Eating Disorders in College: Back to School Tips - Rae Thomas

Going back to school, moving schools, starting school it's all stressful. It's a messy, exciting, scary, and busy transition, one that can be even more trying for those of us in recovery. Yet, it can also be a time for amazing opportunities and growth. I hope these tips help you manage the back to school struggles. Let this transition be one to push you forward in recovery and in life!

We’ve made another trip around the sun and here we are, going back to school yet again. 
The beginning of a school year is stressful: new classes, new schedules, new friends, and maybe a whole new environment. 
For someone struggling with an eating disorder, these stresses are compounded with a whole other set of obstacles. 

  • Managing meal plans
  • Navigating dining halls
  • Finding a new support system
  • Making time to take care of your mind and body
  • Dealing with a slew of new experiences 

Dr. Casey Tallent, National Collegiate Outreach Director for Eating Recovery Center shares, “College is an incredibly stressful time for any student and we see many mental health disorders and coping mechanisms arise [at this time]. Eating disorders are very frequent in the college population; research estimates that up to 1 in 4 college students acknowledge experiencing an eating disorder and it’s important to know that when it comes to treatment for eating disorders the rule is the earlier [you start treatment] the better.”   
Finding recovery from eating disorders in college

I started college just a few short months after really committing to my recovery. I had spent the summer getting comfortable in one environment just to move 8 hours away and navigate an entirely new environment in recovery. I had started treatment a few years ago — but the summer before I went to college was when I was really able to own my recovery with the skills I had learned previously.
When I arrived in Nebraska for college, I realized I hadn't quite planned for this huge change. I had no idea how college was going to affect my eating disorder or my recovery. I showed up at the dining hall for breakfast my first morning, standing in shock at the chaos that was before me, and I thought, "Well, we're doing this live, folks!" 
I've learned a thing or two since that day and I'm here to share that wealth of recovery knowledge with you today. Here are the things that really helped me maintain my recovery on campus:

1. Tackle dining hall chaos  

Dining halls can pose a huge challenge for college students in eating disorder recovery. There are so many choices and so many people. If possible, try checking out the menu beforehand, go before or after the meal rush, and/or make a consistent routine to have one or two meals a day with friends. Once I had a routine in place and became more familiar with their food set up, I felt like the dining hall was just another kitchen. Most importantly though, talk with your treatment team about any worries you have; they can be an awesome resource in planning ahead before you get to school. Dr. Tallent recommends, “Many campuses have dietitians who are familiar with eating disorders. Check in with the counseling or wellness center to see if there is a campus dietitian who can tour the dining hall with you ahead of time. This can prepare you for anything you may experience and allow you to get a head start on working with your therapist and dietitian on any issues that arise.”
2. Make movement a social event 
College recreation centers can be intimidating to say the least. Social comparison can be at an all-time high, just like any gym environment. With the added stress of starting school, movement can be a slippery slope for some individuals in recovery. If you've got movement in your treatment plan, try making movement a social event, going with friends to play basketball, doing intramural sports, or just planning evening walks around campus. I loved going to dance with friends in the open gym space a few nights a week; it took the focus off comparison and compulsion and made it so much more fun! If movement is restricted for you, work with your treatment team to see what appropriate options may be available.
Learn more about returning to exercise after eating disorder treatment.

3. Schedule self-care

Here's a typical college schedule:

  • 8 a.m.: class. 
  • Work at noon. 
  • Club meeting at 5 p.m. 
  • Intramural volleyball at 7 p.m. 
  • And then: homework after that.  

Where is there time for self-care?

Odds are, if you're in school, you're not just doing school things — life is busy! Then you're left with no time to relax, reflect on your recovery journey, or even meet with your support team. If you're like me, and you love to plan and color-code everything, then it might be best to just keep going with what works, (i.e. schedule in your self-care)! Whether it’s meditation, yoga, therapy, journaling, or Netflix shows — treat self-care like an appointment. Self-care is non-negotiable time! Dr. Tallent recommends, “Plan your schedule around your self-care. Make sure to view self-care as fuel for your mental and physical health and put it in your schedule first. Schedule classes and other activities around it. If you’re not a morning person, then don’t schedule a 7:50 a.m. course. Don’t forget to include sleep, meals, and time with family/friends as self-care! If you prioritize self-care, you’ll find yourself with plenty of time and energy for the other important things in your life.”
Get ideas for self care in eating disorder recovery.

4. Build your team  

If you're moving for school, build your treatment team beforehand. Looking back, this is something I wish I would have done much sooner. Even if you're only needing to meet a few times, having a therapist, dietician, movement specialist, etc. already in place makes it that much easier to ask for help when you need it. According to Dr. Tallent, nearly every campus has a campus counseling center and health center. Reach out to them early to set up appointments before you actually need them! Eating Recovery Center has a lot of information about campus referrals; if you have questions about finding a campus referral reach out to Dr. Casey Tallent
5. Get active-ism 

One of the best things I did at the start of school was to join a student group committed to raising awareness about eating disorders and changing the conversation around food and bodies. I helped hang posters, organize events, and lead discussions. Engaging in this type of activism made me feel like I could use my own struggles to help others and it held me accountable; if I'm preaching awareness and recovery, I should probably be on that path too! Try searching your school’s student groups for mental health or eating disorder related clubs. You can also check out Eating Recovery Center's new activism portal, My Team Recovery, to learn how you can make a difference!
Join My Team Recovery
Going back to school, moving schools, starting school – it’s all stressful. It’s a messy, exciting, scary, and busy transition, one that can be even more trying for those of us in recovery. Yet, it can also be a time for amazing opportunities and growth. I hope these tips help you manage recovery from your eating disorders in college. Let this transition be one to push you forward in recovery and in life! So, get out there, learn a few things, have some fun, and make the most of a life in recovery! 


Rae Thomas is currently a Master’s Student in Counseling Psychology at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. She has been working with eating disorders and body positivity for the past four years. She graduated with her Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln in 2016. While in the beginning of her own recovery journey, Rae joined and later became the president of a student organization on campus putting on events and facilitating workshops relating to eating disorders. Her experience in this organization led to a strong passion for eating disorder treatment and advocacy. Rae continues to do public outreach and advocacy for eating disorders and body positivity and hopes to continue this after graduation.

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