Eating Disorders and Loneliness

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If you struggle with feeling lonely and disconnected at times, you are definitely not alone.

As a society, we have grown increasingly disconnected. Regardless of the reason, more people are reporting feeling lonely. However, while loneliness is on the rise-it feels like no one is talking about it. This can perpetuate feelings of isolation and shame.

It’s important to note that you can be married, in a relationship, or surrounded by people-and still feel lonely and disconnected.

Impact of Loneliness

Feelings of loneliness can have a significant on mental and physical health. In fact, one study found that lacking social connections can be as damaging as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

When people feel lonely, they also might turn to things to try to numb out from their feelings, such as food, compulsive exercise, restricting food, sex, workaholism, drugs, or alcohol.

While these things might provide temporary feelings of “comfort,” they often lead to feelings of higher anxiety and increased isolation in the long-term.

Eating Disorders and Loneliness

For people with the underlying genetics, their eating disorder might serve as a way to cope with feelings of loneliness and not feeling “good enough.”

For many people struggling with binge eating disorder, compulsive over-eating, or bulimia, they describe a feeling that “food is my main friend or comfort.” They often report feeling a sense of emptiness, and food becomes the way that they temporarily numb out from their emotions.

As they fill themselves up with food, they feel a temporary sense of “comfort” and “calm.” However, after a binge episode they typically feel shame and guilt.

For people suffering from a restrictive eating disorder like anorexia, they often report feeling a sense of calm through depriving themselves of food. Their eating disorder may tell them that they are “in control” and better than other people. However, they often find that their anxiety and list of “food rules” is constantly increasing.

Eating Disorders Contribute To Isolation

Part of what is so devastating about eating disorders is that they are truly illnesses of disconnection. The deeper that someone gets into their eating disorder, the more that it starts to become their primary relationship.

Eating disorders will isolate you from the people that you care about most and keep you from forming more meaningful connections.

Here’s some examples of how an eating disorder might disconnect you from others:

She is struggling with anorexia. Her friends are always asking her to go out to eat with them, however the thought of doing so sends her into a complete panic. She starts declining invitations to go out to eat, and eventually people stop asking. She spends most of her free time thinking about food and her body, and running on the treadmill at the gym. When she does meet up with people she finds herself unable to focus. She feels like her mind is a prison.

He is struggling with bulimia. He had plans to get meet up with a friend this morning, but he feels so huge and disgusting after his binge and purge episode last night, that he cancels his plans. He starts dreading having to go out in public, as he thinks that everyone is judging him and his appearance. He begins spending more time alone. He wants to have a girlfriend but feels like no one would ever want to date him because of his appearance.

She is suffering from binge eating disorder. She snaps at her husband because he’s trying to talk to her in the kitchen. She just wants him to leave so that she can be alone with her food. She doesn’t want him to see her bingeing, and after the binge she is filled with shame that she was so mean to him. She feels disgusted with herself. He tries to touch her when she comes back to bed, and she turns away-scared that he will see her bloated stomach.

Turning to People Instead of Your Eating Disorder

One important element of the recovery process from an eating disorder is learning how to turn to people and to other coping strategies, in place of turning to your eating disorder. This is incredibly tough at first, however with time and practice it can become more natural.

When we bottle up our emotions, they eventually rise to the surface with intensity (think of trying to hold a beach ball under water). Instead, it’s important to learn how to process your emotions in a healthy way.

When I work with clients, I talk to them about developing an awareness of their triggers, as well as some healthier coping strategies (which involve both processing and distraction strategies).

A processing coping strategy would be one where you actually process your emotions, such as journaling, drawing, talking to a friend, family member, or therapy. A distraction strategy could involve watching TV, coloring, going to a yoga class, or doing a meditation.

It’s important to have a variety of both strategies that you can turn to if you are feeling triggered. When you feel urges to engage in an eating disorder behavior, it’s important to talk yourself what emotions you are looking to feel or to “not feel?” Then, think of some alternate things that you could do to experience that same thing.

Even, if for example, you are turning to food to try to “numb out” from thinking about things that are stressing you out, think of another way that you could temporarily “numb out” from the stress i.e. getting lost in your favorite TV show or book, or calling a friend and hearing about things that are going on in their life.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, no one should have to struggle with an eating disorder alone. If you are struggling, it’s so important that you reach out for help from a professional.

Seeking help when you are struggling is a sign of true strength, not weakness.

You deserve to be free from your eating disorder.

Full recovery is possible. Yes, for you too.

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, easily accessible to individuals in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Germantown, and Washington D.C. Connect with Jennifer through her website: