"Health" is a confusing and often subjective term. I've spent a lot of time conceptualizing it: as a beacon of hope, as proof of progress, and as a marker for the way I treat my body. Sometimes it feels good, and other times threatening. Often it means nothing and everything to me at the same time. And, like with many things, the pandemic has shifted my perspective on it.
Health, as a hypernym, was the lifeboat on which I progressed in my eating disorder recovery. I gave myself an education on nutrition and broadened my capacity for compassion and body neutrality. I started using food to respectfully fuel my body in a way that still reverberates through the rest of my life.
But the pandemic hit and my routine was altered. The healthy foods I ate didn't feel as good without a schedule or a social life. I ate gluten regardless of my sensitivity to it. I wore sweats every day because they're soft. Comfort became paramount even when I was noticeably uncomfortable with the physical changes it spurred. I leaned hard on old habits; emotional eating and sad boredom. At first, it felt necessary, and then it felt good—like relief; a hiatus from my usual neurosis. Then, it didn't. I realized, yet again, my issues with my body don't exist in a vacuum. I still felt bad looking in the mirror, even when no one else was there to see it. So, when is comfort better for your health than traditional "healthy" ways of living? And when does that stop being true? In times of turmoil, whether it be fear, anxiety, trauma, or all of the above: What's the healthiest way to survive?
"Learning to balance our focus is proving tricky for a lot of us," Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. notes. "What we’re not taking into account is, this pandemic is something we had only seen in movies or read about in history books—we have to cut ourselves some slack." In fact Ariane Resnick, a nutritionist and contributing writer for Byrdie, explains these cravings are "a result of our bodies attempting to reduce our physiological stress in the short term." She says, "Because the result is an actual reduction in cortisol, and the snacking accomplishes the goal, our cravings should be seen as biologically insightful, not innately unhealthy—even if the long term implications from continually satisfying them are." So, the science is there. The reason my usual routine and tactics have fallen out of wack is actually completely understandable and, more than that, entirely biological. But, Resnick also mentions traditionally healthier ways to lower cortisol, things like meditation and light exercise. So my internal ping-pong match about health and comfort continues.
Of course, I am able to separate myself from this battle enough to recognize my privilege in it. I am worried about food I can afford and intellectualizing my feelings as part of my salaried job—in the middle of a pandemic when those things are not promised. But this physical and mental manifestation of my disorder is something I've lived with for most of my life. And when I'm in a less-than-desirable place, it manages to flood everything I do, dripping from one place to another inside of my brain. Coming up for air is easier said than done.
This is all to say that balance will forever be the key—and, holistically, 'health' can't be summed up with a tidy textbook description.
As I try to figure this whole thing out, I have to get comfortable succumbing to the idea that mental and physical health can exist on different sides of the venn diagram. That what my brain needs to feel solace is not always what makes my body feel good and vise versa. But, in that, is the realization that while different, those things will always be connected. After almost a year forgoing my usual healthy practices, I feel worse for the wear. I never really got the longterm respite I craved.
Perhaps it was important for me to go through this deviation as part of my progress. Comfort will always be a focus in the way I choose to take care of myself. But a year into the pandemic, I'm finally able to see what's no longer serving me. This is all to say that balance will forever be the key—and, holistically, "health" can't be summed up with a tidy textbook description. The age-old advice regarding moderation remains relevant despite the changing circumstances. "[We] have to find some middle ground in the global crisis we find ourselves in. Health is also showing up to work, going for a walk, cleaning your living space, and calling your loved ones," Hafeez reminds me. So, I'll keep showing up.