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Social distancing is particularly hard on those with eating disorders, experts say

Bethany Ao, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA -- When Lauren Rowello, a 29-year-old freelance writer based in Moorestown, N.J., developed COVID-19 symptoms -- a fever and severe cough -- in early March, she didn't know that the infection would also disrupt the balanced, healthy routine she had established after 15 years of struggling with an eating disorder.

Rowello also lost her sense of taste -- a hallmark symptom of COVID-19 -- which made foods she normally enjoyed eating take on a sour, chemical-like flavor, making it hard for her to get through mealtimes without anxiety.

Though Rowello has recovered from pneumonia due to the coronavirus, she still is short of breath during extended periods of physical activity, which limits her workouts to walks, stretching, and yoga.

"That also impacts my relationship with food," she said. "I'm not moving as much as usual, in the ways I want to be moving, so it's overwhelming how much I'm putting into my body."

Many people are struggling with feeling a loss of control due to the coronavirus pandemic, but those emotions can be particularly hard on people with eating disorders, experts said. The increase of depression and anxiety from social distancing and isolation can exacerbate disordered eating behaviors.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which estimates that as many as 30 million people in the United States have a clinically significant eating disorder at one point in their lifetime, reported a 56% increase in use of its instant messaging service over the course of one week at the end of April.

 

Alyson Nerenberg, a psychologist practicing in Chestnut Hill, said eating disorders are ways of coping with feelings that are out of our control.

"The act of restricting your food is often the only thing someone with an eating disorder has control over," Nerenberg said. "We may be losing our jobs. Family members may be sick. There is a lot of loss right now, and that can feel really paralyzing."

Kristin Szostak, clinical director at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, a residential facility for treatment of eating disorders, said increased anxiety to sudden changes like the stay-at-home order, may "increase a person's vulnerability to developing an eating disorder or relapsing."

Nerenberg said she's especially concerned about patients who live alone. Eating disorders often cause people to avoid social commitments for fear of revealing their restrictive habits, she said.

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