Back in college, I used to eat lunch alone in my dorm room, if I decided to eat at all. That way, no one could tell me I was eating too much or not enough. No one could question my choices or point out the obvious reality that I, um, needed to eat. Social isolation is intrinsically tied to eating disorders. I avoided large gatherings centered around food. Palatable enjoyment was not my thing, and the shame wrapped up in my eating disorder was especially difficult to reconcile around people. It was simply easier to deal with by myself. Lately, in spending 99% all my time alone, I've turned back toward my eating disorder for the comfort it used to grant me-comfort that I have a difficult time finding elsewhere.
Some of you may be inwardly scoffing, especially those of you who are bemoaning the "Quarantine 15" or find yourself snacking a bit more than usual. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) states that "addiction thrives in isolation." Irregular eating is a coping mechanism, and one I've turned to with newfound gusto. Normally, I'm not alone so much. Normally, I don't feel as much shame or discomfort around food. Normally, I can see my friends, hug them, talk out my problems and listen to theirs. But these are not normal times, and I wanted to know why isolation is so triggering for those of us with eating disorders. Here's what I found.
Loneliness Vs. Isolation
Loneliness is perceived social isolation: it is the distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met. In the development of an eating disorder, loneliness comes before isolation and often stems from life experiences that make one feel different or separate from their peers. People with eating disorders often think, "something is wrong with me;" an idea that can be reinforced by their environment or external relationships.
Isolation occurs after loneliness, and is the experience of actually being separate from other's, either by choice or circumstance. Often, people with eating disorders experience emotional isolation despite being physically near others. They do not allow themselves to receive emotional support from others, either due to guilt, shame, or distrust. Emotional disconnection is often more painful than being physically distant. The way everyone copes with this particular type of pain is different, but those with eating disorders normally double down our focus on weight and food. And while isolation can be healthy and revitalizing for those who need space and time for themselves, choosing to be alone is often a choice that validates worthlessness.
Choosing to be alone is often a choice that validates worthlessness.
Perceiving oneself to be alone in the world is painful and frightening. Social isolation exacerbates beliefs of shame and increases the likelihood of eating disordered behaviors.
Why Social Isolation Occurs with Eating Disorders
It makes sense that when we engage in eating disordered behaviors, we try to hide our habits, just like I used to hide in my dorm room each day. Social withdrawal makes engaging in an eating disorder easier. But according to a series of comprehensive studies, people with eating disorders also have lower than normal trust levels in their friends, family, and close loved ones. We are more unwilling to disclose personal details out of fear of judgement. We likely feel shame or guilt for engaging in disordered behaviors or from entertaining negative thought patterns. More significantly, we have periods of irritability, low energy levels, and more frequent illnesses.
Emotional dysregulation often co-occurs with eating disorders and social isolation, making it difficult for someone to reach out for support or to even feel worthy of reaching out for support. During periods of extended social isolation (like during a worldwide pandemic), people may start to depend upon their eating disorders as they would a close friend. Instead of relying on family relationships or friendships, we start to rely on the mental disorder that slowly and painfully kill many of us.
Social connection is a vital component of the human experience. Without these connections, it's normal to look for other ways to cope, but even if we don't all turn to an eating disorder, many of us will experience worsened health symptoms over time. Without meaningful contact with friends and family, our bodies release high levels of stress hormones, which can lead to high blood pressure, chest pain, nausea, headaches, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and poor focus. To double down on the damning nature of this, consistently high stress levels can also cause us to withdraw even more, which is why engaging in lots of zoom calls or phone conversations can feel unduly draining.
Why Isolation Is Worsening Eating Disorders
I've considered myself "recovered" from my eating disorder for years now, however, the social distance orders put me back in the same mental space of isolation that initially worsened my behavior. Isolation, self-imposed or socially-imposed, has the following effects:
Allows someone with an eating disorder to avoid the pain and fear of being present in life.
Exacerbates feelings of shame and low self-worth.
Underscores a lack of trust in other people and in the self.
Maintains the erroneous idea that "something is wrong with me."
Is usually experienced as unbearable and is not the preference of the person experiencing the eating disorder.
Most people who live with eating disorders have a difficult time trusting others or showing vulnerabilities. We often do not allow ourselves to be seen or held in our worst moments, feel accepted, or have our complex emotions validated by others. In this time of widespread social isolation, relying on a strong social network is paramount to mental well-being. A comprehensive treatment plan for eating disorders includes building coping skills and social support to give people the tools to reach out at the first sign of a problem. Relying on the love and care of friends, family, and loved ones is more critical now than ever.
P.S. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.