Background: Current research has found dramatic changes in the lives of those with eating disorders (EDs) during the COVID-19 pandemic. We build on existing research to investigate the long-term effects and adaptations that people with EDs have faced due to COVID-19 related changes.
Method: We collected 234 posts from three separate time periods from the subreddit r/EatingDisorders and analyzed them using thematic analysis. The posts were examined for initial patterns, and then those concepts were grouped into themes to reveal the authentic experiences of people living with EDs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results: Initially, we found "lack of control" and "familial influences (loved ones seeking support)" emerge as themes within our broader data set throughout all three timeframes. There were additional themes that were present in only one or two of the collection periods. These themes consisted of "symptom stress," "technical stresses and concerns," and "silver linings."
Conclusions: Our analysis shows that people with EDs have fought significantly during the pandemic. Initially, the (lack of) control and routine in their lives has caused symptoms to become more challenging, while being forced to move back home also caused significant stress. However, concerns transformed as the pandemic progressed, resulting in new pressures causing people to exhibit novel ED symptoms or relapse altogether. Also notable is the relatively few COVID-specific posts as the pandemic progressed, suggesting that people have accepted COVID as their "new normal" and begun to build resilience to the challenges associated. These are vital factors for clinicians to consider as they begin taking existing and new patients, particularly as face-to-face treatment options become a possibility again. Existing research shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the lives of people who live with eating disorders in various ways. First, the pandemic has placed barriers on the path to recovery by limiting coping mechanism (and sometimes removing them altogether) and changing their relationships with food and the people in their lives. Second, the pandemic has forced treatment options to change since ED patients can no longer seek treatment face-to-face. Finally, there have been unexpected benefits to the pandemic, such as allowing individuals time to slow down and focus on their mental health. Previous studies examined individuals in clinical contexts rather than in their natural environments. We explored an online forum for people with eating disorders for the various themes that were discussed at three points over the period of March 2020-December 2020 and found that many people with EDs report worsening symptoms or relapse. However, we also noted that, compared to the beginning of the pandemic, people seemed to be less frequently asking for support during the third data collection period, implying an adaptation to the "new normal" of life in a pandemic. We conclude with a discussion of the findings.
Keywords: COVID-19; Eating disorders; Reddit; Thematic analysis.
© 2022. The Author(s).