The Impact of COVID-19 on Disordered Eating Among College Students

The Impact of COVID-19 on Disordered Eating Among College Students

By Eliza Lanzillo

It is no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the mental wellbeing of individuals around the world. While research concerning the relationship between the pandemic and mental health is in its nascency, emerging evidence indicates that the consequences will be significant. Among those negatively affected are college students. Beginning in March of 2020, college students across the United States experienced an abrupt end to in-person instruction and other traditional forms of educational interaction. Most residential students were asked to leave their dormitories and return home. Social engagements integral to the college experience, including participatory and spectator sports, club activities, arts and entertainment performances, communal dining interaction, and gatherings in general were offered exclusively in a virtual format, if at all. For most students, the reality of the past year bore little resemblance to what they expected or had come to know as their college experience.  And for many, the trajectory of their educational experience remains uncertain.

Students with eating disorders face an especially high risk of triggering or exacerbation of symptoms as a result of the pandemic. Symptoms of disordered eating commonly occur during times of uncertainty, transition, and stress, making college a high-risk period under normal circumstances (Keel & Forney, 2013; Sarra & Abar, 2020; Vohs et al., 2001). With the added stressors and uncertainty associated with the pandemic, it is reasonable to expect a material increase in the number of students struggling with disordered eating and body image (Rodgers et al., 2020). Similar spikes in disordered eating have occurred during other periods of increased stress (Harrington et al., 2006). In turn, this anticipated increase in students with eating disorders can be expected to present a daunting challenge for those individuals and organizations that support them.

A desire to feel in control is among the potential emotional triggers for an eating disorder (Sarra & Abar, 2020). I know this from my own experience with anorexia approximately ten years ago. As a high school student facing uncertainty concerning where I would be accepted to college, my potential for academic success, my future goals and expectations, and my social status among my friends, I discovered that controlling what I ate and how much I moved my body provided me with a feeling of success and comfort. When I transitioned to college and the familiar feelings of uncertainty returned, I renewed my relationship with my eating disorder. Fortunately for me, I attended college well before a devastating pandemic disrupted the availability of mental health resources. Readily accessible mental health resources helped me to continue both my education and my recovery. These resources included mental health providers on campus and the opportunity to engage with and eat meals in the company of supportive and understanding friends. Club meetings, sporting events, and parties were widely available and provided welcome distractions from the academic stresses of college life. Such experiences and interactions, combined with access to professional help allowed me to develop relationships, interests, goals, and a quality of life that I valued over the maintenance of my eating disorder. I fear, however, that the disruptions caused by the pandemic may deny many current college students with eating disorders the benefit of comparable resources and experiences.

Further, a majority of students today spend a significant portion of their day attending classes virtually, where their image is reflected back to them on a computer or other device screens. Emerging research suggests that this may indirectly contribute to risk of disordered eating behaviors by increasing preoccupation with appearance (Rodgers et al., 2020). In addition, researchers hypothesize that guidelines to socially distance have led to increases in social media use (Rodgers et al., 2020). Consequently, students are surrounded by messages promoting “quarantine workouts” and recommendations to “beat the quarantine 15”. Such messaging has the potential to be extremely harmful. In particular, it reinforces the notion that weight gain is something to be avoided and ashamed of. In addition, internet headlines and social media content contribute to pressure to be productive with the “excess time” granted by stay-at-home guidelines. Many are likely to internalize this pressure, believing that they should be able (and want) to come out of quarantine with a “perfect” body.

I am very much aware that while my own experience with an eating disorder helps me to understand and empathize with others facing similar challenges, it is inadequate to allow me to comprehend the nuanced experiences college students encounter today. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the following thoughts will bring some comfort, support, and hope to students currently struggling with disordered eating and body image.

· Your disordered eating behaviors may seem to be serving an important function for you right now. Perhaps restricting your food intake and exercising excessively enables you to feel in control. Maybe you feel like everything in your world is uncertain right now. But the harsh reality is this: No matter how much weight you lose, no matter how many miles you run, you are not in control. This feeling of control you’ve discovered through your eating disorder is an illusion. You may not be ready to let this illusion go. You may reasonably feel that the college experience you envisioned for yourself has been taken away from you. It may be hard to imagine your relationship with your eating disorder being taken away too. But it’s important to see that this relationship is not working. This relationship is abusive and destructive. You deserve better. Start by acknowledging this, even if you are not yet in a position to believe it.

· Struggling is not the same as failing. It’s okay if you’ve experienced a setback (or multiple setbacks). The adage remains true — recovery is not linear.

· There is no “right” way to eat or move your body. This was the case before the onset of the pandemic and continues to be the case today. A beautiful blog written by Sam Dylan Finch highlights the protective nature of our bodies. Finch normalizes cravings, “stress eating,” and weight gain. He eloquently writes, “Your eating disorder (and sadly, our culture at large) may want to demonize these experiences. But especially given the circumstances? They’re all very, very normal experiences to have with food.” Your behavior and choices around food and movement have nothing to do with your self-worth.

· The situation you are in now and the emotions you may be experiencing will not be yours forever. Trust in your resilience. We will get through this. 

About the author:

Eliza Lanzillo is pursuing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at The Catholic University of America. Her research focuses on the development of treatment interventions for suicidal youth. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, Eliza worked as a postbaccalaureate research fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health. Eliza graduated from Brown University in May of 2016 with a degree in psychology.

Eliza is passionate about psychology and is a strong advocate for prioritizing mental health on college campuses. During her time at Brown, Eliza served as President of Brown’s chapter of Active Minds and served as a student advisor to Zencare.co, a listing of peer-recommended therapists modernizing the therapist search process. Eliza is currently the Program Director of Advocacy Initiatives for Hynes Recovery Services (HRS), an organization with a mission to support college students while they are in the process of securing treatment for their eating disorder. 

Eliza has spoken about university mental health as well as her own journey recovering from an eating disorder on media outlets including The Wall Street Journal and Dr. Oz. She continues to pursue her passion for mental health through her graduate studies research, her role with HRS, and her own ED recovery advocacy initiatives.

References:

Finch, S.D. (2020, March 31) 5 Reminders for People with Eating Disorders During the COVID-19 Outbreak [Blog post]. ]. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/5-reminders-for-eating-disorder-survivors-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/mental-health

Harrington, E. F., Crowther, J. H., Payne Henrickson, H. C., & Mickelson, K. D. (2006). The relationships among trauma, stress, ethnicity, and binge eating. Cultural Diversity and  Ethnic Minority Psychology12(2), 212.

Keel, P. K., & Forney, K. J. (2013). Psychosocial risk factors for eating disorders. International   Journal of Eating Disorders46(5), 433-439.

Rodgers, R. F., Lombardo, C., Cerolini, S., Franko, D. L., Omori, M., Fuller‐Tyszkiewicz, M., … & Guillaume, S. (2020). The impact of the COVID‐19 pandemic on eating disorder risk and symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders53(7), 1166-1170.

Sarra, S. R., & Abar, C. C. (2020). Perceptions of control and disordered eating behaviors during college transitions. Journal of American College Health, 1-8.

Vohs, K. D., Heatherton, T. F., & Herrin, M. (2001). Disordered eating and the transition to college: A prospective study. International Journal of Eating Disorders29(3), 280-288.

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