Staying on the Eating Disorders Recovery Path During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Cynthia Bulik, PhD, Founding Director, UNC CEED, Jean Doak, PhD, CEED Clinical Director, Tonya Foreman, MD, CEED Medical Director

This is a special blog post for individuals with eating disorders and their families for how to deal with COVID-19 while being treated for or recovering from an eating disorder. We hear mostly about older people and people with underlying health conditions being at risk, but what about eating disorders?

From our perspective, there are several different risks we need to consider. The first one is the obvious physical health risk. Anyone with any eating disorder who is physically compromised either from low weight or malnutrition (regardless of weight) may be particularly vulnerable. We know that eating disorders can have adverse effects on every bodily system and the immune system is also vulnerable. It is more important than ever to maintain a recovery stance, to ensure proper nutrition, and stick with your meal plan whatever it may be. If you are ill (with COVID-19 or any illness) and quarantined or voluntarily isolated, it is time to rely on friends, family, and delivery services such as Instacart to bring food to you. If you are finding that some of the foods that are on your meal plan are not available, reach out to your dietitian to find substitutions.

I think a second and very important risk for people living with eating disorders is the impact of social distancing on anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Next to washing your hands thoroughly and often, social distancing is the best thing we can do to flatten the curve of this epidemic. But social distancing can be isolating. We all need support more than ever at this time and need to think up creative ways to continue to communicate and support each other. You can share a meal or a snack on Zoom, even share a cup of tea. You can co-watch something on TV or a streaming service with a friend. It is a risk to be circling around in your own thoughts all day. We need people the most now at a time when we need to stay physically distanced from them for the good of public health. We just need to access them in safe ways. CEED is working to ensure psychotherapy services continue with minimal disruption—either at a different UNC location or via teletherapy. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has posted an excellent piece on protecting your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak, which you can read here. The American Psychological Association has also provided some very helpful information about social distancing here.

We all need hugs sometimes too, but not now! It will feel awkward not to shake hands, or hug, or kiss on the cheek, but now is not the time. Bring out that favorite stuffed animal, soft blanket, flannel shirt, or fuzzy slippers to give you physical comfort that you are not safely able to get as regularly now.

This is also a time when families can help and support each other. FEAST has done a tremendous job of linking families around the world.  Now is an excellent time to reach out to other families to share strategies of how to maintain a recovery orientation during these unprecedented times.

Most importantly, focus on trusted sources of information. It is easy to become overwhelmed and it is difficult to separate reliable sources from rubbish. The Centers for Disease Control have maintained a regular flow of updated information as this situation has continued to evolve rapidly.

Even if you are only able to meet with your healthcare providers virtually, know that we remain deeply concerned about your wellbeing. At CEED, we will do whatever we can while following the guidelines of the CDC, state, and hospital to ensure that you receive the care that you need during this challenging time. Please visit the UNC Health COVID-19 website for up-to-date answers to questions and additional information about healthcare services at UNC.

What to Do If You Have COVID-19 Symptoms?

If you have a cough or shortness of breath or you are concerned that you may have been exposed to COVID-19, please contact your local COVID-19 hotline before visiting a doctor’s office or an urgent care location. 

If you are having difficulty breathing, call 911 or seek immediate treatment.