Loneliness and emotional eating–Part I

My client Alexis (name-changed), a forty-four year old web designer, has been single her entire life.  Without partner or child, she often feels invisible at social gatherings filled with couples and families.  Her parents passed away in the last few years and as an only child without much extended family, she often feels a painful, overwhelming and at times paralyzing sense of loneliness.  She “uses” food regularly to comfort and soothe the loneliness.  A few times per week she has a large binge, generally when she feels depressed and anxious.  Alexis has few close friends and doesn’t find these connections nourishing.  She also has little community involvement as she hasn’t found any place where she feels “at home.”  At times, she feels despair over her situation and over-sleeps to avoid facing her life. 

Do you think loneliness has anything to do with your overeating?  Do you feel there is a lack of nourishing relationships in your life; ones where you feel safe, seen, heard, accepted, understood and loved?  Do you “long to belong” to a community of others with whom you have shared interests and where you experience joy and inclusion? 

It’s natural to want to connect.  We humans are communal animals, social creatures by nature.  We need each other.  Throughout human history, the uncomfortable emotion known as loneliness has prompted us to connect with others for safety and survival.  And beyond mere survival, community has always been a source of connection, comfort, support, meaning and joy.  It provides a place for sharing and caring and an opportunity to build and practice relational skills.  Community offers us an extended family and larger safety net to rely on if need be.

We all feel lonely at times.  It’s normal, for example, to feel lonely when we change jobs, break up with a life partner, good friend or lover or move to a new city.  Loneliness is not necessarily the same as being alone.  We can feel lonely even when we are with others.  And we can be alone and find the experience of solitude enjoyable and rejuvenating.  Loneliness becomes problematic when it is chronic or persistent; when we regularly experience a painful sense of separateness and aloneness

When you feel lonely, you may also feel:

  • empty                                   
  • invisible
  • unworthy
  • rejected
  • abandoned
  • separate
  • lost
  • detached
  • un-lovable
  • hopeless
  • helpless
  • depressed
  • anxious
  • insecure
  • needy
  • apathetic and/or
  • bored.

Chronic loneliness can seriously compromise your emotional and physical well-being.  John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the book Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection, has been studying the effects of loneliness.  His research has demonstrated that loneliness negatively impacts our emotional health because it disrupts our ability to self-regulate or cope with emotions and thoughts associated with feeling isolated.  This results in frustration that can lead to impulsive and selfish behavior, hostility, depression and despair and an attempt to manage mood by overeating, smoking, drinking and acting out sexually.  In addition, chronic loneliness impairs our social perception–we feel more threatened by and lack trust in social situations and we are more likely to negatively misinterpret events and the behaviors of others and distort social cues (the result of higher sensitivity and less accuracy.)

Mr Cacioppo’s research has also found that loneliness can be as harmful to your physical health as smoking or obesity.  It can increase your blood pressure and levels of circulating stress hormones leading to an increased risk of stroke.   It can result in poor quality sleep.  And it can disrupt your immune system functioning and regulation of cellular processes leading to increased wear and tear and premature aging of the body.

Connection is the key.  Chronic loneliness is a symptom and signal that you are disconnected from one or more of the three main sources of soul nourishment and sustenance: Self, Others and Spirituality.  Some level of a positive connection to all three sources is essential for good emotional and physical health. 

In Part I of this article I’ll discuss Self-connection and share with you a few steps you can take for improving it.  In Part II, I’ll discuss connection to nourishing others and spiritual connection. 

Self-connection. When we grow up in a non-nourishing family environment where our emotions and needs are neglected, we learn early to cut-off from our inner world.  We fail to develop an inner nourishing voice; the inner voice that develops is harsh and unkind.  When emotions surface we feel overwhelmed by them and don’t know how to handle them. Our thoughts tend to be negative, anxious, critical and self-defeating.  This leads us to look outside of ourselves for soothing, reassurance, approval, validation and comfort.  Our expectations of others are high and what we get from the outside rarely feels fulfilling.  Because we have difficulty managing our emotions, behaviors and expectations, we can be over-reactive, hypersensitive, defensive, demanding, hostile and/or needy.  We may, at times,  find it more comfortable or safe to withdraw and isolate rather than venture out and risk more rejection and pain.  Of course, this leads to more loneliness, overeating and a sense of helplessness.   

Without realizing it, you are lonely because your internal “house” is not a home.  Disconnection from your inner source of nourishment has led to a very painful, desperate sort of loneliness.  There are a few steps you can take today to begin to address your chronic loneliness:

Step #1:  Embrace your loneliness.  Accept it for now and allow it to be without trying to push it away, eat it away, merge with someone or distract yourself from it.  Where do you feel loneliness in your body?  What sensation do you feel–can you describe it?  Perhaps you can give it a name like “The Visitor” or “The Teacher” and welcome it without judgment.  It is here to teach you something and help you grow

Step #2:  Identify other emotions you are feeling in addition to loneliness.  I suggest you write these down in a journal.  This will help you “stay with” your emotions and not get distracted by your thoughts.  Emotions are just one word, like sad, mad, glad, or afraid.  Can you allow yourself to feel all these emotions without turning to food?

Step#3:  Get clear on what you are truly longing for.  See if you can clearly identify what you need.  Are you longing for reassurance, companionship, validation, play, touch, inner peace, excitement or stimulation?  Do you need to grieve losses and disappointments?  Just get all your needs on paper.

Step #4: Practice talking to yourself from your Inner Nourishing Voice.  Forming a regular, consistent alliance between your Inner Nourishing Voice, which I call the Inner Nurturer, and your feeling self is the step that will make and keep your house a home.  Your Inner Nurturer is your daily source of kindness, reassurance, validation, comfort and soothing.  It will take practice to develop this voice.  Over time, this “internal” relationship will help lessen your loneliness.

I encouraged Alexis to embrace her loneliness and see it as a signal that her feeling self felt abandoned by her Inner Nurturer.  Showing up in the world with a “please, please feed me” energy was backfiring and resulting in rejection, more self judgment, isolation and overeating.  Constantly recycling negative, self-denigrating thoughts after experiencing rejection was lowering her self-esteem. 

After a few weeks of practicing self-connection, Alexis reported that the deep, despairing kind of loneliness was lessening.  Even though it was counter-intuitive, she realized that whenever she felt that paralyzing sense of loneliness, she needed to “go home” rather than look outside herself for connection.

If we want to connect with others we need to be emotionally available.  This means not distracted or preoccupied with our loneliness, fears, depression, negative thoughts or problems and challenges.  When we are feeling lonely and needy, we are more apt to resort to maladaptive coping patterns like self-absorption and people pleasing.  We are also more likely to distort social perceptions and react with hypersensitivity.  These behaviors can push people away and lead to further isolation.  This is why it’s best to “go home” and practice self-connection until you feel more regulated and balanced. 

In Part II of this post, I’ll address connecting to nourishing others as well as spiritual connection. 

Posted by Julie M. Simon.  If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to http: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.

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