Loneliness can be one of the most difficult feelings a young person experiences. It may leave them feeling alienated from themselves and others: without support, a sense of belonging, or a secure sense of self. Sometimes, managing such distressing feelings can feel almost impossible, and young people may turn to harmful and destructive behaviours as a way to cope.
Research suggests that loneliness can be a driving factor behind eating disorders, where food becomes a coping mechanism used to numb or deal with pain. These behaviours, however, offer no long-term solution to feelings of loneliness and, in many cases, lead to social isolation and further distress.
This blog explores the two-way relationship between loneliness and eating disorders, outlining how each one can exacerbate the other. It also offers some insight into alternative, healthy coping mechanisms for loneliness that promote the long-term well-being of young people – and evidence-based treatment approaches to help them leave eating disorders behind.
What Is Loneliness?
Like all of us, young people need to feel connected to other people. Loneliness is a distressing feeling that emerges when they lack this connection: perhaps they feel that they don’t have enough connections with others or that their connections are not satisfying or meaningful. Loneliness is different from being alone: many young people can spend time alone without feeling lonely, and for most, some alone time is not only enjoyable but necessary.
Some young people may experience loneliness at certain times, while others may live with persistent, chronic loneliness that doesn’t seem to go away. In either case, loneliness can start to affect their mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other conditions. Unfortunately, these conditions often make it harder for young people to feel connected with others, exacerbating feelings of loneliness.
Understanding Eating Disorders
It’s normal for a young person’s eating habits to change from time to time. However, if their relationship with food starts to have a significant effect on their daily life, they may be dealing with an eating problem. Eating problems often happen when a young person uses food as a coping mechanism for difficult emotions or begins to value themselves on their weight, shape, or body.
Eating disorders are types of eating problems that fit certain criteria set out by researchers and psychiatrists. Importantly, eating problems may be serious even when a young person does not receive a diagnosis, and they always deserve attention, support, and care.
Some common eating disorders are:
- Anorexia nervosa, characterised by very low body weight and restrictions on food or excessive exercise
- Bulimia nervosa, characterised by cycles of bingeing and purging behaviours
- Binge eating disorder, characterised by a sense of loss of control when eating
While, superficially, eating disorders may seem to be about food or gaining weight, the roots are usually much deeper. Eating problems are often underpinned by low self-esteem, interpersonal difficulties, and emotional distress.
Eating disorders are serious mental health issues that can be very harmful and dangerous to a young person’s physical health and well-being. However, with effective support, young people can overcome the underlying cause of eating problems, heal from within, and enjoy lasting recovery.
How Can Loneliness Cause Eating Problems?
Researchers have recognised feelings of loneliness and powerlessness as a factor in the development of eating disorders for decades. While the intricacies of each young person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are complex and unique, they often share certain patterns.
Some people may use eating disorders to try to cope with loneliness, seeking tiredness and lack of energy that numbs their feelings and distances them from their emotions. A study amongst au pairs in the Czech Republic found that loneliness, boredom, stress, and humiliation contributed to overeating and vomiting. The au pairs indicated that these eating behaviours helped them to deal with emotional distress and underlying feelings of loneliness, boredom, and undervaluation.
Studies have also found that interpersonal conflicts increase feelings of insecurity in people with bulimia nervosa, contributing to bulimic symptoms. Interpersonal conflicts may leave young people feeling like they lack an effective support network and push them to manage emotions in other ways.
How Can Eating Problems Lead to Loneliness?
While young people may turn to food as a way to cope with feelings of loneliness, these strategies don’t help to overcome feelings of loneliness in the long term. Instead, eating problems often cause or exacerbate feelings of loneliness through real or perceived isolation.
Eating problems can lead to feelings of shame that push young people away from those around them; they may also avoid socialising to hide their eating disorders. Young people who are not eating enough food may feel tired, irritable, and unable to meaningfully connect with those around them.
Sometimes, it is difficult to determine the causality in the relationships between loneliness and eating disorders: it’s not always clear which one causes the other, and in many cases, the relationship may be two-way. A 2002 study found that women with anorexia nervosa had much higher levels of shyness, inferiority, and loneliness than women without eating disorders. For these women, their loneliness may drive their eating disorder, or their eating disorder may cause their feelings of loneliness – or both.
Inner Loneliness, Eating Disorders, and Self-Esteem
For some young people, loneliness and eating disorders may both be connected to low self-esteem. Adolescents and young adults who undervalue themselves may doubt that others around them want to be their friends. They may begin to devalue their own needs and focus on the needs of the other person, thinking that this is necessary to maintain the relationship. From these patterns may emerge a kind of inner loneliness: a sense of distance from their true selves, wants, and needs.
Inner loneliness is a feeling that people with eating problems often struggle with. Individuals with eating disorders often have a low sense of self-worth and are less likely to trust that they can have healthy intimate relationships with others. They may start to feel detached from themselves and those around them, turning to their eating disorder as a way to cope.
While loneliness can be a very distressing experience for a young person, it’s possible to manage, reduce, and overcome these feelings. There are many healthy ways to cope with and combat loneliness that promote lasting well-being.
They may try:
- focusing on self-love
- talking about their feelings or expressing them in other ways
- joining clubs or social activities
- volunteering or community work
- finding their passions and pursuing their dreams
- seeking emotional support from friends and family
In some cases, young people may require professional support to cope with feelings of loneliness, especially if they are contributing to other mental health issues. If your child is struggling to cope, don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor or another mental health professional for expert advice and care.
Treating and Recovering from Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can feel scary to both a young person and their parents. However, there is plenty of support available that’s proven to help young people overcome their eating problems and rediscover a happy, fulfilling life.
If you think a young person may be living with an eating disorder, it’s important that they receive professional support as soon as possible. Professional treatment programs usually combine cognitive-behavioural therapy with other therapeutic options and experiences to support a full and lasting recovery. Treatment for eating disorders may involve:
- cognitive behavioural therapy for eating disorders (CBT-ED)
- family therapy
- interpersonal therapy
- support groups
Recovery from eating disorders isn’t easy and often requires long-term commitment and support. However, with the right care, young people can overcome the challenges – and find themselves again.
The Wave Clinic: Specialised Treatment for Eating Disorders
The Wave Clinic offers specialised support for young people living with eating disorders and other mental health concerns. Our exceptional clinical care combines expertise with human connection, bringing in adolescent mental health specialists from around the world to work one-on-one with each young person. At the same time, our whole-person approach aims to support young people to discover, build, and live the futures they dream of as they reconnect with their passions and love of life.
Our residential programs combine a gap year experience with education and psychological support, offering young people the chance to work with one another, become part of our community, and enjoy exciting experiences. The Wave is a place where young people make life-long friendships, laying the foundations for a future of connection, sharing, and social responsibility.