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Eating Disorders Surge During the Pandemic

For most Melburnians in lockdown, food has become a real highlight in the day. Baking seems to be the new craze, slow cooked roasts are no longer just for Sunday’s and cues have been forming outside popular take-away joints.

However, research suggests lockdown has been uniquely tough for those individuals who already have a tricky relationship with food and body image: The more than 4 per cent of Australians who have an eating disorder¹.

This seems like the only explanation for data that shows a sharp increase in people with eating disorders presenting to doctors and hospitals across Australia since the pandemic begun².

Recent data taken from Monash University shows the number of people presenting to GP clinics with eating disorders has doubled since the pandemic begun. This coincides with data that shows double the number of calls to helplines. And a recent small survey revealed two thirds of people with anorexia were engaged in more intense restriction and exercise during the pandemic².

While research is still in its preliminary stages, we can’t yet fully understand why the pandemic has caused a drastic rise in eating disorders.

However, through understanding the mechanisms of an eating disorder and hearing from our patient’s experience at our practice, we can start to hypothesize about how the pandemic has impacted individuals with an eating disorder.

How the Pandemic may be Impacting Eating Disorders

  1. Eating disorders almost always co-exist with anxiety and/or depression. Eating disorder behaviours, whilst they’re unhelpful, are ways of coping with difficult emotions such as what we see with anxiety and depression. As such, if anxiety or depression worsens as a result of the pandemic, eating disorder symptoms are expected to worsen.
  2. Interpersonal problems, such as anxiety or conflict in relationships, often play a main role in eating disorders. During isolation we can expect an increase in interpersonal problems – e.g. increase in family conflict and disconnection in relationships – which directly influences eating disorder behaviours.
  3. Routine and structure around meal times is known to be a protective factor against eating disorder behaviours. In fact, planned meals and a schedule for eating is a big part to recovery from an eating disorder. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that isolation, which strips us of structure and routine has created extra challenges for people with an eating disorder.
  4. Intense focus and preoccupation with weight and body shape is a core component of most eating disorders. Body image worsens and becomes dysmorphic with increased attention and focus on the body, via checking behaviours, such as looking in the mirror or frequent weighing (for more info on how this works you might like to read blog post – Poor Body Image and Why?). Being stuck at home no doubt increases the focus and attention someone with an eating disorder pays to their body; thus, worsening body image.
  5. Being around food constantly can be very triggering for individuals who binge as part of their eating disorder. One of the helpful steps in recovery is to remove foods that trigger binges. Therefore, being stuck at home with food in the nearby pantry can be very triggering for someone with an eating disorder.

These are some of the more common ways in which people living with an eating disorder are being affected by the pandemic. However, there are other unsuspecting ways too – e.g. panic buying can trigger food hoarding and exercise limits influence an increase in food restriction. As time unfolds we will learn more about the pandemics devastating effects on people living with eating disorders. However, for now we need to turn our attention to increasing the number of psychologists trained in eating disorder treatment to meet increased demand.

What is Peaceful Mind Psychology doing to support the increased demand for psychologists trained in eating disorders?

Peaceful Mind Psychology takes a special interest in eating disorders, where we provide ongoing training and support for psychologists to up-skill in this field. Our practice is currently trying to partner with universities to offer student placements focused on learning and training in eating disorders. We utilise evidence-based therapies of CBT-E (Cognitive-behavioural Therapy – Enhanced) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) to treat eating disorders in adults, including anorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia and atypical presentations.