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This article examines the link between loneliness and eating disorders. This concept is evaluated through a systematic review of the literature that links loneliness and eating disorders and through a survey of themes connecting the 2 conditions. Eating disorders-including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and eating disorders that are not otherwise specified, which include binge eating disorder-are challenging health issues. Each of these diagnoses specifically relates to loneliness. This negative emotion contributes to and fuels eating disorder symptoms. Negative interpersonal relationships, both real experiences and individuals' skewed perceptions, exacerbate eating disorders and feelings of loneliness. Characteristics that have been associated with loneliness clearly relate to eating disorders. Understanding this relationship is vital, so that we can appreciate our patients' struggles and work to target these intense emotions within the treatment setting. We need to be aware of the power of loneliness as it applies to individuals in general and specifically to those struggling with disordered eating.
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Loneliness and Eating Disorders
Martha Peaslee Levine a
a Penn State College of Medicine, Penn State Milton
S. Hershey Medical Center
Available online: 05 Dec 2011
To cite this article: Martha Peaslee Levine (2012): Loneliness and Eating Disorders,
The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 146:1-2, 243-257
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The Journal of Psychology, 2012, 146(1–2), 243–257
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Loneliness and Eating Disorders
Penn State College of Medicine
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
ABSTRACT. This article examines the link between loneliness and eating disorders. This
concept is evaluated through a systematic review of the literature that links loneliness
and eating disorders and through a survey of themes connecting the 2 conditions. Eating
disorders—including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and eating disorders that are not
otherwise specified, which include binge eating disorder—are challenging health issues.
Each of these diagnoses specifically relates to loneliness. This negative emotion contributes
to and fuels eating disorder symptoms. Negative interpersonal relationships, both real
experiences and individuals’ skewed perceptions, exacerbate eating disorders and feelings
of loneliness. Characteristics that have been associated with loneliness clearly relate to
eating disorders. Understanding this relationship is vital, so that we can appreciate our
patients’ struggles and work to target these intense emotions within the treatment setting.
We need to be aware of the power of loneliness as it applies to individuals in general and
specifically to those struggling with disordered eating.
Keywords: eating disorders, emptiness, interpersonal relationships, loneliness
IN HIS SEMINAL TEXT, Loneliness, Moustakas (1961) said, “Loneliness anxi-
ety results from a fundamental breach between what one is and what one pretends
to be, a basic alienation between man and man and between man and his nature”
(p. 24). The manifestation of loneliness in eating disorders embodies this quote.
Not only are sufferers alienated from others through their symptom use, their low-
self worth, and their negative perception of the world, but also they are alienated
from their own inner drives of hunger. Food takes on an emotional quality and
is used to numb feelings, including that of loneliness. The relationship between
loneliness and eating disorders extends through the entire weight spectrum from
anorexia nervosa to binge eating and obesity. This article will provide a systematic
literature review of loneliness and eating disorders, examining not only this emo-
tion’s relationship to the various types of disordered eating, but also the associated
intra- and interpersonal conflicts.
Address correspondence to Martha Peaslee Levine, MD, Penn State Hershey Medical
Center, Division of Adolescent Medicine and Eating Disorders, 905 W. Governor Road,
Suite 250, Hershey, PA 17033, USA; (e-mail).
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244 The Journal of Psychology
Types of Eating Disorders
Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa (AN) is defined by severely low weight, intense fear of
gaining weight, disturbed perception of body shape and weight, and amenorrhea
(American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000). It is a serious psychiatric con-
dition with dangerous medical consequences. Sullivan (1995) found an elevated
rate of mortality such that individuals with AN had an annual death rate due to
all causes for females 15–24 years of age that was 12 times higher and a suicide
rate that was more than 200 times greater. The serious nature of this illness makes
it vital that we understand all associated risks and complications, including the
impact of loneliness.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, offer many functions for the
individual. Arkell and Robinson’s (2008) article about AN helps us understand
the role of loneliness. The illness is viewed as a friend who is always there. One
individual said, “It’s a marriage or relationship I thought would come so easily with
humans. It is always there for me stopping me feeling alone” (Arkell & Robinson,
2008, p. 653). Yet AN leads to social isolation by making it often impossible for
individuals to participate in events that focus around food.
An eating disorder allows individuals to avoid feelings, to numb themselves.
For AN, one individual describes, “I couldn’t cope without it. Life would be harder
and I would be more depressed and my feelings would be strange and not blocked
by tiredness or lack of food” (Arkell & Robinson, 2008, p. 653). We hear in these
descriptions Moustakas’ (1961) perception of loneliness in both the interpersonal
and intrapsychic realms. For many individuals, AN is used to cope with loneliness
when relationships fail. They use it to numb their emotions, so that they can
distance themselves from nature—their natural feelings.
From early on in the study of eating disorders, psychologists and psychiatrists
have recognized feelings of powerlessness and loneliness as one factor in the
development of anorexia nervosa (Whyte & Kaczkowski, 1983). Troop and Bifulco
(2002) found that women with AN of the binge/purge subtype reported much
higher levels of loneliness, shyness, and feelings of inferiority than non–eating
disordered women. As one patient described it, loneliness is the real killer from
anorexia: “The longer you’re ill, the worse it is” (Treasure, Crane, McKnight,
Buchanan, & Wolfe, 2011, Enabling, p. 299).
Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia nervosa (BN) is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating
occurring on a regular basis with compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain
(APA, 2000). Individuals with bulimia experience a state that is “incommunica-
ble,” a nonspecific “extreme state of tension” (Esplen, Garfinkel, & Gallop, 2000
pp. 96–97). Difficulty in dealing with painful emotions, especially the sense of
aloneness, may predispose individuals for an eating disorder or play a role in the
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Levine 245
perpetuation of bulimia nervosa (Esplen, Garfinkel, & Gallop). This is evident in
the study of Pavlova, Uher, and Papezova (2008). They evaluated Czech au pairs.
Loneliness, boredom, stress, and humiliation with the host families contributed
to overeating and vomiting. In this study, the au pairs indicated that bingeing and
purging helped them deal with unpleasant emotions, with the hurt of being laughed
at because of language issues, and with their overall sense of loneliness, boredom,
and undervaluation. Meyer and Waller (1999) demonstrated that women with bu-
limia struggled with overeating particularly related to abandonment (loneliness)
Dolan, Lieberman, Evans, and Lacey (1990) suggested that women struggling
with bulimia had poorer relationships with their parents and had observed their
parents having poor marital relationships as compared with control persons. In
this study, the bulimic women indicated that their parents did not spend much time
with them and did not know them well. This was a compared with the control
group who felt that their parents were interested in what they did. Loneliness is
affected not only by the number of interpersonal relationships, but also by the
quality of these relationships. This is an important aspect to keep in mind.
In women with bulimia as compared with women with depression, the BN
group had a higher incidence of childhood sexual abuse and felt lonely despite
family and friends (M. Nickel et al., 2006). Sexual abuse is significantly related to
loneliness and inversely related to connectedness (Rew, 2002). This was studied
in a homeless population, but it is a clearly understandable phenomenon. Abuse
results in both physical and psychological long-term consequences with women
being twice as likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is
secondary to exposure to violence as compared to men (Smith, 2009). Within
a population of female victims of childhood abuse who were seeking treatment
for substance abuse, relapse triggers included sadness or depression, anger, and
loneliness (Smith). When individuals use food and their eating disorder to deal
with the past abuse, loneliness becomes a trigger for a relapse in eating disorder
symptom use.
Emotional abuse, which is at times insidious and ill-defined, can still be an
important childhood experience when one examines trauma and its relationship
to the development of eating disorders (Kent, Waller, & Dagnan, 1999). This
experience can damage individuals’ self-esteem and leave them feeling vulnerable
and unable to approach others for help. A sense of loneliness despite family and
friends occurs at a significantly higher level in BN individuals who are also at risk
for suicide (C. Nickel et al., 2006). Interpersonal conflict leads to higher ratings
of insecurity for individuals with BN, and this contributes to bulimic symptoms
(Tuschen-Caffier & V¨
ogele, 1999). In interactions, women struggling with bulimia
have been found to focus increased attention on attractive female faces with the
suggestion that they are hypervigilant towards this group because these attractive
women are seen as a competitive threat (Maner et al., 2006). This demonstrates
further the impaired interpersonal relationships associated with eating disorders
and how they can impact individuals’ emotions, particularly loneliness.
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246 The Journal of Psychology
Guided imagery tasks that facilitate self-awareness about internal sensations
increase the desire to binge (Tuschen-Caffier & V¨
ogele, 1999). Both external and
internal cues can trigger bulimic symptoms in individuals struggling with BN.
Once bulimia has become established, the cycle is maintained by carbohydrate
craving (96% individuals) and emotional distress with food being used for its
sedative qualities to dampen negative emotional states, such as anger, frustration,
loneliness, and boredom (78% individuals) (Lacey, Phil, Coker, & Birtchnell,
1986). Corstorphine, Waller, Ohanian, and Baker (2006) found that levels of
anger/frustration and loneliness were high at the beginning of a binge-purge cycle
and did not change throughout the cycle. So while individuals might feel that
symptom use helps with these negative emotions, it is not apparent that loneliness
actually changes during the cycle. What perpetuates the binge-purge cycle is
that bingeing is reinforced by the effect of reducing hunger, but this then leads
to increased guilt/shame and anxiety. The vomiting phase is then reinforced by
lowering these negative emotions and increasing levels of happiness and relief
(Corstorphine, Waller, Ohanian, & Baker, 2006).
Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and Obesity
Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) is the category for dis-
orders that do not meet the criteria for any other specific eating disorder (APA,
2000). Some patients may have symptoms similar to AN or BN, but do not meet
all the criteria. Other specific conditions fall within EDNOS. One is binge-eating
disorder (BED), characterized by binges without the compensatory behaviors seen
in BN (APA, 2000). Obesity, while a health risk, has not been specifically des-
ignated as an “eating disorder,” but it does have a relationship to loneliness and
could be considered a disordered relationship with food. Not all individuals who
are obese have binge eating disorder; however, most individuals with BED are
overweight to obese because of the bingeing portion of the behavior without the
compensatory activities to rid themselves of the excess calories.
One way to understand these illnesses (such as BED) is to realize that the
lining of the digestive system has the same developmental roots as the skin, so
eating acts as a kind of internal massage such that all food is to some extent
comfort food (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009). “Eating is a way of self-soothing that
carries costs when we take it to excess, but that does not make it any less soothing
in the moment” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009, p. 142).
The highest desire to eat when experiencing negative emotions is seen in BED
(Zeeck, Stelzer, Linster, Joos, & Hartmann, 2011). Emotions, such as feeling de-
pressed, being bored or lonely, often stand out as predominant binge eating triggers
(Bruce & Agras, 1992). One study of binge eating disorder (BED) describes that
over-eating in response to sadness, loneliness, tiredness, and anger occurs in be-
tween one-half and one-fourth of the binges, and emotional overeating relates to
more frequent binge episodes and more severe eating disorder symptoms (Masheb
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Levine 247
& Grilo, 2006). Masheb and Grilo (2006) reported that women were more likely
to report overeating in response to loneliness than men.
Negative-interactional emotions are related to binges, and this relation demon-
strates the importance of interpersonal issues in this population (Zeeck, Stelzer,
Linster, Joos, & Hartmann, 2011). Striegel-Moore, Dohm, Pike, Wilfey, and Fair-
burn (2002) found that in women, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and bullying by
peers were associated with increased risk for BED (binge eating disorder). Zeeck,
Stelzer, Linster, Joos, and Hartmann (2011) found that “an urge to eat under feel-
ings of loneliness, disgust or exhaustion appears to be more difficult to regulate”
(Conclusion, para. 10). Healthy subjects had higher levels of hunger during joy
and anger as compared with hunger in the BED group, which was associated with
fear and sadness (Zeeck, Stelzer, Linster, Joos, & Hartmann, 2011).
For mild to severely obese individuals, emotional eating appears prominent in
60–90% of those studied (Ganley, 1989). Emotional overeating, eating triggered by
emotions and often occurring in the absence of hunger, is most often precipitated
by negative emotions such as anger, depression, boredom, anxiety, and loneliness
(Ganley). Eating in these circumstances appears to be used to reduce affect and
is often done secretively (Ganley). Emotional hunger correlates with “a longing
for belonging and social relationships” (Grant, 2008, p. 127). When related to
loneliness, eating provides a sense of comfort that takes the place of human
connections, which the individuals long for but do not have (Grant). For some,
food creates a connection that has never been there for these individuals; for others,
it recreates a sense of contentment, which they experienced in the past (Grant).
Food is used to self-medicate feelings of pain and conflict; eating becomes a way
to fill emotional and social needs (Grant).
One participant indicated, “I found comfort in food. It was my best friend and
I slowly gained weight. I didn’t have anybody in my life, but I had food” (Grant,
2008, p. 128). One variation of EDNOS is night-eating syndrome (NES), which is
characterized by excessive eating in the evening and nighttime awakening to eat.
Morse and Katon (2006) studied a group with diabetes and found NES in 9.7% of
patients. When compared with the other patients, the subgroup with NES was less
likely to comply with diet, exercise, or glucose monitoring and were more likely
to be obese and more likely to have two or more diabetes complications (Morse &
Katon). These patients were more likely to be depressed, to have childhood abuse
histories, to have nonsecure attachment styles, and to report eating in response to
anger, sadness, loneliness, and worry (Morse & Katon).
Depressed obese men are substantially heavier than their nondepressed coun-
terparts and are more passive, sedentary, and socially ineffective (Musante,
Costanzo, & Friedman, 1998). Men typically demonstrate eating dysregulation
in response to positive emotions (happiness, celebrating, socializing); women,
though, are significantly more likely to experience eating dysregulation related
to negative affects (anger, sadness, ineffectiveness, loneliness, and exhaustion)
(Musante, Costanzo, & Friedman).
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248 The Journal of Psychology
Overweight children often struggle with loneliness and spend too much time
on their own, involved in sedentary activities with access to junk food (M´
Berg, & Hellstr¨
om, 2010). In addition, peer-victimization has been positively as-
sociated with loneliness and negatively associated with physical activity in over-
weight or at-risk-for-overweight youth; youth may end up avoiding activities,
including opportunities for physical activities because of the risk of victimiza-
tion (Storch et al., 2007). Also peer-victimization can lower rates for physical
activity because of decreased motivation related to lowered mood, loneliness,
and poor social connectedness (Storch et al.). Repeated peer victimization con-
tributes to on-going social anxiety and loneliness (Devine et al., 2008). Libbey,
Story, Neumark-Sztainer, and Boutelle (2008) found that frequent teasing by both
family and/or peers is associated with greater disordered eating thoughts and
behaviors, depression, anxiety, anger, and decreased self-esteem. In their study
group 48% of the children experienced teasing by both peers and their family. One
can understand how this teasing influences not only eating disorder thoughts and
behaviors but also a sense of loneliness within these negative social interactions.
Isolation from others and from cliques is associated with depressive symptoms
because children internalize the negative social experience and develop feelings
of loneliness (Witvliet, Brendgen, van Lier, Koot, & Vitaro, 2010). Obesity and
self-esteem have a significant relationship especially during early adolescence
with obese white and Hispanic girls demonstrating significantly lower self-esteem
by 13–14 years as compared with their nonobese counterparts (Strauss, 2000). In
addition, obese children with decreased levels of self-esteem demonstrate signifi-
cantly elevated levels of loneliness (Strauss).
Loneliness serves as an inhibitor of food consumption in nondieters and
disinhibits food consumption for dieters (Rotenberg & Flood, 1999). It appears
that when dieters experience loneliness, they perceive their diet as not working to
improve social connections, and so when they are exposed to the opportunity to
eat desirable foods, they abandon their diet and indulge (Rotenberg & Flood). In
studies where participants are left feeling either socially disconnected or socially
included, those who are socially disconnected consume about twice as much as
those who feel that others want to work with them (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009).
Eating Disorders, Loneliness, and Social Relationships
Perceptions of relationships are critical to the concept of loneliness. As de-
scribed by Hawkley, Hughes, Waite, Thisted, and Cacioppo (2008), “People can
live rather solitary lives and not feel lonely, or they can have many social relation-
ships and nevertheless feel lonely” (p. S375). This can impact individuals strug-
gling with eating disorders in many ways. As described, teasing can clearly impact
eating disorders, but it can also affect individuals’ feelings of connection. Fleming
and Jacobsen (2009) showed that students who reported being bullied were more
likely than nonbullied students to experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness,
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Levine 249
and loneliness. Within social relationships, if teasing or other critical or trauma-
tizing events occur, individuals feel less of a positive connection and feel lonelier.
In addition, at times individuals with eating disorders can misinterpret situations,
and this can impact their social interactions and can fuel their eating disorders.
Purpose of Loneliness
To understand the extent of the potential impact of loneliness, it is vital to
understand the functional role of loneliness. In this way, we can understand how
something with evolutionary benefits ended up linked with behaviors that are
potentially fatal to the individual. Cacioppo and Patrick (2009, p. 7) described
that physical pain protects us from physical dangers and social pain, or loneliness,
helps protect us from the danger of being isolated. Our distant ancestors needed
social bonds for safety and for the successful passing on of their genes to offspring
who then lived long enough to reproduce. Feelings of loneliness let individuals
know when their protective bonds were in danger. While physical dangers are
not lurking behind every bush and threatening us on a daily basis, the quality of
loneliness continues to be passed on. Humans do not fare well if they live solitary
lives or simply perceive themselves to be living in isolation (Cacioppo, Fowler, &
Christakis, 2009). This experiential aspect is a key issue because individuals are
at different levels of risk for experiencing loneliness.
Experience of Connections
Distel et al. (2010) demonstrated that loneliness is moderately heritable with
a nonadditive genetic influence, such that individuals have different experiences of
loneliness. Cacioppo and Patrick (2009, p. 4) indicated that individuals can have
a predisposition or high sensitivity to feeling the absence of connection. This can
be an issue if an individual with this high connection need is in an environment
that fails to fulfill that need. This discrepancy between experiential needs and the
environment is one that is seen in individuals struggling with eating disorders.
In her book, Eating in the Light of the Moon, Johnston (2000, p. 17) describes
how individuals who later develop eating disorders are often exceedingly aware
of undercurrents within the family and interpersonal relationships. However, this
sensitivity to issues within the family is dangerous and can often bring about
ridicule, rejection, abuse, or even disintegration of the family. Consider then these
individuals who are acutely intuitive but must bury their perceptions and accept
others’ perceptions and expectations. This can lead to an existential loneliness.
These individuals are no longer in touch with their inner selves.
Many of Johnston’s descriptions of individuals with eating disorders parallel
Moustakas’ descriptions of loneliness. This provides the bedrock for understand-
ing how deeply loneliness and eating disorders are interconnected. For example,
Moustakas describes: “He learns to respond with surface or approved thoughts.
He learns to use devious and indirect ways, and to base his behavior on the stan-
dards and expectations of others” (Moustakas, 1961, p. 31). “In attempting to
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250 The Journal of Psychology
overcome loneliness anxiety, the individual sometimes gives up his individuality
and submerges himself in dependency relations” (Moustakas, 1961, p. 30). The
lonely person learns to base behaviors on others’ expectations. And what happens
to those with eating disorders? Such an individual is often “accepting others’ per-
ceptions of reality and rejecting her own” (Johnston, 2000, p. 17). What does this
rejection of self stem from and lead to? The answer is “Loneliness.”
This rejection of a large part of her being, however, eventually takes its toll. As
the years go by, she is plagued with a vague, uneasy sense of emptiness. So
she tries to fill herself up. Since she is no longer clear about what she longs for
she assumes her hunger is a physical one. And so she either eats compulsively
or becomes horrified at her seemingly insatiable appetite and proceeds to starve
herself. (Johnston, 2000, p. 18)
In this extreme fear of loneliness, the person tries to stop feeling altogether
and tries to live solely by rational means and cognitive control (Moustakas, 1961,
p. 34). This attempt at control and operating only by rational means rather than
on the emotional level is a fundamental part of an eating disorder. “All addictive
processes represent an effort to keep feelings under control. Even more than that,
they represent an effort to keep the flow of life itself under control” (Johnston,
2000, p. 32). Loneliness and eating disorders are linked through their inherent
experience and attempted controls to avoid experience.
Separation Anxiety and Attachment Styles
Another challenge for individuals with eating disorders is the impairment in
their interpersonal attachments. Armstrong and Roth (1989) demonstrated that
both anorexic and bulimic individuals have elevations in separation anxiety. In
their study, both the eating-disordered and the control group struggled with major
separations, but there was a significant difference in mildly stressful separations
for the eating-disordered population. For any situation, this group often draws on
underlying beliefs to understand why they have been left by a “parental figure”
(Armstrong & Roth, 1989). Even small ripples of rejection can trigger deep waves
of loneliness in individuals struggling with eating disorders. Not dissimilarly,
lonely individuals are more likely to perceive daily events as stressful (Hawkley
& Cacioppo, 2003).
This separation anxiety affects how individuals evaluate current relationships
and base them on past relationships. If they had not felt stable and interested
attachments in their youth, this situation can impact their perceptions and expecta-
tions of relationships in the future. In addition, the “risk of disappointment, pain,
and rejection may prevent one from reaching out, thus perpetuating feelings of
loneliness” (Karnick, 2005, p. 7).
In preadolescent and adolescent girls, attachment styles influence weight
concerns and can place individuals at risk for eating disorders (Sharpe et al.,
1998). Insecurely attached girls appear more likely to internalize and idealize
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Levine 251
society’s appearance-related messages; they, therefore, strive for a “perfect” body
in order to gain acceptance from others (Sharpe et al., 1998). These girls feel at
the edge of the social fabric and work to wrap themselves tighter into the weave
of connections. In these attempts, they become even more disconnected from their
inner selves and their bodies, often forcing their bodies to say what they themselves
cannot say.
Negative Self-Esteem
In addition, these individuals (eating disordered and/or lonely) have an im-
paired sense of self-worth and perceived competence. When they feel so negatively
about themselves, they often do not believe others want to have relationships with
them. A common theme is the individuals’ willingness to sacrifice their own de-
sires in order to please others. They feel that they have to bury their own needs
in order to maintain the relationship. Individuals can feel lonely even within
relationships—not believing that others know their true selves or that they would
maintain the relationship if they did know. This leads to an inner loneliness—the
need to hide their true selves in order to please everyone around them. “Feeling
lonely” reflects the distance one feels between one’s self and others (Karnick,
2005). Individuals with eating disorders and individuals who are lonely constantly
grapple with the distance that they feel from their inner self and the distance that
they feel from others. Individuals with eating disorders struggle with and do not
believe in the viability of healthy, stable, intimate relationships (Armstrong &
Roth, 1989).
Perceived social isolation is equal to feeling unsafe and sets off hypervigi-
lance for social threats in the environment (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Through
this surveillance, lonely people see the world as a more threatening place, expect
more negative social interactions, and remember more negative social informa-
tion, which then confirm the lonely persons’ expectations (Hawkley & Cacioppo,
2010). Even the brains of lonely individuals are on higher alert for social threats
contributing to their tendency to view their social world as threatening and punitive
as compared with nonlonely individuals (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2009). McFillin
et al. (in press) found that when individuals with eating disorders are presented
with ambiguous social situations, they tend to view the situation as more hostile
than do control persons and frequently will not challenge their misperceptions,
but instead will use eating disorder symptoms to sooth the negative feelings that
have been triggered.
Lonely individuals appear to have increased social memory and heightened
ability to decode social cues in faces and voices, but are not able to make social
connections, despite a desire for increased involvement. This appears related to
social anxiety, which impairs social interactions or causes individuals to avoid
them altogether (Gardner, Pickett, Jefferies, & Knowles, 2005). Lonely people
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252 The Journal of Psychology
(and individuals with eating disorders) are on one level quite intuitive to social
cues, but their anxiety often impairs interactions. In addition, negative interactions
are more easily remembered for individuals. If they detect even slight rejection,
that escalates their perception of danger (Armstrong & Roth, 1989) and can cause
them to avoid future social interactions. Although women with eating disorders
tend to make adequate first impressions, the issue arises in how they thought they
were being perceived (Rofey, Kisler-van Reede, Landsbaugh, & Corcoran, 2007).
Negative self-biases cause them to assume the worst about their impression, and
this can then limit their ability to participate in future interactions (Rofey, Kisler-
van Reede, Landsbaugh, & Corcoran, 2007).
As Moustakas (1961) noted, “The person suffering from loneliness anxiety
is deeply suspicious. Even the slightest criticism hurts him. He often perceives
nonexistent deprecation in surface or tangential remarks” (p. 30). This is born out
by the studies that demonstrate individuals with eating disorders as being more
sensitive to rejection, carrying negative meta-perceptions about themselves, and
can even be seen with individuals who in recovery find criticism in comments
that they are looking healthier. In their mindset, this means that they are fat.This
demonstrates the often suspicious and perceived “nonexistent deprecation” that
individuals with eating disorders bring to social interactions.
This misinterpretation of social cues can affect the expression of roman-
tic interest. Similarly to individuals with eating disorders who thought they
were coming across more negatively than they actually were, individuals with
high or moderate attachment anxiety often perceive that more romantic interest
was communicated in their overtures (Vorauer, Cameron, Holmes, & Pearce,
2003). In a series of studies, Vorauer, Cameron, Holmes, and Pearce (2003)
demonstrated that individuals experiencing fears of rejection exhibited a “sig-
nal amplification bias” such that they believed their social overtures demon-
strated more romantic interest to potential partners than they actually did. The
skewed views of their roles in social interactions make it challenging for lonely
individuals and individuals with eating disorders to improve their social con-
nections. They have difficulty in even understanding how they are actually be-
ing perceived. “Many individuals long fervently to be with others and to find
love, but they are held back by their own restraining fears” (Moustakas, 1961,
p. 28).
Low trust beliefs are a probable cause of loneliness (Rotenberg et al., 2010).
Individuals who hold low rather than high trust beliefs see others as unreliable,
emotionally untrustworthy and dishonest; subsequently, they develop a lack of
connectedness and experience an elevated state of loneliness (Rotenberg et al.).
With their fear of negative evaluation, lonely individuals engage in overly cautious
social behaviors that can continue their social isolation. Lonely individuals tend to
be more prevention focused, working to achieve security and avoid negative out-
comes as opposed to being promotion focused, working towards positive outcomes
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Levine 253
and trying to avoid missed opportunities (Lucas, Knowles, Gardner, Molden, &
Jefferis, 2010).
This limited trust is exacerbated by the fact that individuals with eating disor-
ders have an increased incidence of sexual abuse (Wonderlich et al., 2001), which
confirms the danger of the environment and relationships. It hinders their ability
to form trusting relationships. When women are sexually abused, they experience
shame as a recurrent theme. They often express feelings of loneliness and being
estranged from others (Rahm, Renck, & Ringsberg, 2006). These feelings nega-
tively affect not only the individuals’ mental health but also their relationships to
Cycle of Loneliness
Once individuals are lonely and disconnected, they are at greater risk for
becoming even more disconnected. Cacioppo, Fowler, and Christakis (2009)
demonstrated that “loneliness is both a cause and a consequence of becoming
disconnected” (p. 983). Cacioppo, Fowler, and Christakis described the reinforc-
ing nature of loneliness such that “people with few friends are more likely to
become lonelier over time, which then makes it less likely that they will attract
or try to form new social ties” (p. 984). It is also of note that women report
higher levels of loneliness than men (Cacioppo, Fowler, & Christakis). Even as
lonely members of a group may try to reconnect, humans work to drive away
lonely members of their species; in this way those who have felt socially isolated,
now become objectively isolated (Cacioppo, Fowler, & Christakis). Loneliness
threatens the cohesiveness of a network and this is the reason that humans push
the lonely clusters to the periphery of the social networks (Cacioppo, Fowler, &
Christakis). Loneliness spreads more quickly among friends than family such that
lonely individuals are more forcibly rejected by networks that they select rather
than those who they inherit (Cacioppo, Fowler, & Christakis). You can choose
your friends but you cannot chose your family.
This disconnection can prove to be a risk for individuals for eating disorders
because, at times, their identity and ability to develop a social network relate only
to their eating disorders. A major negative consequence of an eating disorder is
isolation and loneliness (Treasure, Crane, McKnight, Buchanan, & Wolfe, 2011).
These authors point out that “services can set up a vicious circle whereby the
clinician or inpatient service provides the main social network” (Treasure, Crane,
McKnight, Buchanan, & Wolfe, 2011, Enabling, p. 299).
Social exclusion causes a global reduction in the perception of life as mean-
ingful with a reduction in one’s sense of purpose, one’s sense of control, one’s
sense of social value, and one’s sense of self-worth (Stillman et al., 2009). As
Stillman et al. indicate, “even a small dose of such an experience can be sufficient
to begin to erode one’s ordinary sense of life as meaningful” (Discussion, para. 6).
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254 The Journal of Psychology
The sense of loneliness can have far-reaching ramifications. The clear association
with loneliness and eating disorders supports the need to assess this issue, explore
attachments and perceptions that individuals bring to relationships, and work to
help individuals with eating disorders improve healthy social connections within
their lives. “The escape from loneliness is actually an escape from facing the fear of
loneliness” (Moustakas, 1961, p. 32). The real escape is by recognizing the depth
of the loneliness for our patients and helping them to face the fear and the unknown.
Martha Peaslee Levine, MD, is an assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and
humanities at Penn State College of Medicine. Her current research interests include the
emotional effects of eating disorders, journaling and health, communication in healthcare,
media literacy, and empowerment of women.
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... This programme is based on scientific evidence that demonstrates that interventions directed at these patients as well as their carers improve the outcomes in these patients' health. Involving the family in the treatment of ED is a key strategy in their recovery and it also strengthens patients' social networks and eliminates their isolation and loneliness, which contribute to maintaining the disorder (Levine, 2012;Treasure and Nazar, 2016;Sepúlveda et al., 2020). A study was recently published with the preliminary results of ECHOMANTRA intervention with AN inpatients and their carers in the United Kingdom (Adamson et al., 2019). ...
... This programme is based on scientific evidence that demonstrates that interventions directed at these patients as well as their carers improve the outcomes in these patients' health. Involving the family in the treatment of ED is a key strategy in their recovery and it also strengthens patients' social networks and eliminates their isolation and loneliness, which contribute to maintaining the disorder (Levine, 2012;Treasure and Nazar, 2016;Sepúlveda et al., 2020). A study was recently published with the preliminary results of ECHOMANTRA intervention with AN inpatients and their carers in the United Kingdom (Adamson et al., 2019). ...
... A growing body of research shows that the long-term negative impact of loneliness on human life is highly destructive (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Several studies indicate that chronic loneliness is often accompanied by harmful health behaviours, cardiovascular problems, sleep disorders, increased cortisol levels (Cacioppo et al., 2002), eating disorders (Levine, 2012), depression (Cacioppo et al., 2006), unfavourable personality development in young adults (Mund & Neyer, 2019), or general lowered mood and wellbeing . Lonely people show higher levels of anxiety, anger, and shyness; lower levels of sociability, optimism, and social skills; stronger fear of negative judgment, and less secure adult attachment styles (Cacioppo et al., 2002). ...
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Three studies (total N = 501) showed a negative association between loneliness and the emotion of being moved. People who were lonelier than others consistently reported a weaker feeling of being moved after experimental manipulation. These results appeared both when the participants were presented with selected stimuli (video clips paradigm in Study 1 and Study 3) and when they were allowed to freely recall moving episodes from their past (episode paradigm in Study 2). This associa- tion remained reliable after controlling for depression, empathy, and initial mood. The more lonely the participants in Study 1 were, the less they considered themselves susceptible to being moved in everyday life. The results of Study 3 suggest that the association between loneliness and being moved is mediated by lonely people’s lack of faith in others’ goodwill and altru- ism. The results are discussed from the perspective of the potential causes and effects of loneliness and also in the context of the determinants of being moved.
... The consequences of loneliness are not trivial. Loneliness has been linked with both mental and physical health outcomes, including experiences of clinical and subclinical depression (Aylaz et al., 2012;Cacioppo et al., 2006;Heinrich & Gullone, 2006), affection deprivation (Floyd, 2014(Floyd, , 2016, eating disorders (Levine, 2012), disordered sleep , suicide ideation (Stravynski & Boyer, 2001), immunosuppression (Pressman et al., 2005), and all-cause mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015;Shiovitz-Ezra & Ayalon, 2010). ...
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An initial study on loneliness during the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States found that those who were living alone or who were single experienced greater loneliness than those who lived with others or were in a romantic relationship. This study presents follow-up analyses using data collected from the same sample ( N = 428) at a total of five points in time throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Unlike most studies using a longitudinal design to track loneliness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the results of this study showed that loneliness scores generally decreased over this time period. However, additional analyses showed that when participants experienced a de-escalation in their romantic relationship status (e.g., transitioning from being in a dating relationship to being single or from being married to separated), loneliness scores increased. Because prior research shows a connection between living alone and loneliness, the researchers also tested whether decreases in the number of people one lives with predicted increases in loneliness. The data was inconsistent with this prediction. Overall, these findings join a minority of other longitudinal studies investigating loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic that found either a decrease or no change in loneliness, while also illustrating that increases in loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic occurred after people experienced a de-escalation in their romantic relationship status. These findings underscore the importance of life events during the COVID-19 pandemic that may increase loneliness—specifically transitioning out of romantic relationships. Thus, future research on predictors of loneliness should continue to use longitudinal designs to determine how changes in one’s life predict changes in loneliness.
... Although COVID-19 is a novel stressful event, the negative effects of stressful changes on mental health and emotional well-being are well understood. For example, past studies have indicated that experiencing loneliness can trigger or increase the risk of overeating [4] because of the sense of relief and comfort that eating can provide [5][6][7][8][9][10]. Overeating is characterized as eating large amounts of food or consuming more calories than are used in a day [11]. ...
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Prior studies have examined how stress and the family environment affect overeating, but less is known about how COVID-19 stressors and family health may affect overeating during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research questions included: (1) Did COVID-19-related stressors increase the risk for overeating among adults in the United States? (2) Did family health protect against overeating during a pandemic? The sample included 443 participants aged 18 years and older living in the United States who were recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk. Stata version 16 was used to analyze the data using multiple linear regression. The results indicate that one year into the pandemic, COVID-19 stressors were associated with increased overeating, even after adjusting for overeating before the pandemic. More family health resources were associated with less overeating. These results indicate that although COVID-19 stressors were associated with overeating, greater family health resources helped prevent overeating. Interventions and policies that aim to increase health resources for families may be particularly beneficial at preventing overeating and obesity in the face of long- and short-term stress.
... Those who feel disconnected from others or unfulfilled with their relationships may lack the social support that is known to buffer against stress (Hostinar et al., 2014). To cope with loneliness, people may engage in negative health behaviors such as stress eating and diminished physical activity (Hawkley et al., 2009;Levine, 2012). Simultaneously, maladaptive coping behaviors and feelings of emotional distress may lead to self-defeating beliefs and self-isolation, trapping people in a vicious cycle of loneliness. ...
Although stay-at-home orders and physical distancing measures are vital to managing the COVID-19 outbreak, there is concern these limitations on in-person contact may increase feelings of loneliness. The present study examined loneliness in relation to living situation, psychiatric symptoms, and coping skills utilization during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim was to identify demographic and psychological factors that may contribute to greater feelings of loneliness. A sample of 125 adults (18 years and older) completed measures on loneliness, psychiatric symptoms, and coping skills in September 2020. Multiple regression analysis indicated living situation moderates the relationship between hours spent having remote conversations and loneliness. Remote conversation hours were associated with decreased loneliness in those living alone but was not associated with loneliness in those living with others. Multivariate regression analysis indicated that substance use and self-blame were associated with increased loneliness whereas the use of emotional support to cope with pandemic-related stress was associated with decreased loneliness. The current study highlights the importance of finding alternative ways to remain socially connected, particularly for those living alone. Increasing access to videoconferencing technology and promoting help-seeking behaviors may be a promising approach to manage loneliness during times of increased social isolation.
... These disturbances are associated with detrimental outcomes including suicidal ideation/attempt/completion (Mandelli et al., 2019), non-suicidal self-injury (Cucchi et al., 2016), psychiatric comorbidity (Baji et al., 2019;Puccio et al., 2016;Swinbourne et al., 2012), loneliness (Levine, 2012), and poorer quality of life (DeJong et al., 2013). Sexual minoritized populations experience elevated prevalence of psychiatric disorders relative to heterosexual populations (e.g., anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders; Rodriguez-Seijas et al., 2019). ...
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Objective: Sexual minoritized persons evidence higher prevalence of eating disorders than heterosexual persons, yet it is unclear which specific symptoms drive these disparities. Empirical evidence also documents the importance of considering subclinical eating disorder presentations, as well as potential differentiation in expression of eating disorder symptoms based on gender. The current study complements that of Kamody et al. (2020), who examined sexual orientation-based disparities in eating disorder diagnoses using a nationally representative sample of the US adult population. Method: Using the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions-III (NESARC-III), we compared the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms across sexual minority status separately for men and women. Results: Sexual minoritized men were more likely than heterosexual men to report body mass index (BMI) < 18.5 kg/m2 (odds ratio [OR] = 1.76), thus, being screened into questions about restrictive eating. Sexual minoritized women were more likely than heterosexual women to endorse ever engaging in a binge-eating episode (OR = 2.25) and engaging in weekly binge eating for at least 3 months (OR = 1.58), thus, being screened into follow-up questions about binge eating. Sexual minoritized men were more likely than heterosexual men to fear gaining weight even when at their lowest weight (OR = 4.35) and experience a loss of control when overeating (OR = 3.13). Discussion: Sexual orientation-based disparities in eating disorder symptom endorsement were nuanced when stratifying the entire sample by gender. Findings expand previous research on disparities in clinical/diagnosed eating disorders, highlighting the importance of assessing symptomology beyond diagnosis, as well as the intersectional influence of sexual orientation and gender, in both research and practice.
... The psychological and sociological literature suggests that people with anorexia might experience difficulties with communication, feel socially isolated, and report lower levels of social support from family members and significant others (Tiller et al., 1997;Levine, 2012;Patel et al., 2016;Cardi et al., 2018;Pace et al., 2018;Birmachu et al., 2019;Okada et al., 2019). Specifically, they are described as having problems establishing new relationships and maintaining old ones, caused by a distrust of others (Patel et al., 2016;Cardi et al., 2018;Quiles et al., 2020;Datta et al., 2021;Rowlands et al., 2021). ...
Full-text available
Anorexia is a serious threat to young women’s wellbeing worldwide. The effectiveness of mental health intervention and treatment is often evaluated on the basis of changes in the personal networks; however, the development of such measures for young women with anorexia is constrained due to the lack of quantitative descriptions of their social networks. We aim to fill this substantial gap. In this paper, we identify the basic properties of these women’s personal networks such as size, structure, and proportion of kin connections. The empirical analysis, using a concentric circles methodology, is based on 50 ego networks constructed on data drawn from interviews with Russian-speaking bloggers who have been diagnosed with anorexia and write about this condition. We conclude that young women with anorexia tend to support a limited number of social ties; they are prone to select women as alters, but do not have a preference to connect to their relatives. Further research is needed to elucidate whether these personal network characteristics are similar among women with anorexia who belong to different age, ethnic, cultural, and income groups.
Loneliness and, to a lesser degree, social support are considered under-researched topics in the literature on eating disorders (ED). This study attempted to expand the relevant body of research by examining loneliness in combination with social support in ED patients and in healthy controls (HC). Binge-eating problems, emotional eating, resilience, anxiety, and depression symptoms were also assessed. Thirty-two patients with ED and twenty-nine HC completed the following measures: UCLA Loneliness Scale, Social Support Questionnaire—Short Form, Binge Eating Scale, Emotional Eating Scale, Connor–Davidson Resilience Scale, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, and the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire. Eating-disorder patients showed higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of social support—both in terms of perceived availability and satisfaction—than HC. Anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), and binge-eating disorder (BED) subgroups did not differ significantly on either of these variables. In ED patients, loneliness was only correlated with Social Support Satisfaction (negatively) and depressive symptomatology (positively). Patients with ED appear to be lonelier and less satisfied with their social support compared to HC. We found similar levels of loneliness and social support between AN, BN, and BED sufferers. Decreased social support satisfaction and elevated symptoms of depression could account for ED patients’ high levels of loneliness.
Full-text available
Objective: The objective of this study was to test a conceptual model of loneliness in which social structural factors are posited to operate through proximal factors to influence perceptions of relationship quality and loneliness. Methods: We used a population-based sample of 225 White, Black, and Hispanic men and women aged 50 through 68 from the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study to examine the extent to which associations between sociodemographic factors and loneliness were explained by socioeconomic status, physical health, social roles, stress exposure, and, ultimately, by network size and subjective relationship quality. Result: Education and income were negatively associated with loneliness and explained racial/ethnic differences in loneliness. Being married largely explained the association between income and loneliness, with positive marital relationships offering the greatest degree of protection against loneliness. Independent risk factors for loneliness included male gender, physical health symptoms, chronic work and/or social stress, small social network, lack of a spousal confidant, and poor-quality social relationships. Discussion: Longitudinal research is needed to evaluate the causal role of social structural and proximal factors in explaining changes in loneliness.
Disruptions in normal attachment, signaled by intense separation distress, can be conceptualized as a central risk factor underlying the development of anorexia and bulimia nervosa. In a preliminary study of the hypothesis, Hansburg's Separation Anxiety Test, derived from Bowlby's attachment theory, was administered to eating‐disordered inpatients. These patients evidenced significantly more severe separation and attachment difficulties than is normal in adolescence and in adults undergoing developmentally based relationship crises. They appear to make no cognitive distinction between brief, everyday leavetakings and more permanent breaks. The implications of these findings, and of Bowlby's attachment theory, for the understanding and treatment of eating disorders is discussed.
This study compares family features of 50 bulimic women with those of 40 noneating‐disordered women from the same defined catchment area. The parents of the patients were significantly older at the birth of the child and significantly more came from different ethnic backgrounds. Bulimics reported greater parental conflict despite similar divorce rates. The bulimics' reports of the emotion, attention, and interaction from their parents were significantly less positive than were those of the comparison group. We argue that these family features of disparate parental background and poor verbal communication between family members predispose the children to difficulties with the verbal expression of emotion and to bulimia as a nonverbal expression of distress and dysphoria. These findings are related, using systemic family theories, to the strikingly specific age range of onset of bulimia to propose a model of family contributions to the etiology of this condition. While these controlled self‐report measures cannot prove or disprove such a hypothesis, they provide sufficient support to justify further testing of the model.
Do emotions influence the eating patterns of obese individuals? This paper reviews 30 years of clinical and experimental research in order to answer this question. The result is a picture of considerable complexity in which emotions appear to influence eating by obese subjects, but only if individual variability and several qualities of emotional eating are considered. That is, unlike Kaplan and Kaplan's (1957) simplistic anxiety‐reduction model, current research indicates that individual differences in food choice and in type of emotion precipitating eating need to be considered. In addition, secrecy surrounding the eating and an episodic quality related to overall level of stress need to be taken into consideration. When these parameters are included, it appears that in certain emotional situations obese people eat more than normal‐weight individuals. Such eating appears to have an affect‐reducing effect, especially for negative emotions such as anger, loneliness, boredom, and depression. Problems with current research including methodological shortcomings are discussed.
Four hundred fifty-five females from a community-based, randomly sampled population were interviewed by telephone to estimate the prevalence of binge eating and to describe demographic and topographical characteristics of binge eating behavior. Binge eaters were classified according to the DSM-111-R criteria for bulimia, excluding purging behavior. The estimate for subjects meeting criteria was 1.8%, while the percentage of females who met all but frequency criteria was estimated at 3.8%. The majority of binge eaters in this study was found to engage in behaviors typically associated with binge eating episodes. On average, this group of binge eaters was older and heavier than has been reported previously, which supported observed associations between binge eating and overweight in clinical populations [Telch, Agras, and Rossiter (1988). International Journal of Eating Disorders, 7, 115-119].
50 female patients with bulimia were examined prospectively to determine factors associated with the onset and maintenance of their disorder. Bulimic patients describe a remarkably similar and consistent series of underlying factors, particularly centered on doubts concerning femininity but also including a poor relationship with parents, academic striving, parental marital conflict, and poor peer group relationships. All patients described at least 1 and usually 2 or 3 major groups of life events: sexual conflicts, major changes in life circumstances, and "loss" acting upon the above underlying factors that together with carbohydrate-abstinent dieting precipitated the onset of the condition. Maintenance factors included carbohydrate craving, binge eating for its sedative qualities or, alternatively, as a stimulant to replace loneliness or boredom. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Tested the hypothesis that eating-disorder (ED) patients would manifest anxious attachment and separation-based depression on the Separation Anxiety Test. 27 Ss (aged 17–43 yrs) were evaluated by Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III—Revised (DSM-III—R) criteria as 11 with anorexia nervosa, 12 with bulimia nervosa, and 4 with atypical EDs. Findings were compared with those of nonclinical groups of 89 female college students and 140 New Zealand university students. ED Ss evidenced significantly more severe separation and attachment difficulties than were normal in adolescence and in adults undergoing developmentally based relationship crises. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
What if being lonely were a bigger problem than we ever suspected? Based on John T. Cacioppo's pioneering research, Loneliness explores the effects of this all-too-human experience, providing a fundamentally new view of the importance of social connection and how it can rescue us from painful isolation. His sophisticated studies relying on brain imaging, analysis of blood pressure, immune response, stress hormones, behavior, and even gene expression show that human beings are simply far more intertwined and interdependent—physiologically as well as psychologically—than our cultural assumptions have ever allowed us to acknowledge. Bringing urgency to the message, Cacioppo's findings also show that prolonged loneliness can be as harmful to your health as smoking or obesity. On the flip side, they demonstrate the therapeutic power of social connection and point the way toward making that healing balm available to everyone. Cacioppo has worked with science writer William Patrick to trace the evolution of these tandem forces, showing how, for our primitive ancestors, survival depended not on greater brawn but on greater commitments to and from one another. Serving as a prompt to repair frayed social bonds, the pain of loneliness engendered a fear response so powerfully disruptive that even now, millions of years later, a persistent sense of rejection or isolation can impair DNA transcription in our immune cells. This disruption also impairs thinking, will power, and perseverance, as well as our ability to read social signals and exercise social skills. It also limits our ability to internally regulate our emotions—all of which can combine to trap us in self-defeating behaviors that reinforce the very isolation and rejection that we dread. Loneliness shows each of us how to overcome this feedback loop of defensive behaviors to achieve better health and greater happiness. For society, the potential payoff is the greater prosperity and social cohesion that follows from increased social trust. Ultimately, Loneliness demonstrates the irrationality of our culture's intense focus on competition and individualism at the expense of family and community. It makes the case that the unit of one is actually an inadequate measure, even when it comes to the health and well-being of the individual. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)