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Helping Those With Eating and Substance Use Disorders During COVID-19

Eating Disorder and Substance Disorder Recovery-based Considerations And Resources During COVID-19

As our country continues to negotiate social distancing and increases in community needs and supports, the scientific and medical community has worked diligently to identify those that are most in need.  While the importance of identifying and assisting those in need to prevent medical complications and, at worst, death, is integral for community and public health, there are also communities of people that are being adversely affected by the virus and the resulting, understandable precautions being taken to protect the nation’s population.  As individual and family priorities have shifted in terms of work, school, parenting, shopping and stress, too often those that have vulnerabilities around high risk behaviors can often feel particularly isolated and, without attention or support, can lapse into managing through ineffective and dangerous ways.

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Although most people have been forced to break from their typical routines, high risk behaviors such as substance use, self harm and disordered eating can be just as prevalent during a pandemic. These behaviors can create ongoing health risks that are often mitigated by accessing help from professionals and peer led groups designed to assess, treat and support those struggling with unhealthy and disordered eating and substance dependence that are inherently at high risk for relapse….they affect adolescents and young adults as well as parents and family systems in an incredibly disruptive way.  Research indicates that the leading causes of relapse, across age ranges, are often caused by:

  • isolation and loneliness
  • stress
  • health-related difficulties
  • co-occurring behavioral health disorders such as depression, trauma and anxiety.


We also know that stress, particularly as related to public health crises, can often cause behaviors that can also directly lead to relapse, such as

  • worry about the health of loved ones or one’s own wellbeing
  • lack of sleep
  • increase of symptoms from preexisting health concerns
  • increased use of behaviors such as binging, purging, restricting and substance us to help manage fear and anxiety


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When we consider the necessary parameters that social distancing provides, they can also create dangerous situations for those at high risk of relapse.  This could not be more true for adolescents and family systems, who have had their routines and priorities violently altered.  Additionally, help that would typically be available such as therapy, coaching, peer support and self-help groups to manage sobriety and/or mental health are made more difficult to access because existing restrictions have limited people’s access to leveraging traditional in person therapy and supports.  Fortunately, the current availability of Telemedicine and Telesupport have enabled those struggling with substance use and behavioral health disorders the ability to access therapy and support during social distancing restrictions.

In addition to online supports that can assist in providing help for those struggling with eating and substance use disorders, there are some recommendations that can also help in reducing relapse risks and provide support that can assist in maintaining safety, stability sobriety.


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Never Worry Alone

It is difficult to avoid hearing information about COVID-19 and the majority of news content is alarming.  Worse, stress and traumatic events are made increasingly more devastating when the end to a stressor is unknown.  People’s reaction to stress can vary greatly too, where some benefit from information, statistics and knowledge while others tend to find solace with less data about the crisis.  By sharing worries and stress with others, particularly within the family system where worries can be brushed aside, it can unburden some of the isolation that people experience and help alleviate feelings of loneliness in spite of experiencing social isolation even when living under the same roof.  Reach out to recovery supports on an ongoing basis rather than waiting for an acute stressor and continue to communicate with clinical and peer-led support to let them know how substance use and behavioral health recovery is going (including when things are going well!)


Self-care and compassion for self and others

While prioritizing care and compassion for oneself is likely a helpful tool in every day situations to promote emotional health and wellness, it can be inherently more necessary during times of increased stress.  Remember that the shared experience of being under 1 roof as a family during a pandemic may not actually produce the same affect, reaction or experience for each member of the family.  Ask.  Be curious.  Check in and disclose how things are going for you as the parent.  Practicing patience, kindness and compassion toward others that may be struggling with stress as well as treating ourselves with the same level of thoughtfulness that we might provide for a friend can help lower acute levels of sadness, fear and anger through managing an unfair and scary crisis.


Proactively manage tasks that build resiliency

There are so many parts of the COVID-19 pandemic that we cannot control; however, there are ways in which we can help build resiliency for both our emotional and physical health to support recovery.  Simple tasks such as

  • Eating balanced meals, mindfully and at scheduled times (which includes having plans to purchase food for such meals)
  • Taking a break from the news and digital devices (especially an hour before bed)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding moderate-to-high risk situations that could threaten recovery
  • Getting 7-8 hours of sleep each evening


When caring for these pillars of emotional and physical health, it helps build resiliency to the inevitable stress that health crises can bring and help us respond better to our own needs as well as to those that also may be struggling.

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Looking for online recovery-based supports through self-help and peer-led meetings?


Eating Disorder Online/Virtual Free Resources

Phone, text and chat with supports for disordered eating:

Articles for COVID-related supports:

Additional support and informational articles to support disordered eating recovery:


Substance Use Disorder Online/Virtual Free Resources

Alcoholics Anonymous 

Phone meetings:

App-based information and meeting finder for:

Android –

Apple –


Narcotics Anonymous

Refuge Recovery

SMART Recovery 

Al Anon

Helping Those With Eating and Substance Use Disorders During COVID-19

Jim Holsomback

Jim Holsomback (MA; ABT) is the director of clinical outreach for McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and program director for Triad Adolescent Services, located in Lexington, Massachusetts. He has more than 20 years of experience working with adolescents and families struggling with anxiety, depression, substance use disorders and self-injury. Jim has a vast amount of experience teaching and supporting families struggling to identify ways to establish effective family systems as well as presenting in regional and national trainings and conferences on topics such as contingency management, digital and substance dependence and supporting parents of preteens and adolescents struggling with self-harm & suicidality.

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APA Reference
, . (2020). Helping Those With Eating and Substance Use Disorders During COVID-19. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 May 2020
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