College, Recovery and (Relapse) Triggers: How to Stay on Track

2016-09-08

A huge issue in college is s-t-r-e-s-s! Stress is an even bigger issue to those in recovery (or maybe even just thinking about recovery) because your eating disorder will LOVE to use this as a foothold to creep back into your life. Stress will make you think “I’m so busy I don’t have time to eat!” or “I’m not even hungry, I’ll just study instead! That’s a better use of time, right?” Wrong!!! It’s much more important to fuel your body so that your studying will be more effective!

Don’t let stress be an excuse. Speaking from experience, when most clients are deep in their eating disorder, their GPA and life balance suffers. Maybe not at first or all the time, but once you get past the initial anxiety of eating for recovery – most people do SO much better in school. Not eating well leads to fatigue, irritability, headaches, and causes anxiety and stress itself. If you find yourself over-caffeinating to make up for not eating well you may get more anxious simply because excessive caffeine intake biologically leads to anxiety. (If you’re wondering if that might be you and drink more than one to two small cups per day the answer is yes). So, how can you handle stress and manage your eating disorder?

  • Know it will come up and have a plan. Revisit safe meals and snacks in part one for ideas to help you come up with your stress plan. Review your syllabus to plan for mid-term weeks and large projects that might affect your regular routine.
  • Set alarms and reminders, write ‘eating’ on your calendar. Look ahead at your day the night before. Essentially, eating meals and snacks is an item on your daily to-do list. Use the same skills you have found to be effective for you in studying and managing your schedule to incorporate eating successfully day to day.
  • Multi-task if possible or understand yourself. If you find out that you like to go to the library to study, make sure you have a place nearby to grab a bagel in the morning (if you are a multi-tasker). Eventually, this will become your new routine. Or if you know yourself to be anxious after eating and find it difficult to concentrate, plan meals, and studying around that. Maybe you plan lunch right before class so you are distracted right away or maybe you allow yourself some time to recover from eating and eat before walking across campus to let your anxiety come down.

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Dealing with movement and temptations for behaviors. College provides a level of independence and change that gives you and your eating disorder some freedoms that prove to be helpful or unhelpful. With this, some people find that their behaviors may change from before. If this happens, don’t let your eating disorder fool you that because it’s different it’s not a problem. For example, if you find yourself restricting more at school but you’re not purging like you did before it’s still a behavior. Be honest with yourself on whether it’s problematic and try to determine whether it’s normal or not. Check in on this with yourself and your support system. Some ideas that have helped others in recovery to manage behaviors:

  • Managing movement at college is difficult because you have automatic access to the gym whenever you want it. One thing that has helped those in recovery manage exercise is to put exercise in between things you have to be at on time. Schedule your workout in between work or classes. By doing this, it limits you from being able to go to the gym from 8-11:30 at night.
  • For those who purge, college also provides ample opportunities to engage in behaviors. What some have found helpful to eliminate these opportunities is to choose to go in a bathroom with multiple stalls because you know that someone else will be in there, which eliminates some of the access. Consider how alcohol or how certain foods (and people) may trigger this urge and find ways to keep yourself safe from these behaviors.

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Staying positive and strong in recovery – meeting new people and roommates. One of the most important things to manage in college is exposure to other people and forming new social connections. Opening up and meeting others can make you feel vulnerable and that feeling can be uncomfortable making your eating disorder may feel like a safe haven. Avoid this as your eating disorder will keep you from truly being open and honest. Even though it may be a challenge, meeting new people can also be really powerful in your recovery. Some strategies to navigate this:

  • One of the most empowering things you can do while in recovery, is to be honest, about who you are, and what you’re going through. Chances are that if you’re open with someone the more likely response will be “I have a… friend, aunt, sister, mom etc… who is struggling or has struggled with that too” or you might even hear “me too.” You don’t have to give all of the details or even discuss this with everyone you meet. Even just “I’m really going through a hard time” is a start. Most commonly, people assume others will judge them but usually, people find it refreshing and real to connect with you on a more authentic level.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. A lot of people with eating disorders will evaluate how their eating and exercise stack up against their peers. It may be a healthy part of them worrying they don’t exercise enough by meeting someone who is possibly an over-exerciser themselves or it may be their eating disorder justifying restriction because they have a friend who orders only a salad for lunch. You never know what people do or don’t eat when you’re not around. And on college campuses, you are likely to encounter others with eating disorders. Don’t let this keep you sick. Your journey and energy needs are different from everyone else.
  • Once you are honest and avoid comparing, you may still meet others (or worse, your roommate) who are unsupportive. Remember that someone’s inability to understand your struggle does NOT mean that you or your recovery are not important. Having supportive roommates and friends are just as important as having a supportive family, so having an unsupportive roommate is just as detrimental as having an unsupportive family. Unfortunately, the only thing that we are in control of is ourselves, so this means that no matter how hard we try to explain something to someone, they might never “get it.” If you can’t switch rooms or leave a situation or activity, lean into those who are supportive of you, even ask if you can stay the night or attend difficult situations with them a couple times. Also talk to your counselor, dietitian, and RA to see what other resources are available as well as further advice.

The most helpful thing to do is to say and do what you need. We can’t control new situations, other people, or what happens to us, but we can control what we say and do and how we manage it. YOUR RECOVERY IS THE MOST PRECIOUS AND IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD. You need to do whatever you need to do to stay healthy. College is a time of stress, new situations, and lots of freedom.

Like anything else in recovery, this can be a weapon of your eating disorder or a tool of recovery.

Waning motivation and struggle are common, take advantage of all the help and resources available and find ways to regularly reconnect with why you are choosing recovery. One meal, one snack, one test, one day at time.

Further reading:
– 3 Tips to Prepare for College When in Recovery From an Eating Disorder
– 3 Tips to Survive College When You Are Recovering From an Eating Disorder

Image Source: Flickr

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1 Comment

  • Hi,

    I just wanted to say that this article (along with the other two in your “college and recovery” series) is the most concrete, supportive, and encouraging piece I’ve read on this topic. I recently transitioned back to college after a summer of recovery at home. Nearly everything you said resonated with my experience 100%. I can’t tell you how much it means to have someone validate my thoughts and feelings and, more importantly, offer practical advice. Sustaining recovery in college is extremely hard, but your articles have helped me feel less alone and given me a tangible toolkit and a voice saying, “You can do it.” Thank you for writing!

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