Lonely eating

In one of the weight-loss imaging groups that I facilitate, my clients brought in the topic of lonely eating - a habit of turning to food when feeling lonely. In this article, I am going to share some of the insights that I gathered during this discussion of lonely eating and its underpinnings.

Loneliness is a feeling of loss of connection with others. Connecting with others is a need that is evolutionarily programmed into our brain from birth. We need to connect to feel safe, to feel comforted, to express ourselves, to get to know ourselves and to gain an understanding of the world around us.

There is also a paradox of disconnection when a person can feel lonely among others due to the experience of being taken for granted or being excluded. From birth, our life turns into a sequence of connections and disconnections. Our feelings, thoughts, and body are nurtured by these experiences. For instance, we come to realise the new maturational milestone by acknowledging our birthdays. During this day, we could be with others or by ourselves remembering old times, taking part in a 'ritual' (e.g. making and sharing a birthday cake), and noticing changes, including changes in our bodies. We connect and disconnect with others to experience ourselves on the continuum of time, to structure our time and to tolerate temporary quality of it. Loneliness is a product of disruption in this sequence when disconnection becomes sustained for prolonged periods of time.

In order to feel less lonely, we need to connect more to others, but it can be really tricky for many different reasons. Relationships and the process of entering them takes a lot of effort, resilience, and time. It could be that 'lonely eating' is the experience that offers 'a quick fix' for the sense of connectedness. Eating when you feel lonely is straightforward: you reach out, you get something nourishing, and you connect to the feeling of comfort for a moment in time. Lonely eating can also be a way of disconnecting from overwhelming relationships where a person does not feel accepted or acknowledged. In this case, it brings a connection to one's own self.

It is much more difficult to connect with people. For example, you need to think what kind of connection you would like for yourself (e.g. somebody to talk to about everyday staff or just being near somebody, etc.), and what is the manageable connection at the present moment for you in your life? Loneliness is an overwhelming feeling, just like a feeling of connectedness with people, so it is important to be realistic about finding ways to be with others and not to feel uncomfortable. There are many ways you can think about what is realistic: you can make a list, you can think of what worked before, and you can reach out to others for advice.

As a psychologist, I work with symbolic images. I find them really effective in starting conversions about what would help to reduce the feeling of loneliness and lonely eating. In the group, we talk about the diversity of images that people think of. This diversity seems to connect group members and, at the same time, give rise to in-depth individual insights. Imagery can also be used in one-to-one sessions. Similarly to metaphors, we collect and use them when words are just too hard to put together. Just like a quilt, the images connect one to another to make a bigger picture and create a perspective.

What image of connection with others comes into your mind when you thinking of becoming less lonely?

Let's talk about it.

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