King’s third-year Helena Deane on what it’s like to have an eating disorder as a student
‘We’re under so much pressure right now. Please try not to care about your body changing’
TW: Eating disorders
This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW)– a time to spread awareness about eating disorders and understand the stories of those affected by them. Primary care centres have seen a surge in eating disorder-related referrals during the pandemic. The culprit? Social isolation. The new normal has left us wrapped up alone in our blankets, with disrupted eating patterns and sleep schedules.
The Tab King’s spoke to Helena Deane, a third-year King’s BSc Psychology student and an Honorary Assistant Psychologist, about her experience with anorexia nervosa. She shares her story and offers her advice to students in similar situations.
‘I would faint quite a lot’
Helena says she experienced disordered eating behaviours from the age of 9, but “my anorexia only properly took hold when I was 12”. Because of her eating disorder, she experienced heart palpitations, low blood sugar and blood pressure. She would “faint quite a lot at school”, remembering: “I couldn’t stand up for that length of time [of a science lab lesson]. I would pass out.”
When asked about the impact on her friends and family, Helena says: “My mum kept getting phone calls from the school like ‘your daughter has fainted again.'”
Speaking on how her eating disorder affected her behaviour, she says: “I was always angry and irritable, and just wanted to be left alone. Some of my friends were aware of my eating disorder, but when it first started we were all quite young, so they didn’t have much knowledge about it.”
Helena says her childhood experiences contributed to the development of her eating disorder. “My family and I moved countries a lot as a child, which I feel led to a lack of sense of self and identity and a lack of control.” Helena bravely asserts that she is also a survivor of sexual assault. “These incidents and some associated unhealthy relationships definitely exacerbated my symptoms. In a desperate attempt to regain control of my body, as well as punish it for events I blamed myself for at the time, I restricted my diet.”
‘I went from being top of my class in school to just an average uni student’
“As I’m sure any university student has experienced, stress is inevitable. Coming to King’s, a prestigious university with lots of academic pressure, involved being surrounded by many other perfectionist and competitive students.” Helena says perfectionism is sometimes part of student life: “Sometimes this pursuit of ‘perfect’ grades and comparison between students was particularly stressful, as I felt I had to be the best.”
“I went from being at the top of my class in high school to just an average King’s student.”
“This academic pressure sought out more control and perfectionism from my eating disorder, as it gave me a sense of achievement and made me feel like I was good at something. If I couldn’t be the smartest, well, at least I could be the thinnest.” Helena says that stress and lack of control (hallmarks of student life) are the biggest triggers for her eating disorder. She has to consistently ensure that she doesn’t put too much pressure on herself to be perfect. “Dedicating enough time to wind down after uni has been especially important.”
‘Panic buying in lockdown was particularly triggering’
Helena says lockdown has “absolutely” had an impact on her eating disorder. She says: “All the panic buying in the first lockdown lead to food shortages, which was particularly triggering for me. Food started to become a scarcity, and I felt that it was something I had to preserve and restrict in case I wouldn’t be able to get more any time soon.”
Helena says that she attempted to stock up on her “safe foods” – foods that she deemed “healthier and better” for her. However, “it became harder to buy certain safe foods as all stocks were starting to decrease.”
Individuals suffering from eating disorders take great comfort in eating the same foods repetitively. Being forced with the decision to try new brands can be overwhelming. Helena says that the crushing feeling of guilt when she purchased food didn’t help: “I knew how scarce the supplies were and I felt that other people deserved to eat and have access to this food over me.”
Helena says lockdown, especially for students who are living alone or in student accommodation, can be a particularly isolating and traumatic experience. “Social support, which a lot of students with eating disorders rely on for recovery, has been made a lot harder to access. Most therapy sessions are now delivered online. It feels harder to access adequate treatment and support, which can lead to a reduction in motivation to keep persevering with recovery.”
In addition to this, Helena says, “There are lots of damaging health and fitness trends circulating, with posts pressuring young people to ‘glow up’ during lockdown. We’re in a global pandemic where thousands of people are dying every day, and social media wants us to worry about gaining [a little bit of weight]?”
Helena says spending time alone isn’t the same as being isolated: “Although I like spending time by myself when I feel isolated it is different. I feel cut off from other people and my brain feels like it has nothing to focus on, so naturally, it feasts on eating disorder thoughts. I often feel the less I have going on, the more my brain tries to engage in eating disorder thoughts and behaviours to give me something to focus on and give me that sense of achievement.”
Treading the line between ensuring that she is busy enough not to be bored, but also not too busy that she gets overwhelmed with stress is an ongoing battle for Helena. “Both of these scenarios can lead me to contemplate engaging in old habits.”
‘We’re under so much pressure right now’
Helena urges other students: “Please try to ignore all the horrible messages that are starting to circulate social media about ‘needing to lose that pandemic weight before lockdown is lifted’. It’s such a damaging message to spread. Limiting social media time and comparisons is super important.”
“It’s winter, it’s cold, we’re stressed and tired. We’re under so much pressure right now. Please try not to care about your body changing. If you’ve gained weight during this pandemic, that is completely normal and understandable.”
Helena says it helps her to shift her focus to hobbies. “The more ‘other things’ you add to your life, the less important your eating disorder is in comparison, and the less time you will be able to spend on it. “For me, I’ve been trying to keep myself busy with my placement, playing Minecraft, talking to people I care about, and reading books. Anything you can do that focuses your attention on something other than food and your body is great!”
“Think of your thoughts a bit like a pie chart – the more hobbies you add to your life, the less percentage your eating disorder is able to take up.”
If you find yourself worrying about your weight or the way you look there are many people you can talk to. The NHS advises booking an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you think you might have an eating disorder, or even if you’re not sure.
It can be difficult to know what to do if you think someone you know is going through these issues. Encourage them to seek help – you may want to support them by going to the GP with them. Remember that the person may get angry or defensive, this is a natural reaction and they may not realise they are ill. This topic should be dealt with sensitively so you may want to find a safe place where you can talk to the person.
Remember you are not alone, and you matter.
If you or someone you know has been affected by issues discussed in this article, Beat Eating Disorders offer support services including a helpline and web-chat service. You can access these services here, or call their helpline on 0808 801 0677.
You can access King’s wellbeing mental health services here.