The pandemic is causing an epidemic of mental health disorders. The fear of catching the virus, infecting vulnerable loved ones, the isolation caused by lockdowns, and the financial insecurity resulting from the recession all work together to increase cases of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
In the data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, four in 10 American adults reported developing symptoms of anxiety and depression by the end of 2020. Another report, this time by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions, including increased substance abuse, that were associated with COVID-19.
More recently, mental health experts sounded the alarm on the prevalence of eating disorders, especially among young people, over the past year.
Eating Disorders on the Rise
In the past year, calls to the National Eating Disorders Association increased by up to 70 to 80 percent. A survey conducted early in the pandemic revealed that 62 percent of respondents with anorexia experienced worsening symptoms. Meanwhile, nearly a third of those with binge-eating disorder admitted increased frequency of episodes.
An eating disorder is a serious threat. It has the second-highest mortality rate after opioid use disorder of any psychiatric diagnosis. It often requires professional intervention to treat. Patients suffering from it often need to undergo treatment for eating disorders in a special facility under experts’ guidance.
The Consequences of Losing Daily Routines
The pandemic upended all facets of society. The lockdowns meant that regular habits and routines disappear. Kids no longer have to wake up earlier and get ready for school because their classes are held online. Adults also lose the structure within their day as work also becomes home-based.
For many, this results in mental unease. A routine, especially during uncertain times, provides a sense of control. It helps the mind focus and be more organized. Moreover, it helps create a sense of productivity.
Now that stress levels are at an all-time high, a routine is needed. But, so many people lost their routine over the past year. Some may have developed new healthy habits under lockdown. However, others just spiraled out of control.
Losing a routine is bad for people receiving treatment for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and other food-related disorders. But, it also has negative effects on those who have not received any diagnosis before the pandemic. Without regularly scheduled meal times, patients are either snacking too often or hardly eat throughout the day.
Isolation and the general lack of social support also worsen eating disorders and overall mental health. Without family and friends around, there is no one to check their eating habits or provide healthy foods every meal.
The Connection Between Trauma and Food
An eating disorder is never just about food. People who experience trauma may turn to food to cope. Experts have observed a strong link between eating disorders, specifically bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, with trauma. For example, child sexual abuse is a factor for eating disorders. To provide effective treatment, therefore, a specialist will need to address the previous trauma.
And, right now, everyone is experiencing a collective trauma because of the pandemic.
Trauma can disrupt the nervous system, which can lead to patients unable to manage their emotions. As a result, they turn to unhealthy habits that may lead to eating disorders or substance abuse.
Other contributing factors that have led to the increase of prevalence of eating disorders in the past year include loneliness, negative thoughts, increased exposure to social media and the internet, a lack of rewarding activities, concerns about food security, and high stress.
Stress, in particular, has been linked to increased eating as levels of cortisol in the body increase hunger and cravings. Most of the time, people binge not with an apple or a bowl of fresh greens but with food that brings comfort, which, in most cases, are nutrient-empty but high in calories and carbs.
To manage eating disorders during the pandemic, patients who are struggling should seek immediate help from mental help professionals. Therapists are available to provide advice and guidance via telemedicine platforms. Patients should also create a healthy routine to follow and focus on while in lockdown, including set meal times. Also, patients should have access to healthy meals throughout the day.