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3 Tips for Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery At College or University

Written by: Lauren Pendleton (she/her)
Senior Professional Relations Representative & National College Liaison at The Renfrew Center

Eating disorder recovery is a complex journey; one that requires dedication and a solid support system. But what happens when an individual in recovery goes away to college?

Eating disorder recovery is a journey filled with twists and turns, leaps of progress, and moments where momentum can come to a grinding halt. It is a journey that requires dedication, support, and vulnerability, from not only the client, but also their treatment team and support system.

So, what happens when an individual who is newly in recovery goes to college, creating distance between themselves and their established recovery network? In this article, we discuss tips for ensuring the transition to college supports recovery rather than compromises it.

3 Tips for Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery While Away at School

Tip #1: Identify Your Supports

We all know the saying, “It takes a village”. This can be attributed to an array of different scenarios, and the recovery journey is certainly one of them. The pandemic opened the door to more widespread virtual services, expanding the ability to keep your village close.

Your treatment team
Before leaving for school, explore with your treatment team if you can continue working with them virtually. If so, coordinate a plan with your health center to schedule appointments for any weights and labs that will need to be gathered for your providers back home.

Your school’s treatment resources
Can’t work with your home team, or maybe you feel as if a change would be beneficial? No problem! This is where you turn to your new home’s resources. Does your college have an on-campus counseling center or offer health services for students? If so, is there an ED treatment team, or are there any mental health providers on staff who have experience working with eating disorders? If so, get on their schedule ASAP.

Other providers near your school
If you don’t feel like the providers on campus are the best fit, that’s okay! Not every clinician is the right fit. However, I bet you they know other providers in the community who might be. Ask them for recommendations. Don’t forget, by providers, we mean therapist, dietitian, PCP, and Psychiatrist (as needed).

School friends & acquaintances
Supports don’t have to be limited to just your treatment team, and ideally include individuals from a variety of social arenas. This can be romantic partners, teammates, professional mentors, social club advisors, roommates, the list goes on. It’s up to you to decide who you trust to join you on your recovery journey. Make a list of these individuals and put it somewhere that can be easily accessed. That way, if you find yourself with an immediate need for support, you have your options ready to go!

Remember, eating disorders are disorders of disconnection. Staying connected not only to yourself, but also to those who positively impact your recovery journey, will only increase your likelihood of seeing continued progress.

Tip 2: Make a Plan

The college years can be an extremely busy time in life. Often students find themselves rushing between classes, work, and social engagements, only to make it home in time for a late-night study session. With so many commitments, it is important for individuals in recovery to make sure they are intentional about scheduling in meal and snack times throughout the day.

This can start as early as when you are registering for classes. Take note of the days that you won’t be able to go home between classes, or for more than a couple of hours. On those days, it will be important to either build in a quick break where you can grab a snack on campus or pack a few snacks to take with you as needed. To help ensure you always have snack options on hand, discuss options with your dietitian, then identify a safe storage option for them in your dorm or apartment.

Similarly, do your best to build in meal times to your class schedule. It’s tempting to schedule classes or activities back-to-back to fit everything in, but remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Self-care is a vital part of day-to-day success. Adding blocks of free time to your schedule for meals will help you develop a consistent routine and reduce your chance for restriction.

Tip 3: Give Yourself Grace

While planning is great, also remember that life happens. No plan will go 100% as expected, and that is okay! Give yourself grace. Every slip is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your recovery, so try approaching those moments with curiosity and lots of compassion. Process any slips, barriers, or glitches in your plan with your treatment team so that you can experiment with new behaviors, try new skills, and adjust as needed.

Conclusion

Recovery on a college campus can look completely different than it did at home. While that may bring new challenges, that doesn’t mean that continued recovery isn’t possible. With the help of a support system, a structured plan, and self-compassion, the transition to a college campus will likely seem much more manageable. Take the journey one class, one meal and one day at a time, and remember how far you’ve come already!

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