Mealtime Anxiety, Eating Disorders, & Nourishment During COVID-19
Banishing Shame & Embracing Gratitude: Advice for eating with self-compassion during the Pandemic.
Routines are valuable. This is especially true for people with eating disorders or any other mental illness. Current events have forced many to abandon their routines, causing people to feel as though they’re living moment to moment without a sense of stability or control– a feeling that can trigger eating disorder behavior, for sure.
During the Coronavirus pandemic and all the uncertainty it brings with it, we want you to know that while eating disorders thrive in isolation, recovery happens in community. And we are still here for you, always.
Taking On Shame
COVID19 has stopped our world in its tracks. For now.
We are all taking precautions to #flattenthecurve through social distancing, staying in, working from home, and limiting outside trips. As our communities work together to control the spread of COVID-19, it seems many of us have individually lost control over something else – shame.
You know shame, right? It’s that thing that shows up around the same time all the “shoulds” do: I should exercise, I should eat a salad. I should have gone to therapy. I should! In fact, whenever you see a “should,” I’m willing to bet that “shame” is not too far behind.
If you have been painstakingly knitting together your recovery from an eating disorder, it may feel like COVID-19 has been working just as hard to unravel it. Shame breeds in isolation from life as we knew it and food as we wanted it.
Shame doesn’t follow the rules. Shame is not a logical conclusion. Shame is never productive and it never- I mean never!- comes from your wise self. Shame and eating disorders both work in shadows and isolation. Even worse, shame brings with it a gang of emotions that use bullying and intimidation to create an illusion of control. The good news is, shame cannot survive without loud and arrogant reinforcements like fear and anxiety.
Meet the “Shame Gang”
By choosing practices to create calm and help manage fear around mealtime, we work to banish shame from the equation. We begin to make food choices inspired by self-compassion, not fear. And a desire to feel in control is replaced by the feeling of being grounded and non reactive.
Here’s what you should know: The “shame gang” lives in these questions:
- What if there isn’t enough food left on the grocery shelves for me?
- Should I even risk going to the grocery store in the first place?
- What if all I can find are foods I don’t want?
- Or foods that trigger my eating disorder?
- What if I’m not able to follow the meal plan my dietitian gave me during treatment?
- What if I have to eat the same thing over and over?
- Do I even deserve to eat? If I’m not able to go workout, why do I need food anyway?
- What if I buy extra just to make sure I have food, and then can’t stop binging on it?
What if……….and it goes on and on.
Have you noticed that shame is sticky, like Velcro? If our brain has lots of Velcro tabs in place from years of shame messages, shame rooted in these new fearful and anxious questions will latch on tight.
What can we do to loosen the shame of Velcro connections and perhaps reduce the number of Velcro tabs in the first place? I think the answer lies in self-compassion. You may be saying, “okay, now how is that even possible in the middle of a pandemic crisis?”
It may not be easy, but it is possible, and life-giving.
Consider Dr. Kristen Neff’s three elements of self-compassion: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. These are beautiful guidelines to consider and embrace!
When we are compassionate towards someone else, we validate their suffering and recognize the emotions wrapped up in that very suffering, such as fear, anxiety, depression, even shame. We bring no judgment to the relationship. We simply hold space with the suffering, offering kindness and grace.
If you do those things, you are a certified expert in compassion! Can you bring this same compassion to yourself? No judgment about or because of the suffering. Simply self-kindness -recognizing that life is hard and life under COVID-19 restrictions requires some flexibility and acceptance.
Recovery from an eating disorder is hard, and sustaining that recovery under COVID-19 restrictions and unknowns is even more difficult. It may even feel lonely. Giving yourself space and grace in your food choices and expressing kindness towards yourself through daily, nourishing meals- whatever form they may take- without judgment is key.
Mindfulness: An Antidote for Mealtime Anxiety?
Your body does not need, require or even expect “perfection.” In fact, food perfection isn’t even a thing! It’s never possible, regardless of COVID-19 limitations. Our bodies are designed for balance, not perfection, and that is one of the kindest gifts our bodies give us.
Practicing self-kindness means embracing mindfulness. Mindfulness is recognizing where you are in this moment, noticing any emotions and physical sensations you bring with you, observing the fluctuations of your mind without judgment, and accepting that this imperfect moment doesn’t isolate you from humanity, but indeed makes you a vital part of it
Honestly, practicing mindfulness around a meal or snack when it does not look like your eating disorder tells you it “should” look requires an extra dose of self-kindness.
- Remove moral judgments about the food in front of you. Can you see the nourishment on your plate through the perspective of your body? What can your body do with this offering of nourishment?
- Your body perceives nourishment as life-giving whether it came from a pop-top can, a frozen bag, or a farmer’s market.
- Food from carbohydrates, fats, and protein gives carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (and added nitrogen when protein is included) to your cells, your muscles, your organs, your heart, and your brain.
- This is the gift of life, and mindfulness in the moment can help you embrace that without judgment or shame.
- Slow down and eat with your senses. Make this about you.
- What if someday mealtimes become your favorite times to check in with the many layers of yourself, to set an intention, to practice mindfulness, to express gratitude, to celebrate nourishment in whatever form it takes– instead of a time for shame to chime in? What if?
- Thank the food. Bringing gratitude to the meal is a good way to remind shame that it is not welcome.
- Not every meal will be joyful for you. That is not the goal. But anyone skilled or interested in self-compassion knows that the ability to find gratitude in any situation is a vital tool for surviving life as a human being.
We are a Community. Virtually.
Can you stop to remember that in the midst of isolation and social distancing, you are NOT alone?
We are all in this together, and recognizing our common humanity is an important step towards self-compassion. And while you may not have access to the spaciousness of the outdoors right now, many have found themselves with the luxurious spaciousness of free time… and the limitlessness of the internet. These two ingredients are all you need to reinforce your virtual support network.
- Schedule Facetime meals with a friend to join you.
- Plan virtual lunch get-togethers, or coffee breaks.
- Plan and put effort into these connections, consistently.
- If a friend or family member is not available, play songs by your favorite artist to provide connection during your meal.
If a Facetime friend is not available and you aren’t in the mood for music, remember the people in your recovery journey who have encouraged you, who have walked beside you, who have reminded you that YOU are enough. YOU are worth nourishing, both physically and emotionally.
When we remember the strength gained through life shared with someone else along the journey, we bring them to the table with us – as they are a part of where you are right this moment and always will be. You are not alone.
I leave you with this for now
Self-compassion, from practicing self-kindness, resting in mindfulness, and embracing our common humanity, begins loosening that Velcro-grip of shame. In fact, self-compassion can even reduce the number of shame-based Velcro and replace them with hope.
Shame and its gang of fear and anxiety can’t stick to hope. Fear is afraid of hope. Anxiety can’t breathe around hope. Shame? No chance around hope! With hope comes courage to know that you are enough, and we will get through this together.
In the words of Samuel Johnson, “Whatever enlarges hope, will also exalt courage.”