Each year around June, I notice a smidge of angst rising in a small corner of my mind. The lingering chill of winter in New England is finally fading and, while I am here for it, the rising temperatures come with some baggage. Heat is my #1 trigger for symptoms, both from POTS and MCAS. The best way for me to manage those symptoms is to strip away layers of clothing, ideally spending the hottest days in the water. And yet…
Chronic illness can come with some body image complications. For starters, the dissonance of having a body that routinely doesn’t work “right” can impact our psyche. Then come the years of weight fluctuations, scarring, and other visible reminders of the lack of control we have over our bodies and our illness. Worst, perhaps, are the comments we receive about these physical changes. Being sick and malnourished can result in compliments and the medication or feeding tubes that make us healthier often result in concerns over our weight gain. The very devices that help us with mobility or access to care become reminders to those around us that we are sick or disabled, something that they may not have thought about before these wonderful tools made it visible. While we may grow to see these changes as positive, even lifesaving, messaging from others can again confuse our brains into feeling shame or embarrassment about how they look.
We have explored these ideas before, of body positivity, representation of sick and disabled bodies, and respecting your body’s needs and differences. But now, thanks to the pandemic (as always), we have new wrinkles to address.
Covid’s impact on routine
The last two years have thrown a wrench in every aspect of life. We may have experienced different waves of change, like the initial lockdown in which we didn’t worry about routines, assuming this was all “temporary.” Then, when it seemed more long-term, many used the quieter quarantine lifestyle to implement previously challenging changes. Online exercise classes became easier to access and closed restaurants meant exploring new cooking adventures from home. As things dragged on and began opening up, routines continued to shift. This impact has looked different for each of us, but studies have shown some overall trends:
- Americans became significantly more sedentary during quarantine/remote work
- Stress and more time at home led to increased snacking, especially of less healthy options high in fat and sugar
- Cortisol (stress hormone) causes changes in metabolism
- About half of Americans gained significant weight over the course of the pandemic, especially those with anxiety and/or depression
- Many other Americans lost significant weight during the pandemic, from stress or changes in routines
If your body has changed in appearance over the last two years, give it some love! Know that you are not alone, that your body is coping with changes in routine and stress levels, and that this is normal and natural. Working to re-establish healthy routines can be wonderful for self care, but it’s helpful to be mindful of the goals we set because they help us feel healthier and happier, versus the goals we make because of body shaming. If working towards a healthier future, don’t forget to also love your body as it is today ♡
mental health in general
The state of mental health during the pandemic, especially in our youth, is a frequent headline these days. As days spent in the classroom or office became days spent in front of a computer screen, accessing social support became more difficult. To compensate, many turned to social media, and consumed more media than ever before. Anyone with existing challenges in their home environment had to spend more time in those conditions, with less access to supportive programs and care. The general stress of living through a pandemic – not to mention the social and political unrest during that time – impacted conditions like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
Eating disorders, in particular, have seen an increase in a wide range of triggers. People experiencing anxiety and depression are more likely to develop an eating disorder, and the pandemic’s general uncertainty as well as the loneliness of quarantine complicated recovery. Early medical intervention can help prevent eating disorders from worsening, and the pandemic’s shift to Telehealth disrupted this care. Social media messages, especially for teen girls, can tip the scales towards an eating disorder. The changes to eating or exercise routines and weight fluctuations mentioned above may also have played a role.
While eating disorders and other mental illnesses are not always associated with body image, if this is coming up for you this time of year know that, again, you are far from alone in this challenge! It is ok to seek help – you can talk to your doctor, find a therapist, and turn to friends and family for support.
**Tip: having trouble finding a mental health provider who takes your insurance and isn’t full right now? Try searching PsychologyToday.com – filter for providers who take your insurance, and then display results in reverse alphabetical order. Most providers in the first half of the alphabet are full right now, but you may find more luck just by starting from the other end!
Perhaps a surprising factor in body changes and eating disorders has been food insecurity. Anyone whose paycheck or cost of living was affected by the pandemic may feel some stress around buying food. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive and delivery services for folks afraid of in-person shopping charge additional fees. Supply chain issues have also caused random shortages of types of foods, such as chicken and milk. Those with dietary restrictions or a history of food insecurity are particularly at risk, but many Americans have reported feeling stress over access to food in the last couple of years. This stress around food has contributed to overall anxiety and eating disorders – both binging and restricting. Feelings of guilt around food, even for financial reasons, can impact body image as well.
Thankfully, food access seems to be improving as the country opens up, although financial stress continues for some families. Resources like WIC, local food pantries, and community gardening efforts to plant an extra row can help bring healthier food to your table.
Whatever this season brings up for you, we hope you will be kind to yourself and your body!