An Increased Measure of Joy and Peace: Overcoming Loneliness and Disordered Eating During the Holidays

Contributor: Michael E. Berrett, PhD, Psychologist, CEO, Co-founder of Center for Change, Orem, Utah

cookie-cutter-497133_640We all have well learned that while there is excitement about being with family and friends during the Holiday season, there is also a certain amount of stress. For those who are feeling “pretty good” emotionally, the holidays can enhance those positive emotional and relationship experiences.

For those who are already struggling with stress, anxiety, eating disorders, addictive illness, depression, and loneliness – they may fear that the holidays may intensify those struggles with heightened feelings of:

  • Stress
  • Disconnection
  • Isolation
  • Loneliness

Additionally, some may struggle with feelings of guilt or hopelessness because they are not feelings that they think they should be feeling during the Holidays.

Holidays Are Often About Food

During the Holiday Season, one thing that is particularly difficult for those struggling with disordered eating, is that many wonderful gatherings and activities of family and friends are often built around a meal or fancy spreads of wonderful food.

It is as if the food is the centerpiece, and that the relationships and the meaning of the holiday are somehow tucked in around the feast.

This combination of food and family is part of the fun and joy, but for many, the combination adds stress, emotional complication, perceived performance expectations about food, an obstacle to being “present” in relationships, and an unwanted but very real distraction away from that which is most important in the Holiday season:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Relationships
  • Love
  • Counting blessing
  • Gratitude
  • Spiritual reflection and practice
  • Connection with self and loved ones
  • Reflection
  • Positive memories
  • Looking inward in a deeper way
  • Turning our hearts to others in need

The meaning of the season can become displaced with fear, rumination, fullness, emptiness, and self- contempt.

Loneliness and Painful Habits

Two very common painful experiences during the Holidays are significant feelings of loneliness, and living with a painful pattern of disordered eating.

Loneliness can come from disconnection from self, isolation from others, and from dissociation or “lack of emotional presence” in the company of loved ones. Disordered eating is a painful struggle, whether it is mild and infrequent, or whether it is severe and all consuming.

Which Caused Which?

flower-child-336658_640Some might ask: Does disordered eating create loneliness, or does loneliness create disordered eating? The answer to the question is yes, it depends, sometimes, sort of, and yes but it’s complicated….My belief that it is “both and beyond.”

Loneliness and other unpleasant or painful emotions can be a trigger for some, to “go away from” or “go to” food. On the other hand, disordered eating can lead to feelings of differentness, unworthiness, hopelessness, self-disgust and self- contempt, and consequent disconnection from self and others, which can create intense feelings of loneliness.

Addressing Both Areas of Need

We don’t need to ruminate about the “chicken vs. egg” question of what is first and what causes what. We do need to address both of these important areas of struggle and need. We can address them both at the same time.

Thankfully, while there is concern for many of us about potential struggles during the Holidays, there is reason to have hope. We can lean to overcome disordered eating and loneliness during the holidays and throughout our lives, and we can experience more joy and more peace as well.

Becoming More Involved with the Spirit of the Season

Here are some ideas of how to begin to transcend these struggles and become more involved in and blessed by the true reason for the season in upcoming days and weeks:

  • Eat somewhat regularly and consistently during the holidays. Regular meals and snacks can decrease the felt need to overeat or binge
  • Tell a close and trusted loved one of your disordered eating and struggle, let them know what you are trying to accomplish in your relationship and patterns with food, and ask them specifically to help you with that goal
  • If you tend to restrict meals, ask a loved one to help you take in some nourishment
  • If you tend to overeat, make a list of “what I truly need.” When you feel the desire for food, consult your list before you eat, because what you need at this time might not be food. It might rather be companionship, reassurance, or comfort. Then, go to self, others, or Higher Power to address these important needs.
  • Simplify your Holiday – do less versus more of planning, shopping, and event making.
  • Take more time “off work” than you usually do, if you have that option.
  • Talk to some of your Holiday visitors for an hour or more, rather than for 10 minutes or less.
  • Create and start some personal and family traditions which will become an anchor to you and your family, and assure meaningful experiences over time
  • Call a friend, invite someone over, or send a heartfelt written card or letter
  • Ask someone for help, as counseled by ancient wisdom, “If you want to make a friend for a lifetime – then ask someone to do something for you”
  • Reach out for the professional help of a physician, dietician, therapist, or trusted leader
  • Reach out to an individual, or family in need with a gift, a meal, a song, an expression, with simply the gift of your presence and your time. This is compassionate service
  • Reach outward and inward to yourself by doing something fun, connecting with a loved one, remembering positive experiences, reflecting on successes and evidences of your good character, and extending yourself the gifts of good intent and forgiveness
  • Express your love to individuals in your life in a more full, genuine, and vulnerable way – more than you ever have before. Thank them for their love, friendship, and influence in your life – and explain your gratitude in some detail

Remember to Think About Yourself

christbaumkugeln-69630_640If you are the one struggling in this Holiday season, start with a little self- kindness, and try some of the ideas listed above. If someone you know is struggling, then consider implementing or sharing some of these ideas with them.

The reason for the season is up to you. You can decide why it is important to you, what it means to you, and what you want to experience. Take hold of this opportunity by letting go of rigid expectations, past regrets, and future worries.

Enjoy the moment, and the individuals, one at a time, bask in the love and friendship that is available, and honor the seasonal spiritual meaning and connections which are so important to you. May God bless you and your loved ones at this special time.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 20th, 2014
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