If you are in the midst of exam preparation and revising, you more than anyone can understand the pressure that can be felt at this time. Whether you are in your GCSE’s, studying your A-Levels or at university, the assessment period is often filled with high anxiety to ‘do well’ and to ‘excel’. We understand how these periods of heightened stress can intensify eating disorder thoughts or behaviours, which can affect the progress you have made in your recovery.
In effort to prepare for moments where your eating disorder voice may seem loud, here are 4 things to keep in mind…
Firstly, we want you to know that your exams do not define you. Whatever happens in your exams, know that you can still live a successful life afterwards. There is so much more to you than your performance in education, despite what you may hear externally or even what your eating disorder may want you to think.
Here are our 4 takeaways for you, so you can compassionately navigate this period whilst sustaining your recovery.
1) It is actually very normal to feel stress – it’s our response to it that matters
Feeling stressed is a normal response to a situation that feels out of our control. If we boil it down, stress is merely a state of high alert that serves to prime us for a situation that feels uncertain or possibly threatening. We’ve spoken about the biology of stress on the body using the Polyvagal theory (which you can read more on here).
People with eating disorders can struggle to tolerate the emotional experience of stress – along with other perceived ‘negative’ or overwhelming emotions, such as anger or deep sadness. There can be a fear that the emotion will become all-consuming and that we’ll never be able to come through and out of that emotional state. Because of this, there can be a resistance towards connecting with those difficult feelings and allowing them to help us understand our lived experience.
Kendra, Orri’s Head of Therapies, reflects on how feelings of overwhelm and anxiety during periods of stress is a normal response. She highlights just how important it is to show compassion during this time, especially whilst in recovery from an eating disorder.
2) Keep it in perspective
This period will not last forever, it will pass. Take a moment to recognise that everything comes in waves, and this is one such wave.
You have already done amazing work to get this far, so if your exams do not go as you had planned, this will not throw away your past recovery wins and successes. In fact, we suggest once you sit your exam, try not to ruminate about it – ‘what is done is done’ and worrying about your answers will not change the mark.
Feeling how we feel and remembering that things pass with time supports our resilience and emotional growth, even if they do feel uncomfortable. What is important to note is how far you have come already. Recognise the waves you have already sailed that have brought you here, to this moment; hold onto your learnings and knowledge that you can do this.
A challenging time, like sitting exams, doesn’t undo any of your recovery work. As humans, we’re built to adapt and resilience is borne from challenge. This is merely another opportunity to show your dedication to your recovery, and work with yourself (and your treatment team) to make this chapter as gentle and kind as possible.
3) Turn to your support network and loved ones
It is during times like this that you may feel you need support more than ever. So, lean on your friends, your study buddies or treatment team, and share with them how you feel about exams. You can talk with them about your revision preparation and even share a countdown until the end of your exams! However, try not to compare yourself to your classmates in their revision plans – what works for them may not work for you, and that is ok.
It is important to keep communicating your needs – what is it you feel will help you right now? What do you need from your loved ones/treatment team?
If you are away from home at university, get familiar with the student support and wellbeing services on campus. Many universities have a Mental Health Adviser and some universities provide free counselling and therapy. You may be entitled to ‘reasonable adjustments’, such as extra time in exams or extensions on coursework.
There is support available, so ensure to do your research and find anything that exists to help support students during their time at university. We explore this more in our checklist for university blog post.
4) Notice any eating disorder compulsions that may arise
You might notice during exam and assessment periods that your eating disorder feels amplified. Some refer to it as a ‘voice’ that gets louder during times of challenge.
When we’re in a situation that feels out of control, we might look outside of ourselves to cope. For an eating disorder diagnosis, this coping mechanism is often related to food.
Some individuals may find that their bingeing gets worse during this period as they turn to food as an attempt to self-soothe. Others may exercise more in an effort to relieve stress. Some may restrict and tightly control their food and caloric intake as a means of creating a false sense of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Others may lose their appetite due to worry or forget to eat / decide to skip meals in order to prioritise studying.
This list is not exhaustive, but it is important to bring compassionate awareness to how we may be coping during moments of overwhelm. Notice any urges to behave in a certain way and, without judgement, compassionately respond to the underlying trigger – which is often related to stress or fear. You are only human and you will make mistakes – it is our response to these moments that count and taking stock of what you can learn going forward.
One more thing –
Remember to schedule in some time for you. Take breaks and do something you enjoy, whether this be journalling or taking a walk with your dog. Give yourself rest and even if your day goes slightly ‘off plan’, know that is ok – tomorrow brings with it another day, and another opportunity for you to show up in your recovery.