Why dining solo can induce stress and how to combat it
Solutions to the anxiety caused by eating alone
When you hear the word “loneliness,” the first thing you may picture is someone sitting at a lunch table, eating in solitude. For much of our lives, society and media have proclaimed that eating alone is among the worst situations imaginable for a child, teen or young adult. But why is eating deemed such a social activity? Why eating instead of walking, exercising, studying or so many other activities?
Noam Shpancer, a psychology professor at Otterbein University, explains how evolutionarily and developmentally, humans have been used to eating in groups for a long time.
“I think if you look around the world and throughout history, most eating activity happens in groups, not solitary,” says Shpancer. “In part, it’s because getting food is a group activity. So if you’re going to hunt food, you’re going together, a bunch of hunters, and then they share game. And if you’re going to grow food or if you want to forage for food, then you’re going to forage [or] gather together in groups,” Shpancer said.
Shpancer added that from a young age, humans are with someone when they eat whether it’s a baby and its parents, kids at the school lunch table or families at the dinner table.
“Anything that goes against our old habits...creates more stress,” said Shpancer.
“I have to imagine that [eating together] helps our digestion, because we’re relaxed, we’re having fun, conversing with each other, so that all relaxes us, which means our food would get digested better that way,” said Kathleen Ryan, director of counseling services at Otterbein.
Both Shpancer and Ryan agree that humans value eating at times during the day that are carved out as social time, and that people don’t like when those bonds are taken away from them.
“Any situation that allows us some social contact tends to elevate us,” said Shpancer. “Generally, social connections are the best predictor of health and well-being in human beings, so the ability to nurture and maintain and celebrate our social connectedness, it’s very important for our health, mental and physical.”
It is common for people to skip meals or grab something to eat in their rooms rather than be seen eating alone in a public setting. For a lot of people, the Cardinal's Nest can be a source of daily stress and anxiety.
Ryan recommends acknowledging this anxiety in the moment and practicing calming exercises such as deep breathing, muscle tensing or stretching and realizing that other people are dealing with the same struggle as you.
“It’s not so much eating alone as what we do in our head. And so, what happens when you get really self-conscious? We think, ‘Everybody’s looking at me. I don’t have any friends. Everybody knows it. Oh my gosh. What’s my problem? I’m a loser.’ I mean, we just go down that track so easily,” said Ryan.
Ryan encourages students to find people to eat with, even though it can be hard to find the courage to ask someone. “I think what is really important for all of us to think about is being together,” said Ryan. “We are social people and that is when we are most likely able to be ourselves.”