Trigger warning: This article contains themes that could be distressing those who struggle with eating disorders, particularly bulimia.
Have you ever had an emotional hangover after watching a show on Netflix? I felt sad for a whole day after watching the third episode of Season Four of The Crown. In it, Lady Diana moves in with the royal family as she awaits her upcoming marriage to Prince Charles. She is instantly beloved by the British public, who bombard her with fan mail and floral bouquets. But behind the image she projects, Diana's royal life is deeply lonely. She is in a loveless marriage, her husband (who suffered loneliness himself) is cheating on her, and she feels stifled by monarchy rules about what she can do and say.
The episode portrays how Diana's chronic loneliness fueled her bulimia. Feeling hopelessly alone, she would sneak into the royal kitchen late at night, where she binged on food before purging it. This episode hits close to home for those of us who have struggled with disordered eating. Many of us have felt that kind of loneliness and have used food and compensatory mechanisms like purging to find temporary relief. Of course, these behaviors come at a cost as they fail to address the loneliness itself.
A recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the same part of the brain that lights up when we're hungry is the part that activates when we're lonely. In other words, loneliness and hunger share a home in the brain. Another study found that loneliness predicts postprandial hunger (hunger that persists after you've finished a meal). Science validates what people with disordered eating have experienced firsthand -- that there is a close relationship between loneliness and hunger. That lonely-hungry feeling drives those who suffer to keep eating, even after eating enough to meet their bodies' needs. So the next time you have unwanted urges to use food in ways you wish you wouldn't, a good intervention would be to inquire about whether you feel lonely.
As a psychotherapist specializing in eating and body image, I am very familiar with that lonely-hungry feeling at the core of my clients' suffering. It is not the kind of loneliness we feel when we miss someone; it is about missing one's self. Disconnected from ourselves, many people exist without an inner source of validation, care, or kind companionship. When we can't find a friend in ourselves, the aloneness can be all-encompassing. And it makes it hard to connect with others. Unhappy with ourselves, it might be impossible to believe that anyone else could truly love us.
The chasm that separates us from ourselves can develop early. We now know with certainty that childhood adversity is a major driver. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, being mistreated, bullied, alienated, or discriminated against -- all these can make a person feel deeply flawed. Diet culture provokes similar feelings of shame and deficiency by influencing people to turn against their natural bodies and chase unrealistic forms. The result is toxic stress and chronic emotional pain -- or, to put it simply, that lonely-hungry feeling that messes with our confidence and eating patterns.
Mistrusting our bodies and our selves, we might put on a mask as Diana did. We might present a version of ourselves that feels acceptable while hiding our true feelings, needs, and even our gifts. We might shy away from connections with others as we try to fix the body or person that feels wrong. We tell ourselves that we'll pursue the meaningful life we want when we lose pounds or improve ourselves.
But the solution to the lonely-hungry feeling is not to hide or reshape yourself. That only perpetuates the sense of aloneness. The work starts when you find little ways to be real. You begin to accept your feelings and needs and take your gifts seriously. You find the courage to share your deeper self with others -- a little at a time, testing the waters, as you establish trust.
A favorite quote on this topic comes from the children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit, "He didn't mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real." In case you're not familiar with the story, "nursery magic" is the experience of being loved. When others love us, it instills confidence and the courage to be real. When we're willing to practice loving ourselves more fully at any time in our lives, the same thing happens.
I like to think that Diana conquered that lonely-hungry feeling and her bulimia later in life by getting real. I remember her telling the truth about her bulimia to reporters. By sharing it with the world, she helped to break the stigma about it. She bravely left her royal marriage and lived a meaningful, albeit tragically short, life. She publically hugged patients with AIDS at a time when most people shunned them. She walked through a live landmine with her son in a campaign to bring the world's attention to the problem. I think that Diana might have found some of that nursery magic for herself, and I know that it's possible for you too, if that's what you seek.
During the Covid crisis, many people feel more alone than ever before. If you are experiencing that lonely-hungry feeling, reach in and reach out. Reaching in involves noticing your own feelings, journaling about them, and responding to them with love and care. Reaching out is when you take a deep breath and let someone know what you feel and need. You can also heal from loneliness by joining one of many online communities that have popped up since the pandemic began. We offer one that helps you find that nursery magic, called How to Love Your Body.
We'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Have you experienced that lonely-hungry feeling? What are some of the ways you've coped with it?
Special thanks to my editor, Barbara Cook.
Hi. I’m Alison Ross, founder of Non-Dieting Health in Agoura Hills, California. I’m a licensed psychotherapist and neurofeedback practitioner specializing in eating and body image. My favorite things are my family, my dogs, yoga and working with my clients.
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