This years’ Mental Health Awareness Week is looking at loneliness – something pertinent to the experience of living with an eating disorder. We’re joining the UK’s biggest conversation on mental health to ensure no one feels alone in their experience of their illness.
In this blog we explore how loneliness can impact your recovery and offer ways to reconnect with others – for, despite how it may feel, you are not alone in this at all.
Did you know that in the UK, 1 in 4 adults feel lonely, some or most of the time? Loneliness is something we can all experience in our lives. So even when we’re feeling alone, we’re not really alone in that experience.
So what’s the connection with eating disorders? Eating disorders can be extremely isolating illnesses. People can feel a lot of shame or fear associated with their behaviours, and this can keep people trapped in their experience. The often secretive nature of an eating disorder can make it harder for people on the outside to identify that there’s a problem, and difficult for the individual to admit that they’re struggling, for fear of what will happen or that the individual won’t understand. Though, no one deserves to feel alone in their experience.
One of the few consolations of the pandemic is that it reminded us of our need for each other. Our Mental Health in the Pandemic study showed that Covid-19 brought the experience of loneliness closer to millions of us. During the lockdowns, we found that loneliness was almost 3 times that of pre-pandemic levels.’ Mental Health Foundation
Loneliness is something we often hear when people pick up the phone and contact us for the first time. That’s why so much of Orri’s approach to recovery is about reaching out and connecting once more and, in the process, reconnecting with ourselves again.
So, what can we do to combat the loneliness affecting so many of us? How can we connect with others and with ourselves again?
What is loneliness?
To start, let’s define what loneliness is. Experiencing loneliness and feeling lonely is commonly understood as an individual not feeling connected to the others, despite their emotional want and need to. An example of loneliness is the feeling you get when you want to connect to a loved one and they are emotionally unavailable. As social animals, we need social connection in order to survive. This is why the experience of loneliness can feel so threatening.
Subsequently, feeling lonely can have a negative impact on an individual’s mental health. It can contribute to emerging problems or intensify existing mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, stress and eating disorders.
Some can feel stuck in a cycle or a downward spiral of loneliness. There can be such shame in this experience, which unfortunately compounds our difficulty in reconnecting and sharing ourselves with others again – exacerbating the cycle.
Loneliness is different to ‘being alone’, as you may choose to be alone and to enjoy your own company. However, keep in mind that this could be someone else’s experience of being ‘lonely’.
How can an eating disorder contribute to loneliness?
Loneliness can feel like an uncontrollable downward spiral that may feel harder to break away from when someone has been feeling lonely for a long time. Feeling disconnected from our external worlds can serve to promote rumination on our internal worlds, bringing negative thoughts and emotions to the surface. These thoughts and emotions may feel so overwhelming or intense that we may look outside of ourselves as a means of coping.
At Orri, we recognise how difficult it can be to admit you have a problem, particularly if you feel a significant amount of shame associated with your behaviours. This can be a very real barrier to people receiving support. We also understand how safe and nurturing an eating disorder can feel to an individual, as it may have been the only thing that has offered understanding when feeling ‘stuck’ in isolation. Perhaps they have gradually distanced themselves from friends and family, stopped attending social events, and are perhaps spending increasingly more time at home, in their bedroom.
If this is the case and if you are the individual, you are not alone. And, despite how you might feel about it, it is not your fault.
Many of our clients start their eating disorder treatment in a similar situation. Their eating disorder has distanced them from the people they care about, and as we’ve highlighted, many find a sense of comfort in this distance; there’s something about it that feels safe and predictable – and these two things are really important when you’re living with an eating disorder.
Eating disorders thrive in isolation. You might have noticed that when you’re alone, the ‘voice’ of the eating disorder is amplified. It actively drives people away from you as a means of limiting the opportunity for it to be challenged – for food behaviours to be challenged. And this act of cutting yourself off serves a purpose, and can often be linked to why the eating disorder developed in the first place. It may have grown to become a maladaptive coping mechanism, which in fact prevents you from healing and from reconnecting.
What you can do to reconnect again.
Find a loved one or a professional that you can speak to
Reach out to your support network and speak honestly about feeling lonely. Chances are if you have not already communicated this with them, they may not know. So, take a breath and allow them to hear and witness your experience. They care for you, so they will listen and will want to help.
Try peer support groups
You may wish to seek understanding from those who have ‘been there’ and can resonate with what you are going through. If this is the case, why not join a peer support group?
We find Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme apt for Orri’s theme of the month, being Reconnecting in Recovery. As such, we have our third Nurturing Hope: a collective healing space event this week, specifically for those in recovery from an eating disorder. Our specialist clinicians will focus the group on reconnecting and undoing shame in recovery. The event is free of charge and will be hosted as a Zoom meeting.
Join a supportive online community
Engage with and follow supportive eating disorder communities, that reinforce positive messages and ideals that align with your recovery. We recommend a few helpful organisations, here.
Keep in mind, that whilst social media has helpful and engaging content, check your responses to what you read. If you find you often compare yourself to other people, maybe think about a social media detox or carry out a social media “review” to clear out anything that causes you to reflect negatively on yourself. It’s okay to follow accounts that encourage you to love yourself and it’s okay to unfollow people who cause the opposite.
Remember your self-care tools in your toolbox, and use them!
We’ve mentioned above the disconnect from the Self that an eating disorder can bring, as well as feeling lonely. A way to reconnect with yourself again is to remember all the things that you enjoy and that serve your wellbeing. Could this be engaging in creative activities, such as scrapbooking, journalling, painting or even blogging? What about going for walks in nature, with a pet or with a friend? Think about the contact you have with your body too, like when having a bath or when practicing mindfulness.
All these things can aid your re-connection to yourself again, which is key to feeling understood by yourself and feeling grounded.
Be honest in therapy
If you have engaged in therapy or have had previous experience in speaking with a professional, then you may be familiar with the power of transparency. In order to fully heal and to nurture your emotional understanding of your eating disorder, you need to bring your whole self to each session, despite how vulnerable or exposing this may feel.
Reflecting on Brene Brown’s words: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness” she identifies the strength it takes to communicate and to trust the therapeutic process. As you may know in recovery, you need to show up for yourself for recovery to work – the same work applies in therapy.
At Orri, we offer psychotherapy, psychiatry and group therapy, which provide the opportunities for you to engage with others. You can find out more on what we offer, here.
As Kerrie, Orri’s CEO and Founder says:
“The power of a group is in knowing that you are not alone.”
Group therapy at Orri is a healing process, and can help you connect with others. If you don’t believe us, read our clients’ experiences:
“As I entered and progressed through treatment, I began to understand and accept that my struggles were as legitimate as any of my peers – gender is irrelevant. I found it so liberating to be able to listen to and empathise with others who were experiencing the same issues I’d been going through. It gave me the strength to be able to share my own story and it felt empowering to be listened to and understood in return. I came to realise that as I began to show my vulnerability my mask came off, the barriers came down and it was just me left which actually wasn’t so bad! The connections I’ve made with people in therapy are amazing and I feel fortunate to have met such great new friends.”
“Sharing my struggles in a group treatment setting, being listened to and supported by my peers gave me confidence to open up about my struggles to my family and friends. Taking this openness outside of the treatment setting really helped me to manage my recovery as my loved ones could understand some of the things I’d been grappling with.”
“In this common place, your experience is validated when people recognise it and say, “yup, I get it. I feel exactly the same.” It’s such a relief to know that someone else is going through the same pain as you – as weird as that sounds – but I suppose it’s the camaraderie. The support network around groups has been super valuable for me. The recognition, the validation…it has been so useful.”
We leave you with the message that there is power in community. There is power and there is power in feeling heard and having your experience witnessed. You are part of our online community. You are witnessed and we hear you.