The current crisis is triggering many clients with eating and weight issues, due to the combination of increased stress, disrupted shopping and eating habits, and the increased cultural focus on food. Judith Matz, a therapist and author specialising in disordered eating, suggests how therapists can help clients avoid self-judgment at this time, and move towards making the choices that best support their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Many clients are currently expressing heightened concerns about food, eating and weight. Anxiety about going to the grocery store means that people are stocking up on large amounts of food, if they’re in a position to do so. Clients may also find that they’re turning to food to regulate the wide range of emotions triggered by this pandemic. Given this combination of having more food in our cupboards, less opportunity for physical activity, and more reasons for emotional overeating, clients may experience increased worry about weight gain.
To make matters more challenging, there are many memes going around social media about gaining weight during Covid-19. While humour is a helpful way to deal with this stressful time, fat shaming jokes just aren’t funny. They perpetuate weight stigma and hurt people who are already dealing with body image and eating struggles.
The Role of Self-Compassion
The importance of self-compassion is the most crucial message to communicate to clients as they manage their responses to the virus. For example, explain that during times of distress, it’s understandable that they may turn to food as a way to soothe. Rather than judging themselves, help clients keep in mind that eating is not a moral issue, and they are not ‘bad’ for doing so. At the same time, if eating is their primary coping strategy, help clients to consider other ways to soothe, comfort or even distract themselves. In addition to exploring their feelings in therapy, activities such as colouring books, puzzles, crafts, and Netflix shows are examples of how people are getting themselves through this challenging time while at home.
Food as Nourishment
Clients can support their immune systems by considering which foods provide them with nutrients and taste good. Depending on circumstances, clients can do their best to keep these foods available; for example, if clients shop every two weeks, they might purchase frozen fruits and vegetables to have available when fresh produce runs out. Some clients report that it’s calming to decide how often they will go to the grocery store so they don’t feel anxious about running out of food, e.g. once every 10 days.
Many people are turning to diet plans and supplements to prevent weight gain while sheltering at home. Unfortunately, the deprivation that comes from restricting food is actually a set up for overeating. Diets do not work, and they will not work during a pandemic. Furthermore, dieting for weight loss can actually weaken the immune system. Encourage your clients to honour their signals for hunger and fullness as much as possible, as they choose from a wide variety of all types of food. This approach to eating, known as attuned or intuitive eating, supports people in developing a healthy relationship with food. In fact, many clients who already practice intuitive eating notice that they are not experiencing an increase in overeating.
The Weight of The Pandemic
Your clients’ weights may or may not change during this pandemic. For some people, it may feel safer to focus on weight concerns rather than the fear of getting sick. For others, body image concerns are an ongoing source of distress. Keep in mind that weight is a characteristic, not a behaviour, and help your clients explore the following questions about positive, sustainable behaviours that can support their bodies during Covid-19:
- Does their body want to move? If so, when and how much? Do their prefer to get outdoors? Have they identified any online offerings to support moving their bodies?
- Do they notice themselves getting more tired? Can they honour their body’s need to slow down, even if it seems they shouldn’t need to? Resting isn’t ‘doing nothing’.
- What kinds of foods feel nourishing right now? Are they interested in experimenting with new recipes? Does takeout feel good sometimes? Is it easier to microwave frozen foods?
- Are they using video gatherings or phone calls to help themselves stay in touch with family, friends or colleagues? It would be more accurate to say that we need to practice physical distancing while maintaining social connection.
- Do they use mindfulness or meditation practices to help calm the nervous system? During this period of increased stress, do they want to explore this option if they haven’t done so before?
We are going through a collective trauma right now. While your clients will see numerous suggestions about what to do during this time – including those above – that’s all they are. Remind clients that they are not obligated to start a new hobby, develop a new yoga practice or make bread from scratch. Instead, with great self-compassion, they can choose what serves them best.
Judith Matz is co-author of the new Body Positivity Card Deck: 53 Strategies for Body Acceptance, Appreciation and Respect
This blog is originally publishing on PESI UK on 26th May 2020