It’s that time of year again, when students are heading back to campus or maybe going to college for the first time. For anyone, this transition can be difficult and for those who are in eating disorder recovery, there are additional challenges to consider.
You may be moving from your supportive environment and treatment team and this might be the first time you are independent for meals and exercise. There will be new situations to navigate like the campus dining hall and gym and triggering conversations and behaviors in your peer group.
It’s important to be prepared for how you will maintain eating disorder recovery and prevent relapse in this new environment. Here are a few things you can do to help your transition to school go smoothly.
4 Ways to Manage Returning to College in Eating Disorder Recovery
1. Connect to Eating Disorder Recovery Support
College can be an isolating experience, especially if you are struggling to maintain eating disorder recovery. Don’t try to navigate this on your own. Stay connected with your support people from home by scheduling regular check-ins with family and friends. Maybe schedule a meal or snack over a FaceTime chat!
Look into local and on campus mental health resources. Many campuses offer support groups for those in recovery. If you are working with a treatment team, keep up regular visits with your therapist, dietitian and doctor. And if you need to set up a team, ask your on campus mental health center for referrals to eating disorder specialists. If you are attending college in a state where NourishRX provides services, reach out for virtual one on one nutrition counseling. Or, in any state, join the Eating Disorder PATH - your 24/7 eating disorder recovery support.
2. Plan your meals
Making nourishment a priority can be a challenge while also navigating the busy class schedule and social calendar of a college student. On top of that, you need to consider a dining hall and limited food storage and cooking options. Restriction, even when unintentional, is an opportunity for relapse in eating disorder recovery so you’ll want to make sure you have a plan for consistent meals and snacks.
First, we recommend getting out a calendar and planning your meals and snacks around your weekly class schedule. Make sure you know when and how you will get three meals and three snacks. Will you have time to get to the cafeteria or do you need to pack a lunch with you? Have a late dinner planned with friends? Make sure you schedule a snack beforehand.
Set alarms and reminders to eat if you need them.
We know the dining hall can be an overwhelming place. There are so many people and so many choices, but it might also feel like you can’t find anything to eat?? Many campus dining halls have their menu published online so it might be helpful to refer to this ahead of time. Try going for meals before or after the typical rush and when possible, eat meals with friends. If you are on a recovery meal plan, make sure you are chatting with your dietitian about how to build adequate food with the options available to you.
3. stock your dorm
Your dorm room isn’t just for studying and sleeping - it is also for snacking, eating simple meals and honoring hunger when it arises outside of meal times!
Try to plan a regular weekly time for grocery shopping. You’ll want to stock up on shelf stable and easy to prepare foods like peanut butter, bread, instant oatmeal, canned soups, pretzels, granola bars, nuts and trail mix, crackers, tuna and beef jerky.
If you are able, invest in a small dorm fridge to keep cold essentials such as yogurt, cheese sticks, fruit, hummus, etc. Ensuring access to nourishing foods is an important part of maintaining eating disorder recovery.
4. Respond to triggers
It is likely that you will encounter triggers at school that make you return to ED thoughts and behaviors. What’s important is how you respond to those triggers and support yourself in making recovery-aligned choices.
Diet talk and dieting behaviors is common among college age kids. Remember that each person is on their own journey and for you, going on a diet isn’t healthy or kind. When dieting comes up in conversation, know your options. You can choose to walk away or change the subject or speak up and say that this topic makes you uncomfortable. Make sure the friends you are hanging out with are supportive of eating disorder recovery.
You might also experience triggers to engage in unhealthy exercise behaviors white at school. While movement can be beneficial for mental and physical health, it can also become harmful when it is compulsive, excessive and driven by negative motivations. We frequently hear our clients talk about the college gym being a difficult environment to navigate because of social comparison. If you are on a restricted movement plan, make sure you discuss with your treatment team who you will implement this at school and talk to them if you are struggling to maintain the established plan. If you are able to safely explore exercise, we suggest engaging in forms of movement that bring you joy and help you connect with your body rather than focus negatively on it. Looking to explore you relationship with exercise further? You might find our Movement Path to be helpful!
Stress as a college student is inevitable, so having a toolbox of healthy coping skills is a must. These might include journaling, meditation, calling a friend or family member, stretching or spending time outside. Keep your priorities in check. Your mental, emotional and physical health is always more important than your grades or social commitments.