An Examination of the Associations between COVID-Related Distress and Disordered Eating

By: Cherish Wilson

Department: Psychology

Faculty Advisor: Dr. Sarah R. Holley

Research has shown that stress, and psychological distress, are positively associated with disordered eating (DE). DE is defined as maladaptive thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors related to eating that occur less frequently or less severely than those required to meet the full criteria for a clinical diagnosis (Pereira & Alvarenga, 2007). DE can be a precursor to the development of eating disorders, which have major physical and mental health risks. The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to COVID-related distress symptomatology (Holingue et al., 2020). The present study aimed to assess whether COVID-related distress was associated with DE, even after accounting for general stress levels.

A total of 330 undergraduate students completed an online survey. Questionnaire measures were used to assess 1) general levels of current stress, 2) symptoms of distress specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic (including intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, and avoidance), and 3) current levels of DE thoughts and behaviors.

Results were assessed using a hierarchical linear regression analysis (controlling for demographic covariates). As expected, general stress was positively associated with DE (standardized beta = .31, p < .001, R² change = .09). Further, COVID-related distress accounted for additional variance in DE (R² change = .10), with the effects primarily driven by avoidance (standardized beta = .27, p < .001) and intrusive thoughts (standardized beta = .22, p = .05).

These results suggest that COVID-related distress is associated with the presence of DE, even after controlling for the effect of general stress, indicating that the distress caused by the ongoing pandemic may be placing people at greater risk for the development of eating disorders. Future research can build on these findings by examining the extent to which COVID-related distress may be impacting specific DE-related patterns, thereby offering more clear targets for interventions.