Congratulations for securing your place at university! It is a huge achievement, especially during such an uncertain year.
University is different from school. The learning is more self-directed, and you are deemed an independent adult, meaning you have much more responsibility over your life than you’ve probably ever had before.
The transition from school to university can be a difficult time, and it typically comes at a point in life where many individuals are at a higher risk of developing a mental illness, such as an eating disorder. Some of you reading this may already have a diagnosed eating disorder and are preparing for managing recovery alongside your studies. Others may know that something isn’t quite right about their relationship to food and their bodies but haven’t yet been diagnosed.
Before you start your studies, reflect and recognise where you stand right now and consider what support you may need.
Remember, that whilst you are going to university to study for your degree, you are also learning about who you are and how you want to be in the world.
1) Respond to your underlying needs
Whilst starting a new chapter can be exciting, it can also be overwhelming. You will be learning how to manage new workloads, environments and people, but you will also be learning about yourself.
A common go-to response during times of stress can be to start controlling and restricting food intake; it’s important to notice this behaviour and to think about what actions we should take instead.
We cannot control a new, uncertain situation, but we can control our reaction to it and our interpretation of it. By taking the time to listen, acknowledge and forgive how we feel, we can take steps forward, towards undoing ingrained patterns of behaviour.
2) What to expect
You may be going to university with a lot of hopes, fears and expectations. The stories we hear from our older siblings or friends can help paint a picture of what to expect but it is important to remember that your university experience is your own. It may be a new stage in your life, but you will still be you.
Think about how you may feel around groups of new people, how you feel about preparing and eating meals by yourself and by others. It may also help if you grant yourself permission to say ‘no’ when you don’t have the energy. Think about how you will fit into your new life at university, but also how your university life will fit in with your wellbeing.
Try taking a few moments to write your fears down on a piece of paper, and respond to each one in a loving way, like that of a perspective of a friend. If you plan ahead, you can help ease those moments of panic.
We cannot control a new, uncertain situation, but we can control our reaction to it and our interpretation of it.
3) Getting help and support
If you have a pre-existing mental (or physical) health condition that requires regular check-ins, make sure to speak to your GP or specialist about moving this care closer to where you’re located for university. Try and make an appointment with your new GP or specialist to see them as soon as you arrive. Even if you are doing okay, it is important to have this support system in place, in case anything happens.
It may also be useful to get familiar with the student support and wellbeing services on campus. Many universities have a Mental Health Adviser, some universities provide counselling and therapy. You may be entitled to ‘reasonable adjustments’, such as extra time in exams, extensions on coursework and specialist mental health support. There is support at university available to you, so ensure that you do your research, anything that exists to help support students during their time at university is worth exploring.
4) Dealing with anxiety
If you are someone who suffers from a lot of anxiety, you are not alone during your transition to university. It will take time to settle in and there will be times when you feel lonely and homesick, but instead of pushing those feelings down, take time to listen to your needs, and process the emotions that come with it. It is completely normal to not have a good time all the time, you are not ‘failing’.
If you suffer with an eating disorder, it is possible to struggle in situations where you feel a lack of control and caught off-guard. The key piece of advice in this situation would be to plan ahead.
They say that ‘to prepare is half the victory’, so by doing regular self-care and keeping yourself in a state of equilibrium (or in the ‘window of tolerance’), you will be more likely to respond to a challenge in a healthy way that prioritises your recovery.