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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on our collective mental health. We have had to deal with unprecedented grief and stress, often separated from our friends and family and anxious to stay in good physical health.

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“If you had a predisposition to depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, what we’ve seen over the past year is that the pandemic has really increased the number of people struggling with it. with mental health issues, ”says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD. “It may also explain why we may have seen an increase in the number of people calling for help centers about eating disorders.”

Calls to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hotline increased by 40% in the first year of the pandemic. In August 2020 International Journal of Eating Disorders survey conducted among people with anorexia who were discharged from hospital treatment in 2019, around 70% attributed to the pandemic the increase in “concerns about diet, fitness and weight, seeking physical activity, loneliness, sadness and inner turmoil ”.

Why eating disorders have increased during the pandemic

Recommendations such as social distancing have helped us protect ourselves from COVID-19. However, it was emotionally trying to be separated from friends and family. “During the pandemic, there were higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and a real appreciation that times of isolation and disconnection are tough on mental health,” says Dr Albers.

Isolation provides an environment for eating disorders to develop, she adds, “When you’re alone, you can eat – or not eat – however you choose. We have experienced extreme levels of isolation with the pandemic. “

In non-pandemic times, isolation can also be a warning sign of an eating disorder. “If you find that a friend or family member is canceling dinner reservations or not eating a family meal, these are significant signs that they are having trouble eating,” says Dr. Albers.

Disorderly eating habits are easier to spot during in-person interactions. “When you go out to dinner with people, eat with others, eat with family members, they notice what you eat and don’t eat,” says Dr. Albers. It’s also easier to compare what (and how much) you eat with others at common meals.

Being separated from loved ones – and, by extension, a strong support system – can also mask eating disorder relapses.

“If you’ve had an eating disorder in the past, you may have had the support of family members,” says Dr. Albers. “However, you may not have seen them for long periods of time because of the pandemic. They may not have recognized the changes in your weight or in your eating habits.

Dr Albers adds that changes in habits and routines may also have been a factor.

“People lost their jobs or went through such changes that they may have undergone financial changes in the food they could buy and / or access to health care,” she says. “During the pandemic, it was difficult for people to get in touch with a therapist or reconnect with their therapist. This may be another reason for the numbers to increase as the pandemic progressed. ”

What are the different types of eating disorders?

Eating disorders arise from “the way people think, feel and relate to food in their lives,” says Dr. Albers. “Eating disorders are a psychological condition in which people have an unhealthy preoccupation with their eating habits, body image and diet. “

In the United States alone, 9% of the population will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by their appearance or weight, and anyone can develop an eating disorder at any age.

Common eating disorders include:

What are the causes of eating disorders?

Eating disorders are not caused by a single factor or trigger.

“When we look at a person’s genetics, we can see different family members who have struggled with eating disorders,” says Dr. Albers. “However, there is also a social / psychological component.” If you have self-esteem issues or are a perfectionist, it can make you more predisposed.

Your group of friends – or your teammates – can also have an impact. “If you have friends who have trouble eating or talk a lot about weight loss, if you are immersed in a diet culture or in a community that, like athletes, feels pressure around body and body image , it can also be a trigger. “

Dr Albers adds that bodily trauma and “any type of significant stress” can also be factors that trigger eating disorders. This is one of the reasons the pandemic may have triggered an increase.

“For most of the population, the pandemic has been a very stressful event,” she says. “It caused a lot of collective trauma. We know that something happens when people are under stress – and intense amounts of stress. “

How to relax in the world

It’s understandable that anyone who has difficulty eating could feel anxious about returning to the world after spending months inside. However, Dr. Albers suggests using this time to reassess your life.

“Take a moment to pause and think about who you are, how the pandemic is impacting you and your eating habits – and what you want for the future,” she says.

It can mean taking a look in your social circle and making tough choices about who to hang out with. “Are these friends or family members – and are they helping or hindering your eating behaviors?” Said Dr Albers. “If you’re one of a group of people who talk a lot about weight loss or body image issues, this can be a big trigger. If you are with friends and family who are accepting and supporting you, this can be of great help.

And if you feel like you might need the extra support, Dr Albers says therapy (or, if needed, treatment) is always an option – and you wouldn’t be alone. “I noticed that a lot of people were asking for significant help and support,” she says. “If there is one positive side we can take from the pandemic, it is to prioritize the importance of mental health. “