He’d left only three months ago, but it hurt her mother’s heart like it was just yesterday. She’d always been the last one to talk to him before he left, and she’d pull into the driveway next to his car daily. Dinner conversations. His shoes by the doorway. His voice calling down the stairs. Now, they were all gone because he’d gone away to college.
She’d heard that empty nesting would be hard, but she hardly knew how hard it would hit her. With her only child gone, her nest was empty, and she was ashamed at the emptiness she now felt within herself.
Unconsciously, she’d started to stop some habits. Her appetite seemed gone, and pounds had started to drop. She had already thought that she weighed too much in the first place, so she hadn’t minded. Then, she started to like the drop and found herself checking the scale more frequently.
This empty nesting mother is not alone. In fact, developing an eating disorder—from anorexia nervosa to bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder—can happen to parents who recently had a child leave their home.
What is the correlation between empty nest syndrome and eating disorders, and what should people do about this situation?
Look for triggers
Eating disorder do, in fact, correlate to empty nesting as teenagers are clearly not the only people who struggle with such a disorder. Truly, situations such as empty nesting can trigger a case of eating disorders in adults. This eating disorder can be a new incidence for them, or it may occur in adults who have struggled with such a disorder in the past.
Further, research finds that even elderly people (perhaps dealing late with feelings derived from empty nesting) can also experience eating disorders. The eating disorders may even be more severe in these cases.
The trigger of having a child leave the home may be combined with various other triggers such as a mishandling of stress, self-image misconceptions, a need for control, unhealthy additional relationships, and other causes.
Remember co-occurring disorders
In addition to the variety of triggers contributing to eating disorders in situations of empty nesting, co-occurring disorders can also manifest.
Experts struggle as to whether such co-occurrences cause the eating disorder or if the eating disorder causes the other disturbances. Either way, such additional disorders may manifest, including anxiety, depression, or emotional mismanagement.
Additionally, co-occurring challenge that face people during mid-life can make these situations even more challenging. Mid-life crisis symptoms, questions of purpose, and even musing of identity can increase the need for a coping mechanism such as an eating disorder.
Notice signs of disordered eating
Signs of such eating disorder habits are not impossible to notice. If the person you are wondering about manifests any of the above co-occurring disorders and also exhibits additional signs of an eating disorder, you may look for more symptoms of such a pattern. Further, women undergoing perimenopause and menopause may be especially susceptible to this occurrence.
Additional signs of empty nesting and eating disorders correlation may include:
- Weight changing.
- Increase use or possession of laxatives.
- Hair loss.
- Isolated eating patterns.
- Excessive conversation surrounding food.
- Cold sensitivity.
Realize the consequences
Eating disorders can have serious health consequences which may include (but are not limited to) the following effects:
- Blood sugar level disturbances.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Ceasing of the menstrual cycle in women.
- Dental issues.
- Hair loss.
- Electrolyte imbalances.
- Iron deficiency.
- Kidney infection and failure.
Practice prevention (or recovery)
If you or someone you know is empty nesting and starting to struggle with an eating disorder, steps to prevent the disorder from development can be taken.
Find someone to talk with
Often, those going through the emotional stress of empty nesting can need to talk through how they are doing with another person. Sometimes, this means calling a friend, but other times, it means professional counseling. Finding someone who can help you process is essential.
Choose a stress outlet
New stresses can surface when a child leaves the home, and finding a way to cope with such stress instead of turning to food is beneficial.
Replace in moments of temptation
Certain areas in the home or certain activities may trigger waves of sadness for you. When these moments and places come, you can find a new activity to engage with or a new place for your thoughts to go. For instance, instead of thinking of how lonely you now are with their car not in the driveway, you can think about who else might be lonely and seek ways to reach out to them.
If the eating disorder has already developed for you or a loved one, you can seek professional help through medical professionals or a treatment center to find the best recovery options for your individual case.
Bulik, Cynthia. “Eating Disorder Myths Busted – Myth #5: Eating Disorder Are the Province of White Upper-Middle Class Teenage Girls.” National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health. 25 February 2014. Web. 21 November 2016. <https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/media/2014/eating-disorders-myths-busted-myth-5-eating-disorders-are-the-province-of-white-upper-middle-class-teenage-girls.shtml>.
Caldwell, Jennifer E. “Eating Disorder Symptoms, Body Image Attitudes, and Risk Factors in Non-Traditional and Traditional Age Female College Students.” School of Graduate Studies, East Tennessee State University. December 2005. Web. 21 November 2016. <http://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2246&context=etd>.
“No Age Limit for Eating Disorders.” Aging Connections, Ohio State University. Web. 21 November 2016. <https://aging.osu.edu/news/42/articles/208?article_page=true>.