Being a Human of Scotland #ALLIANCEConf20

Outside of my blog, I have been a featured writer/contributor for some organisations involved in mental health, and overall health and social care. One of which is the Humans of Scotland series for Alliance Scotland. After writing an opinion piece on Pro-Ana content for Alliance, I was contacted to be part of this series to talk about my mental health journey with an eating disorder. Then during the beginning of the lockdown in Scotland, and the UK, I was asked to write another piece about my anxiety and how was being impacted by the restrictions.

Alongside my story were the stories of other people in Scotland who are often the unheard members of society such as unpaid carers, chronic illness, people affected by suicide, people on the autistic spectrum, visual impairments, hearing impairments etc., This series gave a voice to people who were demanding to be heard and are often the ones to suffer when there are slashes to government budgets. There are a wide variety of contributors from all walks of life. It has been so well received that thirty stories were collated last year and put into a book which is available in libraries around Scotland. Scotland’s First Minister even wrote the foreword for it.

Following being part of this series, I contacted by Angela, who is the creator of the Humans of Scotland series, to be part of a Humans of Scotland panel as part of the online Alliance Scotland Conference this week. As with most conferences, and events in general, things have moved and adapted to online. So, I was to be involved in an event for Alliance wherein some stories were read by the contributors and then myself and two other contributors were members of the panel discussion where we discussed our own stories, the impact of COVID on our lives, and how we navigate day to day life. Adding to this, we discussed the power of telling our stories.

The contributors involved were:

  • Celia: an unpaid carer who looks after her son twenty fours a day seven days a week.
  • Gary: the founder of a male suicide prevention support group, Mind the Men.
  • Twimukye: a woman with multiple conditions such as being hard of hearing, diabetes, and Retinitis Pigmentosa
  • Michael: a freelance journalist who lives with a disability.
  • Ryan: an athlete who has a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome.

I was there to represent my story of anxiety and an eating disorder.

It was a completely wonderful and inspiring event for me, and I was so happy to participate. Listening to the stories of these contributors and how they interact with everyday life, how they have had to make accommodations to ‘assimilate’ to a world that has not accommodated to them. It also made me realise that I, perhaps, have not been so accommodating myself, and it has given me things to think about.

And, this is, ultimately, the importance behind this initiative, behind telling these stories. This is why listening to lived experience is essential to building appropriate care and helping everyone. We listened to stories of people who were in financial trouble, because they were unable to work, because their son required full time care. A group that has had to be set up because of the epidemic of male suicide, particularly within Scotland. Myself, who went through years with undiagnosed anxiety, which was lengthened by a dismissive GP, and received no support or treatment for an eating disorder. Lived experience is where we see the downfalls of our society, the failings of our government, our health care, and our social care. By telling our stories, everyday people can hear how we have had to shift our lives to fit in and yet still struggle and suffer, and ultimately the people who can make the changes can actually made a change, instead of quick fixes that don’t cost all that much and actually do nothing.

A lot of the time, decisions are made by organisations, local authorities, and governments, which are incredibly harmful, and this is purely because the individual in which the decision has been made for, is not involved. As a result, the decision does more harm than good. For instance, the recent decision by Public Health England and the British Government to label calories on restaurant food and weigh school children. This initiative was created without even a consultation with individuals with disordered eating patterns and eating disorder diagnoses. And, as you expect, there was immediate outrage when this announced to the public with fears of a rise in eating disorders, which would stretch an already stretched healthcare system, or leave hundreds, maybe thousands without support and care. Yes, it may be easier for the people in charge to make these decisions without having these ridiculous barriers in the way that are the people the decisions affect.

This is why it is highly important the government take our stories into consideration. Engage with our lived experience. It is a great wealth to you, and should result in far greater changes that will pay off in the long run.

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The power of storytelling is expansive. Lived experience demonstrates the great variety in people. But, it brings us together. I have noticed that when I share my experience of mental health that I get people reaching out to me to share their own experiences, with the majority of these wonderful people expressing the same feeling of: I am not alone. That statement in itself shows the real power behind features like Humans of Scotland. It is not uncommon to feel like you are alone in your experience. When you feel that way, it can be lead to social withdrawal, a fear in reaching out for help, and feeling like you are abnormal. If there is trauma, then you can feel more to blame or that you are weird or something is wrong with you. However, hearing the story of another, a similar story, a similar circumstance, then you feel less alone. It doesn’t take away your trauma, or your difficulties, but it lessens the burden on you. I know that when I was unwell I felt like I was going mad. When I began to experience an eating disorder, I felt so incredibly alone and I felt like no one could understand me or help me. However, when I joined Beat, I heard the stories of so many people around me who also had histories of eating disorders and other mental health difficulties and diagnoses. In doing so, I felt so comforted. I felt part of a community. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel so strange anymore. I didn’t feel so ashamed.

Sharing your experience, when you are ready, can lessen the impact of the difficulty. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. Listening to others lived experiences can be beneficial in your recovery and how you cope. I know that volunteering in support services for Beat and offering what has worked for me in my recovery is very beneficial. If you see that something has worked for someone else then you may be more likely to try it, which is helpful when you are facing a new treatment, or reaching for financial help, or speaking up for injustice for you, or simply trying to disrupt a maladaptive practice you have dealt with. When I wrote a recent post on my experience with sertraline, it reached out to people who have had the same experience, and they were thankful that someone was speaking so frankly about it. In a way, that reduces the stigma. It reduces the shame, and normalises the experiences. And that’s the most important part. Normalising experiences can lead to more people coming forward with their stories thus creating a stronghold of people. No one wants to be the first person to speak up, as it’s an entirely terrifying thing to do. But, when that one person steps forward, it can start a domino effect, and it’s the kind of domino effect that is fantastic and uplifting to see.

There is strength in stories. There’s strength in experiences. Being a Human of Scotland has been fantastic in sharing my own story, but also introduced me to so many unheard and dismissed voices. They are voices of hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland and they should be recognised and they should be heard. It is so wonderful to be a Human of Scotland, and I’m glad to be part of the experience.

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If you would like to watch the full session, you can here.

You can read all the Humans of Scotland stories, including my own stories, here.

Humans of Scotland Logo courtesy of Alliance Scotland’s Humans of Scotland feature.

Timing Your Calories

A quick disclaimer: this is perhaps a more emotional and quick post; a rant, if you will. This post will feature triggering language centred around exercise, calories, ‘offsetting’ your calories with exercise, and pro-eating disorder information. I wanted to get my feelings and thoughts out there, because this has really angered me.

Have you opened up a newspaper recently, while you’re sitting down with your morning coffee, to be greeted with the sentence: Yes, you can have your cake, as long as you run upstairs? Well, I had this experience a few days when I opened up Twitter to see a photo of The Times’ article with a barrage of calories, food, and an incredible amount of toxicity, shame and guilt surrounding your consumption of this food. Within moments of my eyes laying on the article, I was transported back to my days where I would spend hours scouring and trawling Pro-Anorexia sites. As I zoomed in and inspected every item of food featured in this article, I had to check time and time again if this wasn’t straight from an eating disorder site.

Under each food item was their calorie intake and the number of minutes you need to exercise in order to have that food. To earn that food item. Because that’s how we have learned how to treat our food now: as though it’s something to be earned. The diet industry and the fitness industry have duped us into believing that we have to feel guilty or ashamed of any food we eat. And, I mean, any food. Throughout this article, the foods mentioned moved from the stereotypically unhealthy foods like cakes and crisps to foods recommended within healthy diets like a boiled egg or a handful of almonds. Foods that are already used as a substitute for the former are being laden thick with guilt and shame. If you want any food it seems like, you need to exercise off the calories before you can eat them.

The diet industry has ingrained in us this ideology that we cannot simply enjoy our food. We have to instead feel rubbish about ourselves for enjoying a piece of cheesecake or even a banana. The attention brought to exercising for prolonged periods of time isn’t a method to get you to exercise and keep fit. It’s a method to make you feel ashamed for eating at all. How dare you enjoy your food?! You’re going to have to do a HIIT class to eat that piece of red velvet cake, so you might as well not eat it all together, and just choose to have a pot of natural yoghurt. But, wait, you need to exercise for 15 minutes first before you can eat it.

What’s worse is this article, and many others like it, have developed this association between general everyday activities and burning calories. There is a genuine suggestion of “putting your kids to bed” so you can allow yourself to eat two celery sticks and some guacamole. What a fantastic way to take the act of caring for your children and turning it into a way to earn your evening snack.

Oh my God, I can’t describe how beyond dangerous this rhetoric it is and how frustrating it is that no matter how much you shout about this the media don’t seem to want to learn!

For a bit of clarity for the media, this is why it is dangerous. This article by The Times will have the high probability of being weaponised by Pro-Ana sites. I can guarantee it will find its way onto these sites and it’ll be used to normalise the behaviours in eating disorders, because hey, look a mainstream newspaper is giving all this calorie information and how to burn it all off! Save these foods and their calories in your journals so you can track it easier. It is an informative graphic that contains a menagerie of healthy and unhealthy foods that will teach people with eating disorders to fear any and all foods. These pro-eating disorder sites will convince people that any food is dangerous because it requires exercise for you to have it. For someone with an eating disorder, exercise is a counteractive action to food you eat. If you dare to eat food, you have to exercise it off immediately. I don’t know how many times I saved workouts, dangerous, dangerous workouts, that were centred around how many calories I could burn and what that was in the equivalent of food. I was taught that exercise was solely to burn calories and to counteract the food I ate. It took years for me to relearn the benefits of exercise, and I am still trying to undo that damage. That infographic would have been like a Bible verse for me. It’ll become a well-used tool on a pro-anorexia site.

By having this information in mainstream media, people with eating disorders or disordered eating will internalise this that their difficulties are, in fact, justifiable and appropriate. Growing up with this sort of information would have made me believe that if the media is pushing this agenda then what I am doing is completely normal and I shouldn’t be concerned about the damage being done to my mind and my body, and neither should anyone else. Our eating disorders are continually trying to convince us that what we are doing is normal, and they use this propaganda as evidence that our restrictive or purging behaviours are okay, that our punitive acts are fine because look the newspapers and magazines are saying that it’s recommended that you should run 5 miles to have a bag of crisps. As though it is some relatable and quirky thing.

People with eating disorders struggle to equate exercise with anything other than weight loss. We know the number of jumping jacks we need to do to eat a sandwich. We know that fidgeting and shaking our knees will burn calories. We know about negative calories. But, this has helped our eating disorder to create the impression that it’s actually alright to continue to exercise only for weight loss and to earn the right to eat.

Mainstream media, and even social media, needs to redefine the need for exercise. Exercise is not all about weight loss. Unfortunately, it’s a driving force for many people, but exercise can provide so much more. Exercise is so incredibly beneficial. There are a million other reasons other than being allowed some pizza. There is no need to focus on weight loss, particularly completely outrageous and disgusting guilt tactics to make us think we need to achieve a workout of some sort to nourish our bodies.

This pandemic has shown that people crave being active because it gets them fresh air and gets their legs moving. People are going out on runs to feel a moment of freedom. We are stuck in our houses, trying to protect ourselves from a disease, and you are trying to make us become laden with guilt and shame because we want to eat, because we want to cook meals we don’t normally get to cook, because we want to be nourished. Exercise can help keep the blood pumping around your body. Exercise can stimulate the brain and help to prevent the development and prognosis of diseases such as Alzheimers. It can alleviate the strain of sedentary behaviour on our muscles. It can strengthen our bodies from injury. Some consider it a mindful and meditative process.

Exercise is not, and never should be, something to give you permission to eat.

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Check out Beat for information and support on coping with an eating disorder whether it is yourself or someone you care for. Please consider donating to keep their services running as during this pandemic they are experiencing an increase in their need for support services while a simultaneous drop in their income.

The Emotional Protection from a Pandemic: Looking After Yourself as a Social Care Worker

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of stress and strain has been placed on people considered key workers. These workers are on the frontline and exposed to the pandemic firsthand. Some of them, while not directly facing the pandemic, are involved in providing services to the public wherein if these services were not provided the country would be in complete disarray.

My position is named as one of the key workers. I work in health and social care as a recovery worker for the mental health charity, Penumbra, in the Supported Living Service. In this position, I provide emotional and practical support to people with mental health difficulties and diagnoses within their homes. In my day to day life, I am travelling all over Lanarkshire and into a variety of houses and environments. Therefore, my team are very exposed to the risk of coronavirus. As are the rest of Penumbra workers whether it’s supported accommodation, supported living, crisis centres etc., Thankfully, some of us are getting the opportunity to work from home. While I am able to provide face to face support, I have that opportunity to provide telephone support at my home. Many other health and social care services are seeing a reduction in their services to ensure the safety of the patients and supported people.

However, that doesn’t stop the worries manifesting within the supported people, particularly within my service as it deals predominantly with mental health. The supported people are dealing with unprecedented levels of self-isolation with a lot of their distractions taken from them and a new threat to their safety with no end in sight. It is causing unduly amounts of stress. As a social care worker, we are often the ones to bear the brunt from the people we support. We’re prepared for most, but during a virus like this, it can be overwhelming and there may be the threat of burning out.

While you are providing care and support, at the end of it all, you have to take care of yourself. Their self-care is a reflection of yours. If you are not supporting yourself, then you cannot successfully support someone else. So, it’s important that you know how to cope.

Lone Working Doesn’t Mean All Alone

Many of us are lone workers, spending vast amounts of time by ourselves. However, we may be lone workers but that does not mean we are completely alone. We work as part of a unit overall. Some services have bigger teams than others. My team is relatively small; seven in total, which includes the practitioners and the manager. However, I understand that there may be team meetings, or opportunities for social care workers to meet up and work together therefore you are aware of each other and probably have had the chance to spend time together. Consequently, it’s important to link up with members of your team now more than ever. My team have a group chat. This allows us to keep informed about our situation and our supported people and for the same information to get to the same people at the same time. However, it also allows us to have a joke and a laugh, share good news and vent our frustrations and anxieties. We are now checking in on each other more often. It is important to maintain a level of normality while also understanding how abnormal life is right now.

In this profession, we spent a lot of time dealing with vulnerable people who are very scared and confused with what is happening. Taking on these anxieties can be very taxing for social care workers so having that chance to touch base with your workmates can make you feel less alone and supported. It gives you the chance to check if you are doing the right thing for a person, providing the right information, and it can give you a chance to take a break from the madness going on. A picture of your colleague’s dog can do a world of good.

The Power Behind “I Don’t Know”

If you have been following updates around the coronavirus on the news and the daily government briefings, then you will know that things are changing everyday, and everything remains to be up in the air. We are not getting clear dates, figures, or timelines from our governments. People are beyond desperate for answers. In fact, a common question I get from my supported people is: when will this all end? The Institute of Disaster Mental Health has said that this uncertainty leads to prolonged stress and anxiety as a disease outbreak differs from any other disaster as there “no clear time boundary.” As a result, our supported people may be in a continuous fight or flight response which can be exhausting. And, as support workers, we know that this can cause a rippling effect on their mental and physical health.

Support workers of any kind sometimes do more than they can and we can end up going above and beyond. It’s a natural instinct to want to solve problems and support workers can feel that instinct tenfold as it’s in our job description to provide a level of practical support. And, unfortunately, sometimes people naturally expect too much of us. We want to take away their problems and they want us to do that too. Therefore, the current situation is very stress-inducing, as you are unable to give concrete information. Consequently, you may want to give information that is not wholly correct and potentially vague. It’s not meant from a malicious place, but quite the opposite. Sometimes I have provided information that I wasn’t particularly sure was true because I wanted the person to feel safe and stop worrying. But, the unfortunate side of this, is while it alleviates anxieties, it can harmful. Think about it: you are giving out incorrect information, and effectively you are providing a false promise. If you’ve received a false promise before, you know how horrible it can feel when you realise you’ve been led down the garden path. Moreover, people can be receiving information from different sources whether it is other support workers, different news outlets, neighbours etc., so if your information differs from someone else then this creates further levels of confusion and uncertainty. Then the person may feel even more vulnerable because they don’t know who to trust.

This is when the power of “I don’t know” comes in handy. This simple statement can lead to a feeling of uncertainty from your supported people, but, ultimately, you are not about to give them false information just to make them feel better. Adding to this, you are not opening yourself up to losing that trust. So, I like to say: “I don’t know right now, but I will try to find out.” This has given some of my supported people a feeling of security as they know that I am not going to lie to them, and I will try my best to give them the truth when I can. This gives me the opportunity to go away, check and then answer the person when I have more information. I don’t know gives you the power of buying time so you can help when you are better informed.

A Chance to Chill

Often, in our regular day to day lives, we come home from our job, cook and then go to bed. This can turn your life into working, eating and sleeping. As they say: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Now, I know the coronavirus is bad, but there’s no reason for us to turn our lives into the Overlook hotel where we are trapped by our work and thoughts minus the creepy ghosts in the bathtub (spoiler alert.) If you are working from home, you might be tempted to do the same as above, or even work through the night to your bedtime. This is not healthy. This is not the time, nor is it ever the time, to become a workaholic.

Give yourself the opportunity to get a break away from your work life and have a moment to yourself. Take this as some time away from coronavirus centred news. After you have eaten, take an hour or so, even thirty minutes, to yourself. Do this before you go to bed. Take this time to do something you love whether this is watch a TV show, knit, read, listen to a podcast… Have a relaxing bath to ease your sore muscles and feet. Do some level of self care.

Maybe open the windows to let the air in, or sit by your garden steps if you have one. Feel some fresh air and listen to the sounds around you to give you a chance to feel grounded. To get that sense of normalcy and be reminded of the things we take for granted such as the birds singing. Take some time for yourself.

Your life should never be work, eat, sleep, especially not now.

Life Admin

Our lives might feel a bit manic and out of control right now as we try to work through the virus especially with PPE shortages, increased need for support, and staff sicknesses. As a result, we begin to let go of other things within our lives to compensate for the energy and effort we are putting into our jobs. We are busy trying to keep others’ lives together that sometimes we can forgo our own. This may feel like a good option at the time, but things will pile up and up and up and the further they pile up the less we want to deal with it. It becomes a big, scary thing to tackle, making us unsure where to start. So, if we try to set aside some time in the day or in the week to maintain our life skills, then we can tackle them in an easier and more approachable manner. Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to look through your mail, or make your lunch. Choose a day to organise a meal plan or give the house a good tidy. If you have someone else at home, team up. Can they take charge of the cooking while you take charge of the cleaning? Can they take the bins out while you make sure the dishes aren’t piling up? Defrost a steak while you action mail? Like in my previous blog on eating disorders and safe foods, collaboration during this time is key to making it through.

If You Feel Scared, Say It

Your supported people may be telling you everyday how very scared and worried they are right now. Because of this, you may feel the need to put on a brave face and push away your worries. While it is recommended you do this, as the support is for them, and not somewhere you bring your problems into, it is not healthy to let this bleed into the rest of your life. Listening to someone tell you how scared they are, seeing the terrifying figures of deaths, feeling that uncertainty… it can be draining and it can illicit fear within you. You can begin to internalise this fear and question whether anything is safe anymore. There has been times where I have been trying to keep on a brave face during a telephone call meanwhile I’m taking a panic attack as I’m talking, my heart hammering off my chest. We are human. We’re not superheroes. We get scared. This is a difficult time. And it’s okay to admit that.

If you are feeling scared, if you are feeling angry, if you are feeling lost, then say it. People on your team are probably feeling the same way. Your personal network of family and friends and colleagues can offer their own support to you and give you a space to discuss and reflect on your anxieties. Bottling up your negative feelings can burn you out eventually. You are going to feel exhausted from time to time. You are going to feel worried and uncertain. But this is okay. You are okay. You have a right to say how you feel and you have a right to feel supported yourself.

Keep Informed But Don’t Become Obsessed

As I mentioned, this pandemic is changing everyday. We are getting a constant steady stream of news and it can be very hard to keep up. At the start of the pandemic, I was watching the news every single day, every single hour, every single minute. Then, I suddenly began to feel dirty and disgusting and very, very overwhelmed. I knew I was watching too much. So, I began to only watch the news for a portion in the morning such as a 15 minute news show on YouTube called The Philip DeFranco Show (which is American centred) or BBC Breakfast and then watch the 6pm news bulletin. I’ll also watch the First Minister and government briefings. I keep myself informed so to keep my supported people informed, but I try not to become obsessed. We are all so desperately seeking out answers that it is incredibly easy to try to absorb as much news as we can. However, we can only absorb so much and eventually we will begin to drown in it. And, you might find that you become mixed up by the changing news and different information being put out there, especially with #fakenews.

The Institute of Disaster Mental Health has a fantastic statement in the report I linked, which has become my mantra during this time: unless you’re actually in charge of the response, you probably don’t need to be monitoring the news 24/7. We are providing support, but we are not the government. We can only do so much.

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Being in social care, particularly in my job as a recovery worker, is such a rewarding, challenging and fun job. We are used to expecting the unexpected. We work with people and people are unpredictable, which we learn to adapt to. However, this is new territory. Our current resources may not always be applicable, but their elements can be useful. This pandemic will end and we can weather this storm, but we have to take care of ourselves.

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Check out the NHS and the government website for further advice on coronavirus. If you work in Scotland, like myself, then check out the Scottish Social Services Council for further information on social care and coronavirus. Keep safe and keep healthy. We can do this.

Just Five More Sets: The UK Lockdown and Eating Disorder-Related Exercise

It’s been over a week since the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown for 3 weeks to combat the coronavirus. The lockdown rules dictate that you cannot leave your house unless it’s for medical need, exercise, caring for a vulnerable person, and food shopping (but as infrequently as possible.) In other words, stay at home.

The purpose of this lockdown is to slow the spread of the virus, reduce the number of deaths, and alleviate the strain that is on the hospitals. It’s a desperately needed measure and very overdue. However, while it is helping the physical health of the nation and the hospitals, it is putting an increasing pressure on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing. There has already been a great level of self-isolation for many people as they have been working from home since the end of February. Now, we have entered lockdown, the self-isolation has grown. Several people are living by themselves and in further isolation especially as the lockdown prevents us visiting other households so to not spread the virus. It is a necessary evil, but one which we should aim to develop more adaptive coping strategies to support our mental health.

I recently published a blog post on the effects of panic buying food on people with eating disorders. However, we may experience the negative impact of another aspect of eating disorders: exercise as a method of controlling weight.

People with eating disorders report excessively exercising as a way to appease the eating disorder, and maintain their weight, or to counterbalance any binges or overall calorie intake. They can develop an addiction, and will seek any way to fulfil this addiction. Often, that leads to a lot of secretive and extreme sessions of exercise. But, in a similar fashion to other addictions, the high of exercising would dissipate quicker and quicker so the intensity and duration is increased to retrieve that high again. It takes over your life, and you are desperate for the chance to exercise in peace.

The lockdown is the perfect situation for this, particularly if you live alone. Particularly with the influx of home workouts and a strong concentration on maintaining your weight loss on mainstream media. Particularly because one of the reasons we can get out is to exercise. Your need to exercise has now become a new normal. Your eating disorder can use this to their advantage. So to the average person, you look like someone just trying to get your lockdown frustration out with some exercise and fresh air. Excessive exercise can be easily concealed.

I know there has been times where my eating disorder has tried to get to the front of my brain. It has loaded my brain full of negative words that it knows will get to me. It will tell me I’m lazy, that I’m going to put on weight and lose my muscles, that I’ll look ugly, that I’m disappointing people by not showing how healthy and fit I am… And there’s been times where I have had to sit down and rethink why I exercise now. My reason to exercise now is very different to what it was when I was unwell.

I am a track and field athlete. I train to be fast. I run to get better. I lift heavy weights to get that rush of ‘wow this feels amazing that I can lift so much.’ I exercise to be a good athlete. While there still remains those thoughts of my eating disorder, I have been able to reestablish and relearn why I exercise. I no longer don’t do it for my eating disorder. I don’t do it to lose weight. To be as skinny as possible.

So, in this lockdown, ask yourself, why are you exercising? And really give yourself the time to think about. Because your eating disorder will try to do it for you. If you feel you are exercising in order to control your weight and size, or to curb your binges or even counteract them. If you feel you are exercising to establish some level of control in your life. Instead, think about exercise and how it supports the function of your body and mind. Restructure the motive behind exercising. Can yoga be a good way to stretch your muscles and wake up in the morning with an added bit of meditation? Can walking up and down the stairs get your legs pumping with blood again after sitting down in front of your computer if you’re studying and working from home? Your body needs a chance to get the blood pumping and to feel energised. A bit of exercise and activity will do that. When exercising, try to think about the strength needed in your legs to carry you from room to room and to go out and get things like food and medication. Try to think about the fresh air in your garden that you fill your lungs with and the energy that will allow your brain to keep working throughout your WFH environment. If you are exercising for the eating disorder then you will not be letting your body function.

But, only exercise in moderation.

A good way to exercise in moderation is to set a timer. Often in eating disorder-related exercise, it is common for the individual to over-exert themselves in terms of duration. Some people may exercise for hours at a time. Some people may not allow themselves to take breaks between sets of exercises. Now we have a lot of technology at our hands, it is easier to time things. I recommend setting up a timer for your exercise session; aiming to keep it around 30-60 minutes at the most. You are home right now so you are limited in what you can do. Most exercise you can complete at home can be done within 30 minutes without over-exertion. Keep your sets to around five at the most with reps up to twelve. And remember to have at least a minute to two minutes of recovery between sets. Keep it all timed, something you can stick to, and you may experience that feeling of control you would normally have from eating disorder-related exercise.

Many of our eating disorders will be rejoicing in the fact you are being forced to self-isolate and remain at home. Particularly if you live at home alone. As a result of self-isolation, no one will disturb you and you can exercise excessively without any interruptions or concern from others. If you live with people who are also now working from home, you may find you are staying up later or getting up earlier to exercise without anyone around. That was something I loved to do when my parents would work or go to bed early and I was able to exercise without any disturbances and without any judgement from others. Note to younger self: it’s not judgement, it’s legitimate concern that you have been exercising for hours and now can’t actually get up because it’s 11PM, you’re very hungry, tired, and spent. And you’re sixteen.

As hard as it is, if you want to exercise, try to not do it alone. This is when our advancements in technology become a handy tool in reducing levels of loneliness and isolation. It may be an option to join online classes on video call-type sites such as Zoom and Instagram Live/IGTV. Several yoga and fitness instructors do not have the resources they used to have and are now turning to online resources to make some money or encourage others to join. CAMYOGA is holding a variety of online yoga classes and these range from morning flows to pilates to strength and stretch and so on. However, if you don’t feel comfortable doing it in front of a group of strangers, video call your friend and do your circuits with them. Or join in on a class such as Lina Nielsen’s IGTV yoga classes. Now, more than ever, you have the dangerous temptation to use self-isolation to your eating disorder’s advantage, but exercising in a group or with someone will alleviate that temptation and help you to stick to safe levels of exercise.

But, ultimately, this is a virus, so if you are unwell then please, please relax and spend this time getting better. This chance to rest and stay at home can also offer you the opportunity to connect with others who are struggling with their mental health and their eating disorders. This is the time to nurture your health, both physical and mental. It’s a very, very busy world out there, and you’ve been given the chance to sit down, breathe, and get on with some hobbies or watch some TV. Sure, it’s not in the best circumstances, but seize the opportunity. Your body, right now, needs to be functioning and needs to be healthy. Your body needs you to rest and it needs you to focus on recovery. If you are required to stop or reduce your exercise per treatment guidance and advice, then take heed and put your feet up for a bit, or have your morning coffee on your balcony or garden step. Sleep, meditate, draw, knit, read, do whatever makes you feel focused but also feel at peace. Now is the time to reset.

And, finally, my note to the social media influencers and diet industry: please stop and think about what message you are projecting and onto what audience. This is the perfect opportunity for you to jump on that promo for diet teas, intense exercises, and methods to curb binges. Don’t do it. No one, and I mean no one, needs to hear the jokes about COVID-19 being the new Freshman-15. We don’t need to hear why we should be feeling guilty for having a bar of chocolate. It isn’t the time to fill peoples’ head with toxic language towards their bodies. Because several of us already have an inventory of toxicity filled to the brim with it anyway. People want to exercise to keep fit. People want to exercise to keep healthy. Yes, some people may want to lose some weight, but it is not your job to encourage that to dangerous levels, which may result in disordered eating. We exercise to stay safe, stay healthy and keep our bodies and minds functioning. While we are changing our attitudes towards why we exercise, you should too.

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If you have experience with an eating disorder, and are having anxieties and worries surrounding coronavirus, please click these links for some advice from Beat as well as support groups available. Check out this Friday’s The Sanctuary forum (3rd April) where I will be speaking as part of my role as an ambassador to offer advice and answer questions on recovering from an eating disorder and how to cope in the pandemic.

Here are some other resources to help you cope during this time.

NHS Every Mind Matters: Mental Wellbeing While Staying At Home

SAMH

Student Minds

Rethink Mental Illness: Temporary changes to the Mental Health Act

Mind

Information from Gov.uk for supporting your mental health during the outbreak.

And here’s some cool distractions:

Literally any Jenna Marbles video. Here’s a random one.

Scottish Wildlife Trust webcam where you can watch an osprey and her nest. She’s very cute and very noisy.

RSPB webcam for the nest of a Peregrine Falcon. They also have a feeder cam.

And, as always, stay at home, stay safe and wash your hands!

Stockpiling, Sickness, and Safe foods: Eating Disorders in a Pandemic

A few months ago, the first case of COVID-19 (or as it’s more colloquially known: coronavirus) was discovered, and since then, it has spread like wildfire. So far, nearly 250,000 cases have been reported with just over 10,000 of those cases resulting in death. Fortunately, there are more survivors of the illness than deaths, but, all the same, the illness is a serious one and should not be taken lightly. And one of the ways we can cope is to continue to behave sensibly and with consideration of those who may be in the percentage of more serious and critical cases. But, as you have seen in the media and in person, this has not been the attitude of many, many people. Walk into any supermarket and you will struggle to find just about anything. Toilet paper, hand wash, hand sanitiser, aloe-vera gel to make hand sanitiser, shower gel, tissues, paracetamol… and, most importantly, food. The shelves are cleared, and within moments of them being stocked up, they are cleared again.

People don’t know what’s happening. And when people don’t know what’s happening, they panic and they do everything they can to prepare. Unfortunately, as we live in an individualistic society, our preparedness comes at a price. We become selfish and inconsiderate and we do not prepare appropriately. As a result, people are affected in ways that others do not realise.

One of these groups of people are people with eating disorders.

Recently, I wrote a tweet that discussed this very fact and within the day I had amassed some traffic with people reaching out through direct message and through replies about their concerns in how to support someone with an eating disorder during this time. Many also drew attention to the fact that others who are not so affected by eating disorders would not realise the rippling effects of panic buying or, a pandemic in itself, on people with eating disorders and their support network.

Put simply, eating disorders heavily rely on disturbances within an individual’s life to thrive and manifest. A pandemic is the perfect situation for an eating disorder. It will use this to its advantage, knowing full well that a pandemic and the societal behaviours that exist within a pandemic will play on the mental health of someone with an eating disorder. Every day, we are consuming climbing figures of coronavirus cases, the pressures on the NHS, deaths, the people who are now being made to work at home. Our social medias and our mainstream medias are continually reporting on the virus and it’s affecting everyone else. So, as an individual with an eating disorder such as one that follows a restrictive eating pattern, already so consumed with the idea that we are worthless and nothing, our eating disorders allow us to come to the conclusion that we are not allowed to eat because we are not deserving of food. We see empty shelves and we think that people need this food more than us therefore we are better to go without. We do not deserve the food. We do not deserve to look after ourselves. We are not worth a thought. We are not worth any support or consideration. We don’t want to be a burden. So, we go without.

Not only do we go without food, but we also go without discussing our anxieties and our eating disorder-related thoughts and feelings. For many with an eating disorder, we are now laden with the idea that we are not worth your time and there are worse things out there right now. Sure, the coronavirus is probably one of the worst things out there right now. But our feelings are further invalidated by the toxicity of our mental health disorder and we are made to feel that we should not talk about our illness. We’re full of guilt for even thinking about our eating disorder. Yet, that’s what it wants. It wants us to feel guilty. By feeling guilty, we don’t talk about it and when we don’t talk about it, it grows more powerful because no one knows it is there. Our eating disorders make us feel ridiculous for reaching out. For looking for support. You’re looking for support about a silly little problem like this when people are literally dying. Eating disorders are taunting you with this. They make you doubt the sincerity and severity of your illness. They shrug off your illness as something small, something menial, something not worth thinking about.

As I mentioned, panic buying leads to empty shelves. Staples such as bread, eggs, fruit, veg, and soup are gone. We include them in our weekly shops without a second thought. To someone with an eating disorder, they are “safe foods.” When I was unwell, I had a list of safe foods. Foods I could be sure would grant me the control over my weight and would appease my eating disorder. And for many in their path to recovery, they are essential in maintaining their weight and in helping them to relearn to eat. Therefore, safe foods are a welcome ‘fall-back’ for someone in recovery. In this pandemic, many are facing the situation of no safe foods being available. As a result, they are overwhelmed with anxiety and feeling beyond vulnerable. So, they will cope by going without any food. Their eating disorder remains in their mind, and it will attempt to reintroduce that coping mechanism that was used before: if there is nothing safe, nothing that your eating disorder thinks is safe, then you may go without. Your eating disorder knows it can offer that feeling of control, that when things are unusual and things are difficult, then you can control it through your food.

And, on the other side of the eating disorder spectrum, those with binge-eating difficulties may find that they are worried they may panic-buy out of fear, just like others are doing, and then due to the lack of control within their lives throughout this pandemic e.g. self isolation, working from home, being in environments which illicit anxiety, so they may cope by overeating/binging. For people with purging involved in their eating disorder, they may then attempt to regain control by purging. It is difficult with any eating disorder to feel like you are in control, or any appropriate amount of control. So with an excess of foods or no food at all, the individual will fall into a way of disordered eating again to cope. To get any form of control or alleviate any anxieties.

People with eating disorders are so overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to cope and recover already so throw in the element of a pandemic, which is causing others to react in a panicked state, often leaving our most vulnerable even more vulnerable. This may lead to an increase in behaviours and a decrease in reaching out for help and general self-care of themselves. Many are stuck, and simply don’t know what to do.

Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, has put together advice from a team of clinicians on how to cope with coronavirus if you have an eating disorder. It’s a phenomenal resource, and one I recommend taking the time to read. However, as someone with lived experience, I am putting together some advice myself. I’m hoping to put some resources out myself with Beat and another health care resource I work alongside called Alliance Care Scotland.

What can you do as a person with an eating disorder or as a carer? There is a large quantity of problems that you may find surface as you go through these next few weeks/months of the pandemic. But, always know there is something you can do about it. And that something does not involve your eating disorder taking over. Know that it will try, but you are stronger than this, and if you have a plan then you can keep the eating disorder at bay, and you can maintain recovery.

First things first, forgive yourself for the feelings you are experiencing. The world is in a chaotic stage, and was in a chaotic place beforehand. Your eating disorder does not stop for this. It is always fighting for control of you. You cannot help thinking about it, and in this time, you are going to feel out of control. Your eating disorder loves this and it will try to jump on this panicked time. Your eating disorder will try to riddle you with guilt. Why are you focusing on yourself? Why are you being so selfish? You shouldn’t be thinking about yourself. It doesn’t want you to focus on recovery, or speaking about it. It just wants you to not focus on yourself, and effectively not care for yourself. It’ll want you to fall back into your old coping mechanisms, because it’s something you are used to and it’s “easier” to deal with than trying to manoeuvre recovery. So, I want you to forgive yourself for focusing on your eating disorder and wanting to remain recovered. It was there before the pandemic, and it’ll still be there. You can still focus on your recovery. And you should.

In the midst of the panic buying, you may feel overwhelmed about the prospect of going out to the shops. So, now is the time to collaborate. Carers of someone with an eating disorder may find that this is a great opportunity to work alongside the person and even learn more about how the eating disorder interacts with their loved one. If you want to go to the shops then go with someone who can help keep you focused and work through your anxieties. If you cannot go with someone, then communicate on the phone. Send them a list of what you are buying so they can collaborate with you and keep you focused. If you decide to do online shopping then do it alongside someone or communicate via FaceTime, Skype or a phone call. You may feel it would be easier to go alone, or to go without food altogether, but this will give the eating disorder the opportunity to have control. If you work in a collaborative approach then you will share responsibility, while also having a chance to have a level of control. You should be involved in what you eat, but should not give your opportunity to your eating disorder to establish full control.

If you are missing safe foods due to panic buying, collaborate with others in your lives to share what they have in terms of food (safely and with consideration of their stocks too.) Do they have some fruit they can spare? Do they have a loaf of bread? Can they batch some meals or prepare some meals/snacks and prepare some extra which you can take? If this is proving to be difficult, sit down and plan out some meals and snacks, make a list of your safe foods, and then plan some alternatives. This is when collaboration could come in handy. Carers may find it helpful to work with the person to think through alternatives, as they may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of introducing relatively new foods or different versions of safe foods into their lives. They may feel stressed by this and it could result in a lot different negative emotions coming to the forefront. As a carer, you have to be prepared for this and understand that this is a complicated and distressing situation for someone with an eating disorder. Have breaks, work through the list as slowly as they feel comfortable, think about each food carefully, and remind them that you can get through it together and the eating disorder does not have a say but rather they do.

Some people feel that self-isolation may give them the opportunity to not eat, particularly if they live alone. Some feel they can’t eat at home and prefer to eat out, because it encourages them to eat. An idea may be to set time aside to eat your meal, and FaceTime or Skype someone to have your meal with them. It allows you to talk about other things that aren’t focused on eating. It may also give you the chance to speak through anxieties you are experiencing right now when you are eating. It may be fun to treat your meal time like a restaurant or a cafe. We’re all having to social distance right now, so treat your environment like a cafe. Eat together, but maybe not right next to each other. But, don’t eat in separate rooms. You wouldn’t eat in separate rooms in a cafe. This allows you to eat in company, but perhaps not provide the same amount of pressure a family mealtime may have.

On the other side of the eating disorder, it may be a good opportunity for you try new foods. If you feel comfortable, and are struggling to find your safe foods, introduce a new food whether this is an alternative to a safe food or a brand new food. Do this where you are comfortable. I acknowledge that this may cause a great deal of anxiety, so make the small steps that are necessary for you to do this.

Most importantly, now is the time to talk to people. We are in self-isolation, so it can be a very lonely time for us all. We are social creatures by nature, and having social interactions are very important, if not essential, to maintaining good mental health. We are social distancing, but not socially withdrawing. We are in an age of AI and assistive technology so we should use it. If you can’t see someone, pick up the phone and talk to them. FaceTime or video call to have or prepare a meal. Have you just watched a show and want to discuss it with your friend? Go ahead and phone them. Give some designated time to discussions around the virus to get it off your chest and then end all discussion around it. Keep up with your therapist if you are seeing one; enquire if they are doing telephone support, which many are likely doing. If you can, visit online forums on places like Beat. They have just launched The Sanctuary which is a daily service, running between 12-8pm. They have a variety of chat rooms and online support services. This will allow you to stay connected and give you the opportunity to talk about your eating disorder, whether it is anorexia, binge eating, bulimia etc., Join a Facebook group that is relevant to your area, and seek out help if it’s needed. It may seem like the world is incredibly selfish right now, but there are people out there who want to help. A lot of people are turning to online resources to broadcast their services such as yoga classes, drag quiz shows, cooking classes etc., If you are on social media, investigate your community or check out new communities. There are people there who want to connect.

Remember, don’t feel guilty for worrying about your eating disorder in this crisis. Don’t feel like you are selfish. Right now, your eating disorder can thrive in this situation. It will try its hardest to take control of you. Try to not give it the chance to do so. You are stronger than it, even if you don’t feel that way. You are deserving of recovery. You are deserving of food. You are deserving of good things. Have a plan, reach out, and you will get there.

Keep safe. Keep healthy. Wash your hands.