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Back in College? 15 Ways to Deal with Eating Disorder Triggers - Ellie Herman

College students and recent grads share tools to help you cope with eating disorder triggers so that you can enjoy college and all it brings.
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 Dear college students,

What words come to mind when you think about being back in college for fall semester? Freedom, fun and friends are probably at the top of this list! But so are stress, pressure and transitions.

While these are all normal aspects of college, these can all be triggering for those who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders and those in recovery from eating disorders.

Freedom: When you are a college student, you have a great amount of freedom, which can be great. You have the freedom to eat or exercise as much or as little as you want. No one is watching your every move. And, if someone does notice an unhealthy behavior, they don’t have the same control or power in your life that your parents once did. But, freedom can be a vulnerable place for many of us, and it can increase the risk of negative behaviors.

Friends: Our friendships can be our best assets, but what happens when the embedded messages in our social circles create cultural pressures to be thin or foster body comparison?

Stress: Let’s not forget the stress that comes from academia and the desire to perform well in school and how stress can create vulnerability to an eating disorder.

Perfectionism: Perfectionism says, “don’t stop trying, you can always do better. If it’s not perfect, you are failing.” Perfectionistic thinking can turn into obsessiveness, competition, rigidity and can also manifest itself in the midst of depression and anxiety. If you have the imaginary “perfectionistic gene”, college is a time when it could become activated.

Transitions: You know it all too well; the only thing constant in college is change. Consider how many times prior to graduation that you’ll change classes, dating relationships, your major, friendships, and your living situation. If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to keep track! In the “eating disorder world,” we know that transition is often the time when eating disorders develop or resurface and can manifest themselves as coping mechanisms.

15 tips to focus on eating disorder recovery

Due to the possible triggers I’ve listed above, I wanted to provide some tools to help you healthfully cope with college and all that it brings. I asked several college students and recent grads to offer you their own helpful tips for success.

Savannah K., Recovery Ambassador Council member, age 24:

  1. Ask for accountability from friends. If you have struggled with an eating disorder, let your friends know what behaviors to look for and how to talk to you about it if they notice it.
  2. Surround yourself with friends who don’t diet and are content with their body—practicing moderate exercise and non-restrictive eating.
  3. Consider friends who partner with you in recovery instead of illness.
  4. If you need a treatment team, ask ERC and/or your college counseling center for help finding one. Once you have your team, be completely honest with them—this is how they can help you!

Allison S., Recovery Ambassador Council member, age 21:

  1. Let go of old clothes that don’t fit anymore. It’s easier to change the size of your clothes than to change your body.
  2. Let go of comparison with others and practice self-love and compassion.
  3. Let go of secrets; talk about what’s happening emotionally as well as with food and/or exercise.
  4. Use the groups you’re involved with for support (i.e. faith based groups, sororities and fraternities, etc.).

Zoe R-N., Recovery Ambassador, age 21:

  1. Reconnect with your body and learn to trust your body — yoga helps!
  2. Find enjoyable movement, not rigorous exercise.
  3. To decrease perfectionistic tendencies, practice making mistakes. Know your internal value — you are still worthy of acceptance despite mistakes!
  4. Plan meals and snacks with friends. Ask them for their company on a weekly basis to go grocery shopping.

Megan O., Recovery Ambassador, age 22:

  1. Drop the need to be perfect, a certain weight or size. Instead, know what you value and seek it out (i.e. love, laughter, adventure, etc.).
  2. Beware of stressful situations including relationship break-ups. Stress can affect your appetite and affect weight. Let this be a time to ask friends to offer you meal support.
  3. Eating disorder recovery websites and online accounts can sometimes be triggering. I learned that the most recovery-focused websites for me were blogs that supported my values (i.e. enjoying the outdoors through hiking/camping).

As this semester continues for each of you, college students, we hope these tips will support you in finding health, connection with yourself and with others.

After all, as Megan reminds us, “You can’t experience life and have an eating disorder.” This begs the question, how will you choose to balance health and life in the midst of college pressures and transition? We’d love for you to share your tips with our recovery community!


Ellie Herman, MA, LPC, NCC is the Senior Alumni/Family Liaison for Eating Recovery Center.

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