As lockdown ended, Nik’s anxiety about his body returned
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The closer he inched toward lockdown ending, the more Nik Mitchell’s anxiety grew.
The 27-year-old musician, from Abbotsford in Melbourne, has struggled with disordered eating and over-exercise throughout his 20s, and while he was in a better place in early 2020, it took him time to get back on his feet after the pandemic hit.
“I live alone so it gave me a lot of time to think, which can be a good and a bad thing,” he says.
Nik Mitchell has reached a place of self-acceptance but worries about pressures post-lockdown.Credit:Jason South
Mitchell found lockdown challenging when it came to food, finding himself being pulled back to restrictive thoughts, however he says his gym’s closure helped his over-exercising tendencies and prompted him to further grapple with “toxic” motivations for training. Eventually, he says, he learnt to go easy on himself, practising self-acceptance.
But now that life is returning to normal, Mitchell says uncomfortable thoughts about his body have trickled back.
“We’ve been out of lockdown here in Melbourne for just a few days, but it does reintroduce a lot of anxiety about seeing people that you haven’t seen in a few months and the changes that your body has been through … and being a bit afraid of any comments.”
In particular, he’s concerned about unexpectedly seeing social media posts that promote, sometimes inadvertently, the need for a physical transformation to return to society. This was a problem last year, he says, explaining it can be triggering when you don’t have your defence mechanisms at the ready: “It always takes me a bit by surprise and that’s when you’re a bit vulnerable.”
The Butterfly Foundation, Australia’s charity for eating disorders and body image issues, is asking people to think before they post memes, jokes or commentary about weight gain or needing to get in shape, as this can be especially difficult for the more than 1 million Australians living with an eating disorder as well as anyone who deals with body dissatisfaction.
National Mental Health Commission data showed a 25 to 50 per cent rise in the number of people being treated for eating disorders during COVID-19 and helplines across the country have reported an increase in calls.
“We know that more people are struggling with the way they feel about their body, with eating and exercise behaviours, than ever before,” says Danni Rowlands, Butterfly Foundation’s manager for prevention services.
Rowlands says it still hasn’t sunk in that referring to “COVID kilos” on social media or more subtle suggestions about returning to the gym to lose weight can all be damaging, compounded by the fact we are moving into summer and Christmas. Teenagers and adults in their 20s are most at risk, she says.
“This narrative around coming out of COVID and feeling that in some way we should be ashamed or have done better when it comes to our appearance is really cruel,” Rowlands says. “It’s been incredibly tough, and it’s not the time for people to be turning on themselves or their bodies.”
This resonates with Mitchell. “That idea that you have to kind of go on a diet to fix the bad things that you’ve done over the last few months is … really harmful for people in various stages of recovery,” he says.
“Posts like that reinforce all the negative things you’re trying to fight against. It can really take you back quite far in your own journey.”
It’s a place he doesn’t want to go back to, when he felt a constant need to be better, his mental health suffered and he skipped seeing friends because of his focus on food and exercise.
Today, Mitchell has coping tools he can lean on, including checking in with himself and writing down his feelings. “Even just typing it out on my phone and then deleting it a couple hours later … It’s a really therapeutic way to free the thought without censoring it,” he says.
He encourages anyone who is struggling to talk to loved ones or seek support – something he only recently learnt to do. Mitchell says he dealt with his issues alone because as a young gay man tormented by the muscular ideal, he didn’t think he fit the stereotypical mould of what an eating disorder should look like.
“I wish that I had [sought help], but I hadn’t,” he says. “I didn’t think that I deserved it.”
Mitchell now has open conversations with friends and urges others to think about how commentary on food, exercise and appearance post-lockdown might be received. “We’ve all just been through such a strange time, let’s try not to exacerbate it.”
Rowlands calls on people to remove any reference in social media posts to body ideals or changing physical appearance, through both imagery and words.
For those who feel triggered, she recommends muting, unfollowing or blocking accounts and reporting posts that are unhelpful. Be gentle on yourself as restrictions end, she says.
“Meet your body where it’s at and make sure that we’re not overdoing it and that the motivator is not to lose the kilos, but to reengage with something that we really enjoy,” Rowlands says. “If people are really struggling, reach out and don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. It’s unfortunately a reality of the last two years.”
Support is available from Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.
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