Social Isolation and Eating Disorders May Go Hand In Hand

One glance at social media and you’ll see people commenting on gaining weight—specifically the “COVID 19.” Stress and/or emotional eating has become a definite, unfortunate byproduct of the ongoing pandemic. But for one group of people, chronic overeating can be a real problem. Stressful situations can trigger eating disorders—especially for people who are in recovery.


We touched base with Kirsten Oelklaus, LSCSW, CEDS, a therapist and certified eating-disorder specialist in Kansas City. She says our world has recently become “an endless source of anxiety and triggers, as we have become totally cut off from coping mechanisms and outlets we previously used.”

Do you think you’re going to see more eating disorders after this is over? And why?
That is definitely something that we, in the eating-disorder community, are concerned about. Times of transition are typically when eating disorders develop or when someone who previously struggled is more likely to relapse. There is a multitude of underlying issues related to why someone develops an eating disorder. However, most individuals describe a heightened need for control and predictability. As the eating disorder starts to take shape, one may become increasingly socially isolated. The eating-disorder behaviors are very effective in physiologically and psychologically managing feelings and anxieties. Thus, our world right now is creating the perfect storm for an eating disorder.

Does being quarantined at home play a part in our eating—or overeating—habits?
You hear stories of people stockpiling food and see the empty grocery store shelves, which for many kicks off a need for soothing, escape, and control. Our routines are disrupted and sleeping and eating patterns have become derailed. This can lead to detaching from our bodies’ natural cues for food and sleep.

Social cues, such as lunch breaks at school or work, allow us to meet needs for social connectedness, and a mental break from our stress. It can be difficult to separate from work or school stressors, given our different worlds have become enmeshed and we are doing work where we would previously only be attending to relaxation or play. Food is an easy and available escape and reward as we can mindlessly eat while working.”

Talk to me about triggers. What are you seeing from your patients or those with eating issues/disorders?
“My patients are struggling with some of the same triggers as others, given our world has been shaken up, impacting our sense of safety, order, and routine. Many of my patients have also recognized a significant decrease in support due to the social isolation. Perhaps they had been eating lunch with peers at work or school and now are left to do so on their own.

Previously, my patients may have used people in their support system as role models for ‘normalcy,’ often times without the other person even knowing. This would serve as motivation to stay on track, when an individual is triggered to act on a behavior. Social isolation can leave individuals more connected to the eating disorder voice and less connected to others. Right now, compassion and connection are as vital as they have been for everyone.”

How do we curb the constant anxiety or inexplicable urges to eat?
Balance and mindfulness are two of the biggest keys to help all of us right now. It is important to create structure in each day to allow for mealtime, bedtime, work, and time to attend to emotional needs. While it’s not necessary to schedule every 15 minutes of our day, stepping away from work or school to mindfully have a meal or snack allows us to create balance. This ensures we are meeting physical needs with food rather than allowing the stress of work or school to drive us to use food to numb.

Because our worlds have shrunk and we are doing everything at home, we can create boundaries, such as eating only in the kitchen and limiting work to an area of our home, where we don’t attend to other needs. And setting boundaries with social media is vital to attend to our emotional needs.

It is important that we give ourselves outlets to express the emotions we feel, so we aren’t stuffing or numbing them with food. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost something in the past several weeks, and it is important we give ourselves permission to grieve. As Brené Brown points out ‘empathy is not finite.’ We all are struggling in our own ways and need to have self-compassion.

Finally, ensuring that we maintain connections with others is vital to keep us from using food to meet emotional needs. Almost everyone I know is now using FaceTime or other means of virtually connecting, which is helpful in feeling seen and heard by others—combating loneliness and preventing social isolation.”

—Kirsten Oelklaus, LSCSW, CEDS is a therapist and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist in Kansas City. In addition to providing therapy in her private practice, she is a cofounder of Bellatore Recovery, an Intensive Outpatient Program for individuals with Eating Disorders.