Supporting Eating Disorder Recovery During COVID-19

April 11, 2020

As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and begin to define our “new normal”, it’s important to acknowledge the impact these times can have on individuals suffering from an untreated eating disorder, as well as those who are in recovery.  The related uncertainty and stress can trigger or exacerbate eating disordered behaviors. Additionally, shelter in place mandates provides increased opportunities for a loved one’s eating disordered behaviors to be directly observed by family members and their community of support.  It is important to have access to care and resources to best understand the next steps to know your loved one is receiving the right care at the right time. With the disruption of school, work and other outside activities, this can be an opportune time to seek treatment for an eating disorder, as many common barriers have been removed (schools moving to virtual learning, work from home, or time off from work).

I am concerned about my loved one. Why is it important to address these concerns now?

– Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric illness.
– Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and are fueled by isolation.
– Eating disorders have comorbidities, such as anxiety or depression, that may make it difficult to do things such as going to the store to stock up on food for meals, thus giving more power to the eating disorder.
– While all individuals need to learn to be comfortable with themselves, too much time alone can be counterproductive and fuel distorted cognitions and unhealthy behaviors
– Having current therapy or other services canceled during this time may fuel eating disorder thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
– Group support provides an additional outlet for validation, empathy, and a sense of universality.

How do I talk to my loved one about my concerns?

– Keep Lines of Communication Open
– Use “I” Statements
– Be Prepared for a Negative Response
– Express Your Concerns
– Avoid Overly Simplistic Solutions
– Stay Calm, Caring, Consistent, and Nonjudgmental

How do I support my loved one during this time?

While many of us are staying home right now, there is more exposure to social media, news, and ads. Fitness apps have increased social media and television advertising with promotional discounts or free services   Media personalities are making jokes and memes abound about staying home with limited exercise and eating “too much”. These are the very things that individuals recovering from an eating disorder want to avoid and they are now faced with challenges that are truly out of their control.

Here are a few tips for helping your loved one avoid and/or navigate eating disorder triggers:

– Provide activities that do not focus on weight, shape, size, exercise, or food.
– Many mindfulness apps are waiving their fees. Mindfulness is a great skill to manage anxiety and the unknown.
– Do not isolate and continue to engage with others through FaceTime and other virtual options.
– If you are currently receiving counseling services, ask your health care provider if they are offering telehealth options.  Continuing therapy and staying connected to a support system is now more important than ever.

I continue to be amazed by the resilience and persistence of everyone during this crisis. We have seen our patients and their families commit to continuing treatment, especially during this time of uncertainty and anxiety. We have seen others lean into these services, knowing that this is an opportunity to pursue treatment while schools have moved to virtual learning, work has moved remote, or work has been closed indefinitely.

Although we have seen many accept this time to pursue treatment and recovery, others have pulled away out of fear and uncertainty. As a result, the individuals resisting engaging in lower levels of care at this time may require a higher level of care once we get to the other side of this crisis. It is important to treat as close to the onset of these behaviors as possible – because receiving the right level of care at the right time is key in full recovery.


Elisha Contner Wilkins, MS, LMFT, CEDS-S, Executive Director of Veritas Collaborative’s Child, Adolescent & Adult Center in Richmond, VA, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and Certified Eating Disorders Specialist and supervisor with over 20 years of experience working with children, adolescents, adults, and families.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Veritas Collaborative remains committed to their mission and vision – providing access to care for all individuals, their families, and communities of support.

We are in this together – and together we are stronger.