Firstly, we’d like to say congratulations. It’s a real achievement to get a place at university, and especially so during such a confusing and uncertain year with the pandemic. So, take a moment to reflect on how hard you’ve worked and the exciting new chapter ahead.
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 and learning than you’ve most likely had before.
The transition from school to university can be a difficult time. It typically comes at a point in life when 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.
Prior to starting your studies, take a moment to recognise where you stand right now and consider what support you may need…this will put you in good stead for looking after yourself.
“Yes, you’re learning the subject matter for your degree, but you’re also learning about who you are.”
Responding to our underlying needs
Aside from the excitement about the new chapter ahead – new environments, people and workloads can become overwhelming, and our response to that experience of overwhelm is what truly matters. Yes, you’re learning the subject matter for your degree, but you’re also learning about who you are.
“During times of distress and uncertainty we may notice that our go-to response is to start controlling and restricting our food intake and weighing ourselves…”
When we say, “our response matters”, we mean, what actions do we take when we notice an uncomfortable feeling or negative thought arise. Whilst we cannot control many things outside of us, we can control our interpretation of it and what we do in reaction to it.
For instance, during times of distress and uncertainty we may notice that our go-to response is to start controlling and restricting our food intake and weighing ourselves. At the time we may think “I’m scared of gaining weight”, but the underlying fear that’s causing this response may be “I feel completely overwhelmed in the current situation” or “my anxiety has gone into overdrive”.
Compassionate curiosity and investigation during these times can help. By taking the time to listen, acknowledge and forgive how we feel, we can take steps towards undoing ingrained patterns of behaviour that keep us locked in the eating disorder.
Expectations, hopes and fears
You probably have a lot of expectations, hopes and fears for the coming weeks and months. Going to university for some feels like a “rite of passage” and the stories of our siblings and elders can help paint a picture of what to expect.
Despite this, your experience of university will be your own. Whilst it may feel like turning over a new leaf, you will still be you! Give yourself some time to mull over the following:
- How do I feel around new groups of people?
- How am I feeling about preparing and eating meals by myself? With others?
- Do I grant myself permission to say “no” when I don’t have the energy?
- How will I create a safe space for myself in my new accommodation?
Perhaps you can take a few moments to write down your fears on a piece of paper (without any judgement and a knowledge that all of us struggle at times) and on the corresponding page, respond to each fear in a loving way like that of a perspective of a friend.
Planning ahead can help us to mitigate against moments of panic.
Ensuring others can help you:
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.
If possible, speak to your new GP or specialist before you move and make an appointment to see them as soon as you arrive – even if you are currently doing ok. It is much better that you begin this relationship before being in a point of crisis.
When at university, get familiar with the student support/wellbeing services on campus. Many universities have a Mental Health Advisor who exist to literally support students from a mental health perspective – perhaps schedule some time in with them?
Some universities also provide counselling and therapy. Alongside this, you may also be entitled to “reasonable adjustments” such as extra time in exams, extensions on coursework, and specialist mental health mentor support. Do your research at your university – anything that exists to help people get through studies whilst managing mental health difficulties is worth exploring.
Dealing with anxiety
If you are someone who suffers from a lot of anxiety, here are some facts:
- No one, despite how they may appear, is completely comfortable in the transition to university. You may at times feel a lot of anxiety, but you are not alone in this
- It will take time to settle in. There may be times when you feel lonely and homesick – instead of pushing those feelings down, take time to listen to your needs and process the emotions that go with it. You are not “failing” for not having a great time all the time
People who suffer with eating disorders can struggle in situations where they feel caught off-guard and feel a lack of control. “To prepare is half the victory”, so, where possible plan ahead. By doing regular self-care and keeping yourself in a state of equilibrium (or in the “window of tolerance”), when challenge strikes you are more likely to respond to it in a healthy way that prioritises your recovery.
Some blogs that may help:
Handling mealtimes as a student
With new environments and new schedules, comes new routines. For those in recovery from an eating disorder, routines are really important as they help individuals feel safe and secure in day-to-day life by providing a degree of predictability and control (and thus providing headspace for important work in recovery).
Depending upon where you’re at in your recovery, you may have some worries around food and mealtimes as a student. Understandably, moving away from loved ones and an established support network may have an impact on how you will handle these things.
Checking In: Grounding Exercises for Uncertainty and Fear
Collectively, we’re in a really transitional period right now. We’re on our way to autumn (already?!), gradually loosening social distancing measures and trying to prepare ourselves for this next chapter of returning to work or starting studies in September.
It is yet more change, and we know that those suffering with eating disorders can sometimes find change and unpredictability intolerable. It’s hard to know what to prepare for – and what if we’re not feeling ready?!
Having a tolerance for uncertainty and learning to keep grounded during transitional periods is a skill that can be learnt.
Exams and results: taking steps to tolerating difficult emotions
Resilience – having a tolerance for what life throws at us – is necessary in order to go about day-to-day life without experiencing overwhelming stress and anxiety. Google defines it as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” – it’s something that people can naturally develop, or it can be something actively learned.
We know that people suffering with eating disorders can feel enormous pressure around exams, and that results can be a trigger for intensifying eating disorder behaviours. A tendency for “black and white” thinking can cause people to catastrophise quickly, whilst having little tolerance for – and a fear towards – the unknown. This is a lot for one person to process and deal with.
Perfectionism and balancing the nervous system
Recently, we picked up a copy of Bodies Arising: Fall in Love with your Body and Remember your Divine Essence by Psychologist and Psychotherapist, Nichole Schnackenberg. Within the book, Nichole explains Professor Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance model and how exposure to perceived threat or trauma can make us vulnerable to shifting in and out of our window of tolerance.
To explain, our window of tolerance is defined as: “a state within which emotions can be tolerated and information integrated”. So often in eating disorders, we witness people in a state where they cannot tolerate their emotions, and instead engage in behaviours that distract them from tuning into their emotions and how they feel within our bodies. This, like many coping mechanisms, is a survival response that has developed to help us feel safe and fearless, when we’d otherwise feel overwhelmed with fear.
How to stop your habit of comparing
When we’re browsing through social media feeds, we’re judging ourselves against someone’s outer world – not their inner world. Social media is driven by positive engagements, meaning that often people’s posts will strive to reinforce the positive. As a result of this, when we’re comparing ourselves to someone on social media, we’re comparing ourselves to information that isn’t fact. It’s worth doing a social media “review” to clear out anything that causes you to reflect negatively on yourself – it’s okay to follow accounts that encourage you to love yourself and it’s okay to unfollow people who cause the opposite.
Navigating relationships with an eating disorder
An eating disorder thrives on isolation; it actively keeps people at a distance so that attention limited to only a few specific things. At the very beginning of someone’s recovery journey, we often find that people have very few close friends or intimate relationships as their eating disorder forms a seemingly “protective” barrier between them and the outside world.
This protective barrier can be indicative of what may have caused the eating disorder in the first place. Often, an eating disorder develops after something or someone has taught the individual that the world is not as safe as they once thought, and the eating disorder serves as a protective shield against being hurt or harmed once more. Like we’ve said previously, they develop from seemingly good intentions, but it is really a false sense of security and control.
In this way, people with eating disorders may feel (or may feel deep down) significant anxiety when someone appears to be getting too close. The eating disorder’s control is threatened, so it keeps people at a distance so it can have you all to itself.