When you go off to college you leave the safe space you’ve created in recovery and enter a world of being exposed to new experiences, environments, and events. Key to staying strong in recovery at college is managing triggers. Know that: no matter how long you have been in recovery, there will always be new triggers in a new world.
Managing triggers. Triggers are not an if but a when in recovery. A trigger is usually something that occurs and challenges your recovery in some way. Examples might be seeing a friend eat a skimpy salad as a meal, hearing someone read the calories burned during a workout off of their fitbit, or people making comments about feeling guilty for eating a certain food. Managing triggers is not easy or simple but can be conceptualized in the following way:
- Acknowledge that you are triggered. Allow yourself to feel this way and feel the pull to engage in a behavior, feel the guilt or frustration, and acknowledge that it’s ok for this to happen.
- Next, don’t let yourself run away too far into things or do anything impulsive. Being triggered is not permission to act out through your eating disorder. Decide how you would like to handle the situation. Maybe it’s telling your friend you feel uncomfortable when she talks that way about her body or food, or maybe it’s texting a support person when you notice the girl at the gym over-exercising.
- Triggers get easier with time. They still come up but they don’t pull or potentially derail you as much. You literally become less affected by them.
The other part of managing triggers is to have a plan. Consider who you can call and what you can do to nurture yourself (and stay on track in recovery). The more people you have supporting you, the easier it will be. Make a list of support people you know you can call anytime. Consider making a list of activities that are calming to you, that you can do wherever you are, and that you know you will have time for. One of my clients found it helpful to pick one thing a day that either helped her heart, body, or soul. This could be painting your nails, reading a favorite magazine or quote, or watching one of your favorite Netflix shows during a study break.
Staying connected. The biggest key to staying in recovery from your eating disorder as a college student is to stay connected to your treatment team and support people in your life. Your eating disorder uses isolation to make you feel like your eating disorder behaviors are “normal” and so the way to prevent this is to not isolate. Check in with others and yourself on how you are doing.
Many of my clients assume they are a “burden” when reaching out but the truth is most people don’t feel that way at all. Your treatment team appreciates your honesty and accepts struggling as a normal part of recovery. Your support people want to hear from you much like you would listen and comfort them if they had a fight with their boyfriend or got a bad grade on a test. As human beings, connection reminds us we’re all in this together and it makes staying strong so much easier. Some ways you can stay connected:
- Have your dietitian help connect you to the dietitian at the school or one that is in the area. Some dietitians might even be able to make a weekend appointment or they could even do a virtual call. Maybe plan when you know your roommate is in class so you have some privacy.
- Work with your counselor to get connected with one at your school or one in the area as well.
- Make a list of support people who you can talk to at any time and activities that soothe you. Some clients create a “comfort kit” that is filled with familiar and recovery affirming items to help them through difficult moments.
- Bring any materials from your dietitian, counselor, or treatment program that you found to be very helpful. It can be discreet, you can take pictures of it and have it on your phone, email it to yourself, or copy it down into a journal.
- Make use of recovery apps such as Rise Up and blogs or online magazines like Recovery Warriors! From a societal point of view, there are many triggering dieting attitudes and pressure to be thin, but there is a growing movement of people rejecting these ideals and discovering what it really means to be healthy. Believe it or not, this is a great time to be in recovery from an eating disorder. There are so many resources at your fingertips.
Managing social events. Social events in college are great opportunities to remind yourself why you want to recover (wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about food?) and also challenge yourself to eat out of your routine. With the positive push forward, these events can be a bit tricky when you’re still in that vulnerable space. Like most things you are navigating, it is helpful to determine where your motivation is coming from – recovery or your eating disorder. One girl in recovery said, ‘know that it’s okay to eat your own food.’ Some ideas that have worked for others:
- Do not compensate for eating at a social event either beforehand or afterward. As a dietitian, my clients consistently over-estimate what they will be eating at a social event simply because it is different from what they typically eat. Also, if foods are different or labeled as “bad” foods, most people play it “safe” and eat way less quantity of those foods that that would normally make up an adequate meal. This goes for all types of eating disorders, whether you are more on the restrictive end of the spectrum or if you find yourself stuck in the binge and restrict cycle.
- Know your limits and understand where you are in your recovery. Pushing yourself is great after you feel comfortable, but initially, know that it’s okay to do what works and what you’re comfortable with as long as recovery is the goal! Not eating may be “comfortable” but this isn’t in your recovery’s best interest. You may find it more helpful to eat more of your “safe foods” that fit in your meal plan at first.
- If you feel comfortable, you can ask one of the people who is in charge what kind of food they will serve or where it is coming from. Then you can plan your day accordingly and plan out how it fits with your meal plan with a support person, the dietitian on campus, or by calling back home and having a family member or member of your treatment team help. This extra work in the beginning, pays off over time as you may find yourself attending the same meetings where they always serve the same types of foods. You may have a pizza and veggies with dip meal option or some similar meals at your sorority house every week.
- If you know you’re going to a party, people in recovery have found it helpful to eat before going. That way you are able to eat with support people in a safe environment and you know for sure that you have gotten what you need. Then, when you go to the party, you can still have some snacks later there if you feel comfortable or you can just stick to talking to people and enjoying the party without the stress of food. (The same goes for activities or clubs that you know have food too. As long as you don’t compensate or skip meals)
- If you feel that it is too overwhelming to eat different foods, know that it’s okay to bring your own with you. Ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you and your recovery and although it might feel really strange to bring your own food and worry if others may judge you, in reality, people don’t really pay attention to it or bug you about it. If you are turning down social gatherings and events to avoid the food, this will continue to keep you isolated and staying deeper in your eating disorder. This can be a good first step to getting outside of your comfort zone and connecting with others.
In college, social events are important and enhance your life experiences. They serve as reminders of why you choose the tough work of recovery. You will inevitably find yourself triggered and when this happens it is necessary to connect with yourself and your support people. Stay tuned for part three where we will cover more college recovery topics like movement, managing behaviors, and meeting new people (including roommates!).