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For the estimated 30 million Americans suffering from an eating disorder, coping with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is proving an exceptional challenge.
"Those who tend to restrict may respond to recommendations to stay home by avoiding the grocery store, and feeling like they have good reason not to eat," explains Elizabeth Hamlin, MD, MA, medical director of Rogers' Eating Disorder Recovery adult inpatient care. "People who tend to overeat when they feel lonely may be alone more often and have more time to binge eat to fill emotional needs," says Hamlin.
Additionally, as obesity is considered a risk factor for more serious complications from COVID-19, individuals who were already preoccupied with weight or body size may see this as reason to obsess more about those issues.
Many emotions that drive eating disorder behaviors are exacerbated by the pandemic—such as loneliness and worry—making it more important than ever to reach out for help. While it may be difficult to be around your support system in person, advances in technology make it easier to connect with others wherever you are.
Dr. Hamlin also encourages being more mindful of behaviors when you are stressed or anxious. "People might think 'I'm not feeling like eating tonight, so I'll just skip a meal,' or 'I'm just going to binge once because I feel down.' However, this is the time when people need to recognize their emotions and choose to respond differently than they normally would," Dr. Hamlin says.
If you know someone with an eating disorder, Dr. Hamlin recommends asking them how they would like you to support them, as people may have different wants and needs. Even better, it's helpful to discuss this with them when they are not facing a crisis.
"My advice is to strike while the iron is cold. Do not try to figure out how to communicate in a moment of crisis. During a non-crisis time, check in with your loved one about what feels supportive and acceptable when they are struggling," she says.
When having conversations, try to focus on the emotions the person is feeling. Additionally, Dr. Hamlin explains that it is important to establish beforehand that vague words like "fine" and "okay" can make it more difficult to have a productive conversation.
Dr. Hamlin says that while many people engage in some form of emotional eating in times of crisis, it is when these behaviors are one of the only ways of coping with stress or negative emotions that it becomes a concern.
If you or someone you love is experiencing challenging behaviors or feelings regarding food or eating, it may be time to reach out for help. Rogers provides outpatient care at locations throughout the country and inpatient and residential treatment at locations in southeastern Wisconsin. To request a free, confidential screening, call 800-767-4411 or request one online.
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