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Eating Disorder Recovery at College: 10 Tips for Staying on Track [UPDATED]

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

Eating disorder recovery is a complex journey 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 turnsleaps 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 the challenges of recovery while away at school, as well as tips for ensuring the transition to college supports recovery rather than compromises it.

Why College Makes Eating Disorder Recovery Harder

We often feel the pressure to be productive and push ourselves to our limits. We might pack our calendars with classes, extracurriculars, social events, appointments, and the list goes on. While some of these things we have little control over (sorry y’all, I can’t clinically recommend that you skip every class) it is important to be honest with yourself when it comes to planning your schedule.

Is that extra class truly necessary to graduate early? Will you have enough time to nourish yourself, or even tune into your hunger cues if you add that club to your list of extracurriculars? Only we (often with the help of our treatment teams) know what we can handle each day to realistically meet our mental and physical needs. So, how do we increase the likelihood that this happens? Let’s dive in!

10 Tips for Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery While Away at College

Balancing school and eating disorder recovery can be challenging, but it’s essential to prioritize your mental and physical wellbeing. Here are ten key tips to help you navigate.

Tip #1: Talk to 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.

Tip #2: Explore Providers Near Your School

If you can’t work with your home team, or feel like a change would be beneficial, don’t panic. 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.

Alternatively, 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).

Tip #3: Identify Your Support Network

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 #4: Create a Structured Schedule

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. Having a structured schedule can help you stay organized and focused on your goals.

Tip #5: Plan Meals & Snacks

Planning your meals and snacks ahead of time can help you stay on track with your recovery goals while also ensuring that you have enough energy to focus on your studies. 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 #6: Take Breaks

When building out your college schedule, take time to make sure that you have breaks built in to recharge. This could include taking a short walk, doing some deep breathing exercises, or engaging in a relaxing activity like reading or yoga. These breaks can be used for meals or snacks, appointments with a member of your treatment team, or just a mindful moment with yourself. Keeping a finger on the pulse of our mind body connection will help support recovery in numerous ways!

Tip #7: Practice Self-care

While planning is great, also remember that life happens. No plan will go 100% as expected, and that is okay! Give yourself grace and practice self-care. 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.

Tip #8: Communicate with Your Teachers & Peers

Let your teachers and peers know about your situation so they can support you in any way possible. For example, you may need extra time to complete assignments or accommodations during exams. It’s important to advocate for yourself and communicate your needs.

Tip #9: Ask for Help

Eating disorder recovery can be challenging, and it’s essential to seek support to ensure that you are getting the care and resources you need. This may include working with a therapist, attending support groups, or seeking medical treatment if necessary. Your support network might also consist of family, friends, roommates, or teammates. Eating disorders thrive in isolation; reaching out for support can keep you moving forward in recovery.

[For more, check out our Instagram Live: Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery on College Campuses: A conversation with Ashley Vicari, LPC, Professional Relations Manager, and Lauren Pendleton, LCMHC, Senior Professional Relations Representative.]

Tip #10: Utilize Campus Resources

Utilizing resources on campus is a great way to support your eating disorder recovery while managing your academic responsibilities. Here are some resources that may be available on college campuses:

  1. Counseling Services: Many colleges offer free or low-cost counseling services for students. Counselors can help you manage the emotional and psychological challenges of recovery while also supporting you in your academic goals.
  2. Health Services: Health services on campus can provide medical support for physical health concerns related to your eating disorder. They may also offer nutrition counseling and resources to foster health promoting behaviors.
  3. Student Support Groups: Many colleges offer support groups for students struggling with mental health issues. These groups can provide a supportive environment to connect with others who understand what you are going through.
  4. Campus Ministries: Campus ministries can provide spiritual support and a sense of community to help you manage the emotional challenges of recovery.

To access these resources, start by contacting your college’s counseling center. They can provide you with information on available resources and help you navigate the process of accessing support. Remember, seeking support is a sign of strength, and utilizing campus resources can help you achieve your goals and maintain your recovery.

Finding Balance & Giving Yourself Grace

While your team and support network will be there for you, it is always important for you to also be there for yourself. Yes, this means doing the work, AND it also means giving yourself grace. As you go through the process, every day will look different. You will have days when things do not go as planned, where you feel like you may have taken a few steps in a direction that you weren’t planning on going. During those times, it is important to remember that those moments are OKAY. Like most journeys in life, recovery is not linear. Giving yourself grace when you have hard days and self-compassion when you make mistakes will take you far on your recovery journey.

How The Renfrew Center Can Support You

For college-age students who choose to participate, The Renfrew Center has integrated specialized programming into all levels of care including Residential, Day Treatment and Intensive Outpatient to address the many challenges students face while attempting to balance recovery with the demands of school.

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 while you’re away at school. 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.

If balancing both isn’t working for you, give yourself grace and permission to prioritize your recovery.  This may look like taking a medical leave from school and stepping into a higher level of care, if possible. An eating disorder can interfere with so many college experiences both in and out of the classroom, making it impossible to be fully present, focused, and fulfilled. You deserve help and support in your recovery now, so that you can later thrive in your life as a student. So, 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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