Social media has become a big influence in most peoples’ lives, and never more so than during current pandemic restrictions.
It provides us with opportunities for entertainment, linking up with friends and family and keeping up with current affairs – all of which are important at a time when it is easy to feel isolated.
A big focus has developed on many platforms around many peoples’ feeling that they have gained weight during lockdown, with a wide range of diet and exercise plans being promoted, and a sense that if you are not losing weight then there is a problem.
Although ‘body positivity’ messages are increasing in the media, the message still comes across loud and clear that ‘thin (or toned, or muscular) is beautiful’.
The consequence is that many people feel bad about their bodies and themselves.
Restrictive diets or unrealistic exercise plans follow, which understandably fail, particularly at this time of additional stress. This leads to more self-criticism.
These unhelpful messages are even more problematic for people who have an eating disorder, or who are at risk of developing one.
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses where extreme levels of focus on and distress about weight and shape lead to attempts to severely limit food intake or to ‘burn’ or get rid of calories in other ways to lose weight. Some people become dangerously underweight, others lose control of their eating and may binge eat, followed by guilt that makes them try even harder to compensate.
People with eating disorders can be of any build and these problems are often hidden for many years.
Sadly, one of the effects of lockdown restrictions has been an increase in the number of people developing eating disorders. Eating disorder services across the country are reporting higher numbers of referrals and, unfortunately, not all who develop problems will seek treatment.
Factors such as anxiety, isolation, too much time for worry or negative thoughts, or even government messages about avoiding overeating or exercising more, can all trigger eating disorder thinking and behaviours. Once these patterns begin they can be very difficult to stop.
Eating Disorders Awareness Week started on March 1, so it’s a good time to be kinder to ourselves and less critical of our bodies.
Try taking a break from social media or weight loss apps.
It is important for wellbeing to regularly do activities that give enjoyment and a sense of achievement.
Think about goals that are not related to eating, exercise or appearance; try a new craft, rekindle an old friendship, spend time outdoors or caring for apet.
If you are worried that you or a loved one may be developing an eating disorder, speak with your GP for advice, self-help materials or referral to an eating disorder service.
At this challenging time it is so important that we look after ourselves and each other, and that we remember that our value as human beings is so much more than a number on the scales.
Dr Heather Ireland, consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist, NHS Highland eating disorder service.