Eating disorders among children and young adults shot up during the lockdowns of 2020. In the US, health workers reported a 70 to 80 percent rise in individuals suffering from anorexia and bulimia, although experts believe more cases remained unreported or undetected.
Eating disorders are usually triggered or compounded by stress, and 2020 was a stressful year. The disruptions to everyday routines can negate weeks or months of rehabilitation for people suffering from eating disorders. Fear, stress, as well as a perceived lack of control, can trigger ennui and hopelessness, and some individuals assert a semblance of control over their lives through extreme diets or weight loss. Restrictions on gatherings and movement also reduced social contact, which is necessary for support or coping mechanisms.
Without social contact, the body’s oxytocin production drop significantly increases the chances of developing eating disorders, particularly anorexia. Isolation can also trigger underlying eating disorders. With nobody to eat with, some individuals forgo eating entirely or seek like-minded individuals who experience the disorders. The lack of social contact also makes it harder to recognize eating disorders among loved ones. Eating disorders that go undetected for weeks or months can have severe and permanent impacts that can severely disrupt the quality of life of affected individuals.
While some individuals forgo eating or reluctantly go on extended fasts because of financial strain, people suffering from anorexia will usually do so because of a distorted self-image. Anorexics will often see themselves as fat even if they are severely underweight. They will sometimes complain to a friend about their weight gain or fat stomachs and often wear layered clothing to hide their physique, not to hide their thin frames but to hide imaginary fat.
Medical experts found links between low levels of oxytocin and anorexia. With lockdowns restricting social contact, oxytocin levels drop and cases of anorexia spike. Isolation also makes anorexia harder to detect as family members often live apart from one another. Most cases of anorexia get detected or diagnosed way after they have caused significant damage.
After several months of restrictive eating, several signs of anorexia become increasingly noticeable. Signs include bruising, mild to severe hair loss, pale skin, swollen glands, vertigo, and lethargy. Individuals suffering from anorexia often develop minor problems such as electrolyte imbalance, low sugar levels, and gastrointestinal issues.
However, prolonged dietary restrictions can lead to more severe problems such as anemia, bone loss, muscle atrophy, increased risk of cardiac arrests, and heart, kidney, and liver problems. Treating anorexia requires a two-prong approach that addresses the psychological aspect of the condition and physical rehabilitation. Treatment usually involves prolonged stays in a hospital or medical facility.
Bulimia is often triggered by low self-esteem or negative self-image. It can also be a means to take control over traumatic events or sudden transitions. The lockdowns were traumatic on their own, but being forced to rely on social media to connect to people magnified the problem. Social media is where people put their best foot forward. Looks and body shape count, and internet trolls can be cruel to people lacking both.
Bulimia is not as easily detected as anorexia. Changes will appear gradually, and individuals suffering from the condition will often appear normal, although they may have control issues. Purging is not the only symptom, as some will use diuretics, excessive exercise, extended fasts, or even enemas to control their weight.
The effects of bulimia are not as severe as anorexia. They are often long-lasting but not irreversible. Severe cases of bulimia will often lead to dehydration, ulcers, esophageal injuries, malnutrition, and heart problems. Treatment will usually involve some form of therapy and suggestions on how to control/lose weight safely.
Binge eating disorder remained undiagnosed until recent times, and it is considered the most prevalent of all the eating disorders. Binges are prompted by feelings of inadequacy, shame, or embarrassment. Isolation often magnifies these feelings, leading to a rise in binge eating. While consuming food provides little to no comfort, excessive eating will usually provide a sense of numbness from negative emotions. Most binge eaters will be conscious of their weight gain, but setbacks on their diets or exercise regimen will usually prompt another bout of binge eating.
Most of the problems associated with binge eating disorders center on weight gain and obesity. Treatment programs will usually involve therapy, support groups, and structured recovery plans. Diet programs and exercise regimens can be integrated into the treatment, as long as the diets are not too restrictive.
The stress from the lockdowns has put everybody on edge. Eating disorders are becoming far too common, and social restrictions have made detection and treatment significantly more difficult.