My parents often recall my birthday party the first year I started school: when my mother asked me who I wanted to invite, I said, ‘everyone!’ Twenty-five years later, and I have a core group of really good people in my life, yet I often feel lonely. There can be a sense of shame around admitting to loneliness, as if there must be something wrong with you. As my friends get married and have children and I’m busier with work, it’s tricky co-ordinating schedules. When I’ve been working all week, I just want to stay in bed all weekend and relax until Monday. My body seems to need the rest, but come Saturday night I feel like a single, lonely loser. Cue, raiding the cupboards.
According to psychologist Elaine Slater, ‘loneliness creates feelings of sadness, frustration, depression, anger, emptiness, helplessness, low self-esteem, and a sense of being unwanted or not belonging.’ And it can lead to unhealthy escapes, like emotional eating – check. It was suggested to me that whenever I feel lonely and want to reach for the biscuit tin, I should try expressive writing instead. A groundbreaking experiment by the social psychologist Dr James Pennebaker in 1986 indicated that writing down our feelings can enhance immune response, reduce recovery times, and promote physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. Slater believes ‘journalling can be restorative, comforting and empowering, and allows us to realise our strength and courage in order to overcome difficult times and avoid negative and destructive behaviours, like emotional eating.’
I resisted at first. As a young adult I ‘journalled’ often until I found out a flatmate had read my diaries while I was out, making me fearful of writing again. Also, the thing with using food as a ‘cure’ is that it tends not to stop you from watching a film or finishing your work, but when writing things down you have to focus, and tune into your feelings come what may – this was something I had, for so long, tried not to do. Reluctantly, I started writing in the notes section of my phone, just words to describe how I was feeling. Later, I became more expressive and bought a beautiful notebook. I quickly learnt that being physically alone wasn’t always the problem, it was when I felt sad about being alone or ‘left out’. Usually this would trigger emotional eating; now however, I tried reaching for a pen instead of a slab of chocolate.
Writing has been freeing: it works like a bin for me. When I give words to that whirling in my belly and the pain in my chest, I feel like I’m healing myself. Sometimes I read back over it, letting myself wallow in self-pity a little longer. But often I realise that the negative thoughts I’m feeling and writing just aren’t true. I’ll never meet someone is met with of course you will. And yes, there have been times when I have consciously eaten a chocolate bar because I still find food a comfort but ultimately I feel like I’m in control, and soothing myself with food isn’t my only option now. Next time you feel emotionally overwhelmed, why not give writing a go?
Amerley Ollennu is Beauty and Wellbeing Editor at Psychologies. Find her on Twitter @AmerleyO
Read Jackee Holder on 5 Reasons to write a journal on LifeLabs