connected to others, pair eating with other pleasurable events, like listening and laughing, and help bring routine to our lives during these hectic times,” Gonzales said.
Social meals can also provide structure, which so many of us are seeking in this chaotic time. According to Gonzales, one helpful way to eat mindfully, respecting our hunger and fullness cues, is to eat as close to a schedule as possible. “When we start to deviate from schedules or skip meals we can run the risk of restricting, binging, or eating in the absence of hunger,” she said.
“Maybe you schedule a Zoom lunch, where you have a few of your friends and you’re all eating together,” Gonzales said. “That might normalize: We eat at scheduled times.”
Appreciate that your body can still do a lot of cool stuff and try to experience that in new ways.
OK, so the gym is closed. You probably don’t have access to the trainers and programs you like in the way you're used to. That sucks. If you crave physical activity and Zoom fitness classes just aren’t cutting it, try to find new outlets for engaging your body that work for you. Maybe you could try a yoga program? Download Zwift and take virtual bike rides with your buds?
Gonzales and Sim said it can also be helpful to reframe a focus on fitness as “what can my body do” versus “how should my body look.” Gonzales framed the thought as asking yourself, “How can I experience my body in different ways?”
Even a new hobby counts when it comes to bodily appreciation—think about how your body helps you write letters, or move when you take a walk, or… even when you do boring stuff like vacuuming or weeding the garden. Gonzales put it like this: Your body is “an instrument, more so than an ornament.” Try to remember that.
“That bit of creativity—the characteristic of resilience and survival—can be adaptable now.” Gonzales said. One of her clients recently shared that pandemic downtime is letting her get creative with her body image while at home—being more artistic with makeup, styling hair in new ways, putting together outfits, and organizing her closet to directly oppose negative thoughts about her body image and shape.
Remember that this isn't forever, and that you might need to allow yourself some room right now.
“I would love for people to get the message: It’s OK,” Gonzales said. “It’s OK if maybe we’re not enjoying our bodies, or how we’re eating, or these times. This isn’t forever, even if it may feel like it from day to day.”
It comes down to practicing self-compassion. Which, great. But how does one… do that? Should we engage with our not-good thoughts? Block them out? The answer is: kind of both. Sim suggested observing your judgemental thoughts, without necessarily listening to them. It’s not easy! But think about yourself like you’d think about a friend. If they gained or lost some weight, that wouldn’t change your opinion of them, right? And if they were feeling bad about themselves, you’d build them up, rather than indulging their shame spiral, right?
In this case, you are your friend. Try to be kind, warm, accepting of where you’re at. Ask yourself: What does your body need? Is it sleep? Space? Kindness? Water? Let that guide you. “Allowing our needs to be met during these times can be so crucial, versus turning to our bodies and making them the enemy,” Gonzales added.
Take advantage of online resources.
For additional support, Gonzales pointed again to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), which, she said, is, “based in academic research, but great at connecting with people”—as in: They meet you where you’re at and talk to you like a human person, not a textbook. NEDA recognizes that isolation is causing a lot of people a lot of stress when it comes to their bodies—so much so that upon visiting their website, you’re greeted by a pop-up linking to a specific COVID-19 resource page developed for those who are struggling.
NEDA assembled a list of virtual support groups and created a COVID-specific forum that’s open and monitored 24/7. The organization also launched a new NEDA Connections video series with daily check-ins, activities, and presentations from professionals. NEDA links to @covid19eatingsupport as one helpful Instagram account to follow, which hosts hourly Instagram Live sessions with dietitians, nutritionists, and therapists and other ED specialists.
Between the whole global pandemic, economic collapse, and, ya know, end of the world as we know it, there’s enough to worry about already. But you're not vain or selfish for struggling with this. Lots of people, globally, are going through this and trying to manage some of the same preoccupations you are. However you can take steps toward easing up on yourself, even if it takes time and doesn't happen right away: Give yourself, and your body, a break.
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