Maintaining Eating Disorder Recovery in College

Avoid relapse with these tools

College students studying

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Leaving home for college can be one of the most exciting and liberating times in one's life. However, it can also be scary and emotionally challenging. In many instances, college brings new living arrangements, loss of usual social supports, harder academics, less structure, and increased access to drugs and alcohol. This transition can challenge even the most stable eating disorder recovery. Learn what you can do to make this transition smoothly and without an eating disorder to worry about.

First, please consider carefully whether you are ready for college or whether you might benefit from delaying college to focus on recovery first. 

At least six months of stable recovery is recommended before transitioning to college. You should be able to eat flexibly in a variety of settings.

Going when recovery is not strong can lead to a relapse. 

Choose Your College With Recovery in Mind

When you tour colleges and think about where you would like to go, not only is it important to choose a great town and a college that offers your major of choice. It is also important to think about how the college can either support or hinder your recovery. Does the college offer counseling services? Is it close to home or far away? Do you find a smaller college to be more supportive than a larger school?

Be Realistic About Your Schedule

The first semester of college can be challenging for anyone. Keep this in mind as you choose your classes and create your schedule. Be honest with yourself about how many semester hours you can truly handle without getting burned out.

You may also want to consider taking classes that you would consider less challenging this semester rather than committing to classes that will be stressful and take up a lot of time and energy. This is also true of your extracurricular activities.

Be wary of signing up for too many commitments. If you find that you have extra time on your hands, you can always add things to your schedule at a later time.

Set Up Counseling Services Before You Go

Even if you've been in recovery for a while, it's a smart idea to locate a counselor (either on or off campus) and set up an appointment for after you arrive. If you begin struggling with your eating disorder (or other issues) you will already have someone to talk with about it. If things go smoothly, simply use the appointment to check in with someone locally. If you are currently seeing a therapist and/or dietician, make sure to arrange for your previous treatment team to forward records to your new counselor. This will help make the transition easier.

Plan Your Meal Times

Eating in a new environment can be challenging for many students in recovery. The food will be different than you are used to eating at home. Sometimes the cafeteria is only open for a limited amount of time, making it difficult to get a meal if you have a class that overlaps. Limited dining options and a lack of support at meals can also be triggering and stressful.

Find out what your on-campus and off-campus dining options are beforehand. Seek out supportive people to eat with on a regular basis and work with your dietician to create possible combinations of foods.

You may also want to consider the types of foods that can be easily stored in your room. If you struggle with binge eating, you may want to plan to only purchase limited amounts of non-triggering foods to keep on hand.

Identify Potential Challenges 

Work with your therapist, dietician or a support person to try to anticipate potential challenges to your recovery. These will certainly include overt symptoms of your eating disorder but may also include things that might not be so obvious such as skipping breakfast or beginning to feel anxious and/or depressed. You may be more active than you were in high school. Many college students do a great deal of walking. Keep in mind you may need increased food to fuel for this increased activity level. 

Seek Support

One of the most helpful ways that clients report being supported in recovery is to connect with supportive people. Going to a college where you may not know anyone can make a connection difficult. Plan ahead of time to call or Skype regularly with your family and friends back home. Seek out people to connect with at school. These may be people you meet in your dorm, classes or in various student groups. It can be anxiety-provoking to put yourself out there and make new friendships, but you are worth the effort!

Regardless of how much planning and effort you make to prepare for your transition to college, it still may be difficult. And, you still may experience a relapse. Don't beat yourself up.

If this happens to you, make an appointment and get into treatment again. The faster you begin addressing the issues, the faster you'll be back in recovery.

Note to Parents

If you are a parent of a college student who has had an eating disorder, a college contract is recommended.

This contract is an agreement between the parents and the student that specifies conditions required for the student to be able to remain in college—like maintaining a healthy weight, not engaging in eating disorder behaviors, and having regular weight checks.

The contract should also specify what the parents will do if these conditions are not met (for example, increase oversight, bring the child home, etc.). Having a contract that both you and your child agree on can help maintain eating disorder recovery and give you some peace of mind to what is, undoubtedly, also a difficult transition for you.

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