Pubs in England opened for indoor dining on 17th May leaving many people feeling anxious about eating outside of home and socialising around food post-lockdown. Aside from concerns around personal safety and spreading COVID-19, the pandemic increased disordered eating and eating disorders; mental health conditions that do not end just because the lockdown has.
Eating disorder charity BEAT reported a 173% rise in use of their helpline in the last year – from 4,277 contacts in February 2020 to 11,686 in January 2021. While a study of residents in the United Kingdom found at 87% of people with an eating disorder felt their symptoms had worsened during the pandemic1. Chartered psychologist and eating disorder recovery specialist Dr Rachel Evans noticed a huge spike in enquires at the end of the first lockdown from people who had started a ‘healthy life style kick’ during lockdown but then felt unable to relax their food rules or exercise schedule in order to eat out with friends and family.
Dr Evans explains that people can feel anxious about socialising around food again for a whole number of reasons. “We’re not used to eating in-front of people anymore apart from our ‘bubble’ and that can feel challenging. Many people will be feeling pressure to socialise the same as they did before the pandemic and worried about how their friends might judge them for the food rules and routines that they have developed. Things that used to be easy, such as choosing from a menu, can become increasingly difficult and anxiety-provoking”.
Kerry*, 27, suffered with anorexia as a teenager and had never fully recovered. She reached out to Rachel for help during lockdown. Although Kerry had started to introduce new foods at home, eating out presented a challenge and she avoided meeting up with her friend to go walking when the ice-cream shop on the route opened up out of fear that her friend might suggest they get an ice-cream. Following the 5 techniques below, Kerry went out for ice-cream and found that “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be”.
Take it slowly
It’s tempting to go all-in and throw yourself into the most anxiety-provoking situation just to prove to yourself and/or others that you can. While that works for some people, Dr Evans cautions that this can lead to overload and burn-out; instead she advises graded exposure therapy. To do this, make a list of the 10 least scary to most scary scenarios (e.g., 1 might be getting a takeaway coffee with your best friend while 10 is going for a sit down meal at a pizzeria with a group of friends). Challenge yourself to do number 1, all the way up to 10 over the course of a few months and use the techniques below to reduce anxiety. By doing this you’re providing yourself with evidence that you can do it and number 10 won’t feel half as scary as you thought it would when you get there.
Anxiety arises when our body has detected a threat, in years gone by, that was likely a physical threat, such as a sabre tooth tiger chasing us, but now-days the stress often comes from our own thoughts (“I can’t cope”) and self-criticism (“everyone will think you’re stupid if you only order a salad”). When you find yourself getting caught-up in ‘what-ifs’ and thinking about the worst case scenario then remember to breathe. Dr Evans recommends taking 6 to 8 deep breaths, in and out through your nose. While doing that focus on the cold air coming in and the warm air going out. You can do this before, during or after eating out. Deep breathing works because it deactivates the sympathic (fight/flight/freeze) nervous system and helps you to feel calmer and better able to think rationally about an unhelpful thought.
Find a positive phrase
What you think influences how you feel and behave. Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, focus on what could go right and find a positive phrase to repeat to yourself when you feel the anxiety start to build. If you think something like “I can do this”, “it’s safe for me to eat out”, or “it’s going to be ok”, then you’re likely to feel calmer and more confident to order and eat something in a resturant.You might also like to tell this phrase to a friend or family member who you’re eating with, so that they can remind you during the meal.
Focus on the fun
When you’re going to a cafe or restaurant it’s easy to focus all your thoughts on the food, when actually that’s only a small part of the experience. Kerry says “When I ate out with my friend I tried to focus on the good parts of the evening and there were lots of nice parts. I’m so glad that I overcame the fear and anticipation because I ended up having a lovely time and I’d do it again.”
Emotional Freedom Technique
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping or psychological acupressure helps to reduce anxiety by changing the body’s energy through tapping on certain energy meridian points while thinking about the thoughts and behaviour to be changed. “The tapping doesn’t take that much time, 5 to 10 minutes, and it really helps to change my mood. I’m starting to introduce it as a daily habit to help me even more in recovery” says Kerry.
Follow along with the video if you are feeling anxious about eating out and socialising around food.
Other EFT videos
Eating disorder thoughts view on Instagram
What is my identity without an eating disorder? view on Instagram
EFT for making peace with your body (part of this free challenge) view on YouTube
When to seek professional help for an eating disorder
If you are worried for days in advance of eating out, cancel plans that might involve food or are fasting, over-exercising or making yourself vomit to cancel out what you ate, then it might be time to reach out for support.
Click here to learn how you can work with Rachel.