While witnessing the tumultuous impact of the coronavirus pandemic and acts of social injustice erupting across the country, University of Georgia senior Tori Bigbee found herself becoming anxious and angry at the world. As a way to cope with her emotions, Bigbee turned to the one thing that she knew would give her instant comfort: food.
Over the course of the pandemic, individuals with a past history of eating disorders noted concerns of relapse brought on by COVID-19 circumstances, according to a 2020 study published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
“While watching the mismanagement of the pandemic, I sit back and I just get so angry,” Bigbee, a political science major, said. “So I turn to eating as my safety net. It’s almost like getting a constant hug.”
Bigbee said throughout the pandemic, she has struggled with binge eating as a result of heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Binge eating disorder is “characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly and to the point of discomfort,” according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
“After [binge eating], I just feel super guilty and sad,” Bigbee said. “I'll wake up the next morning and everything is fine. But then when night time comes, I will feel this temptation coming over me and I just scarf down my entire pantry.”
Laura McLain, licensed psychologist and site director at The Renfrew Center of Atlanta, works in serving individuals suffering from eating disorders, addictions and trauma. Renfrew’s Atlanta site also aims to particularly cater to college students and tailor treatments to fit their pertinent struggles, such as navigating dining halls and addressing body image and identity concerns.
McLain said throughout the pandemic, college students have experienced a whole new level of isolation that could play a part in increased disordered behavior. College students tend to feel more lonely during this time, with socialization and class across campus transitioning to virtual..
“One thing that we know about eating disorders is that they thrive in isolation,” McLain said. “So, depression and anxiety can increase as we begin to feel more and more disconnected from other individuals.”
With additional pressure from the pandemic, McLain said the fatphobic culture on college campuses has only worsened. While hearing terms such as the “freshman 15” and now “quarantine 15,” students may face a heightened pressure to weigh a certain amount.
McLain said it is important to reassure students that weight fluctuations are normal during periods of change and high stress. When the body experiences heightened levels of anxiety, hormones will cause changes that may be out of our control, McLain said.
Lindsay Chappell, junior and double major in linguistics and anthropology at UGA, said she dealt with her fair share of weight fluctuations since the onstart of the pandemic. In January, Chappell visited the doctor only to discover she had lost 15 pounds, nearly putting her in the underweight category for her size.
While adapting to online school and dealing with the absence of everyday social interactions, Chappell said her anxiety worsened to the point where she wasn’t able to eat. She felt trapped in her thoughts without being able to distract herself with constant social interaction as she finds socialization crucial for her mental health.
For students, McLain said she wants to remind those struggling with body image that the number on scale is by no means an indicator of one’s overall health. At the end of the day, it’s important to often check in with yourself and your mental well being, she said. Chappell has tried to live by a similar mindset, not letting outside sources affect her perception of herself.
“No matter if you’re gaining weight or losing weight, people will still question you and what you’re doing,” Chappell said. “You can’t allow yourself to be a product of other people’s expectations, and at the end of the day you have to be the one to decide what you need for yourself.”