Maintaining Eating Disorder Recovery During the Omicron Wave of COVID-19

For billions of people around the world, everything changed in February of 2020. The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has caused widespread fear and worry, the closing of millions of businesses and institutions, loss of employment, and most tragically, over 800,000 deaths in the United States alone. AS various waves of the coronavirus have come and gone and vaccinations have become widespread, many states have started to open up again – only to see new variants threaten our daily routines again.

And now we are seeingthe Omicron variant, after the initial crisis and the peace of mind vaccinations have brought were thought to have passed.

Just as with the first and second spikes in coronavirus cases, the public’s behavior has to be changed to prevent as much as possible the spread of the airborne virus. While this inconveniences virtually everyone in their daily, personal, and professional lives, the fear of transmitting or contracting the newest variant of the virus poses a special challenge to people who have completed a stint in a residential or outpatient eating disorder treatment center and are attempting to return to normalcy. Outside of residential treatment, individuals who attend day treatment or step-down treatment have also been impacted.

What Pandemic Protocol Means to Recovered Individuals

The primary aspect of responding to coronavirus daily is the practice of social distancing, both in terms of keeping space between you and the next person in line, but also the ways we incorporate food and exercise in our lives. Virtually every form of eating disorder, from anorexia nervosa to ARFID, centers around a troubled relationship with food and, and often includes disordered exercise behaviors as well. The time a person spends in eating disorder treatment, after stabilizing the initial physical and mental health risks, normally revolved around teaching lessons on healthier eating and exercise habits upon their return to “daily life.” So what happens when “daily life” is turned on its head by a global pandemic?

  • Grocery Shopping and Meal Planning Are Made More Complicated

Many of the final lessons during a stay at a residential eating disorder recovery program center around giving the recovered individual the tools to control their own eating schedule and meal types. This normally includes extensive meal planning and grocery store trips, which familiarize them with being around food again and normalize a regular, healthy eating schedule. The challenge posed by COVID-19’s recommended response plan suggests that people shop less frequently than they had in the past, visiting the grocery store no more than once a week to help prevent the spread of the disease. This requires meal planning to be done longer in advance than it was beforehand. Meal planners should also be prepared that certain foods and supplements may be in lower supply than they had been in the past.  Some eating disorder centers are providing specialized meal plan lessons that can counteract these shortages and less-frequent shopping.

  • Restaurants and Bars Are Still Iffy

Eating and drinking in company are important social bonding activities and have been since the dawn of time. Many eating disorder treatment programs feature restaurant visits to help their charges feel more comfortable eating in public and with company. For people with anorexia nervosa, who must become comfortable eating in public, or bulimia nervosa, who sometimes purge following meals, eating at a restaurant is an essential part of embracing a fully recovered life. People with eating disorders should find restaurants that are in line with the current CDC and local regulations surrounding COVID-19 prevention.

  • Gyms and Pools May be Closed or Restricted

Excessive exercise is a common symptom of restrictive and purging-related eating disorders. While mindful movement classes at eating disorder treatment centers can replace punishing exercise regimes with lower-impact fitness methods like yoga and tai chi, it may be difficult for recovered individuals to use a gym or pool to maintain a healthy exercise routine, since the virus is spread through deep breathing, coughing, and contact with shared surfaces. For a recovered person, it’s essential to find less-crowded avenues for exercise.

  • Residential Treatment May Take Longer to Arrange

Residential treatment is necessary when an eating disorder threatens a person’s physical or psychosocial health. Arranging for 30 or more days of inpatient treatment is a long process in the best of times. With the spread of COVID, it can be more difficult. Incoming clients may need to quarantine for several days to a week before entering the facility and take several tests to ensure they are not carrying the virus. However, this shouldn’t stop a person who needs intensive treatment from attending an inpatient facility. When treatment becomes medically or psychiatrically necessary, the need for professional treatment often trumps the risk of catching the coronavirus. Please discuss COVID protocols with the admissions specialist at your local eating disorder treatment facility before committing to admission.

How to Maintain Recovery During a Shutdown – Partial or Complete

  • Follow Protocols When You Have to Be Out in Public

We’ve had years to get used to wearing masks, staying six feet apart, and washing our hands frequently – and they’re still the best way to protect yourself and prevent the spread of COVID. When you have to go out in public, while shopping, eating, or exercising, make sure you follow the protocols established by the CDC and local authorities. Getting COVID is not just a hassle; it can cause interruptions in your recovery or aftercare plan.

  • Take Advantage of Online Grocery Shopping

Nutritious, intuitive eating is one of the foremost goals of eating disorder recovery programs. During residential treatment, dieticians help plan the meals, but after graduation, it falls to the recovered person to do so. That makes regular grocery shopping a must for people in recovery. Thankfully, grocery delivery services have proliferated during the pandemic. While It may not provide the same, hands-on experience as grocery shopping in person, shopping online can keep the foods you enjoy in stock in your pantry.

  • Use Telehealth Services to Stay on Track

If you attend aftercare services or day treatment as your primary option for eating disorder treatment, you might be used to attending sessions in person. Especially in group therapy sessions, social distancing protocols may make this uncomfortable or impossible. Thankfully, virtual programming is more available than ever. They are usually covered by the same insurance plans as the in-person sessions, and scheduling might even be easier. Even better, many of the techniques used in treatment are identical in virtual treatment, such as CBT or DBT.

  • Avoid Social Media if Possible

It might seem counterintuitive; we’ve already mentioned a few virtual options to help maintain recovery, so why not social media? Although it’s a way to keep in virtual contact with your friends, social media can have negative effects on your self-esteem and expose you to diet culture. “Fitness” and weight-loss influencers are legion on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, and the algorithms these services use can expose you to them more and more often each time you view them. Being faced with diet culture in this form can trigger relapses and affect your body image.

  • Choose a Mindful Movement Program You Can Do Alone or in Groups

Excessive or compulsive exercise is frequently linked to eating disorders, as a way to lose weight or purge calories after a binge eating episode. Because of this, low-impact, mindful movement is usually taught at eating disorder treatment facilities. Many of these can be performed both alone and in groups, making them ideal for flexible movement options. Exercises like yoga, tai chi, or Pilates are perfect for this. They promote mindfulness, are relatively low-strain, and can be done with groups as well as alone. There are also exercise classes performed online, but they can be intense and high-pressure. Check with your eating disorder counselor before getting started on one of them.

  • Practice Self-Care

Making every effort to avoid the coronavirus is important, but it put a great strain on your mental health. Although you should take precautions, it’s important to do the little things you love. That might mean taking a walk in nature, seeing a concert, heading out for drinks with a friend, er even something as low-key as taking a luxurious bath. Don’t let fear of the virus stop you from doing the things you love – instead just make sure to be safe and get vaccinated.

Don’t Let Omicron Take Away Your Recovery

As the Omicron wave of the crisis continues, we all have to make changes in our lives to top the spread. And although these changes might be difficult for people who’ve recovered from an eating disorder, they’re not insurmountable. There are always resources for graduates from an eating disorder program, from aftercare programs to support groups. Don’t lose hope – maintaining recovery is possible, even in a COVID-dominated world.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.