Eating disorders thrive in anxious times, and pose a lethal threat

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A recent survey found 62% of people in the U.S. with anorexia experienced a worsening of symptoms after the pandemic hit. Boogich/ Getty Images

(Yuki Noguchi/ NPR) — For most of her 34 years, Stephanie Parker didn’t recognize she had an eating disorder. 

At age 6, she recalls, she stopped eating and drinking at school — behavior that won her mother’s praise. “It could have started sooner; I just don’t have the memory,” says Parker. In middle school, she ate abnormally large quantities, then starved herself again in the years after.

This spring, it all came to a head: She was confined and alone in her New York City studio apartment, as COVID-19 ripped through the city. The pandemic fomented fear and, for Parker, called up past trauma and aggravated the obsessive compulsive disorder that had started to become apparent years earlier. She realized then her relationship with food was life-threatening.

“The OCD and anxiety … just made my eating disorder more intense, and for me that meant I would become obsessed with cleaning everything and then checking in with myself to see if I deserve to eat,” says Parker. It wasn’t just that cleaning frenzies on an empty stomach left her with no energy to pick up a fork. “I would become scared of food — I got scared that food would make me sick because it wasn’t clean enough.” (…)

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