College Life & Spirituality: A Key to Staying in Eating Disorder Recovery

Article Contributed By: Kirsten Haglund, Community Relations Specialist, Timberline Knolls

Any life transition is hard. In my opinion, the transition into middle school is probably the worst in any young girl’s life; with braces, hormones, growth spurts and acne… I think that one “takes the cake.”

However, each life transition has it’s own trials worthy of caution and grief, and while they hold lots of promise and potential, they usually also come with unpredictability, change, uncertainty and loss. Transitions out of the status quo into the unknown can be terrifying, and these seasons of life can be accompanied by the onset of depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, or other behavioral health issues.

Facing Emotional Extremes When At College

The transition to college, in particular, is one that comes with wide extremes of emotional variability. On the one hand, it’s exciting:

  • First time living away from home
  • First step on the journey to becoming independent
  • The prospect of learning new and beautiful things
  • Making new friends
  • Exploring all that life has to offer

On the other hand, it’s scary – you realize mom and dad aren’t at your service any more, money doesn’t grow on trees, you have a lot (ok, a ton) of new responsibilities, and the only person accountable for your success or failure is you. It is a pretty daunting time in any person’s life, fraught with joy but also self- doubt and fear.

Why Eating Disorders Can Develop in College

College-aged women, too, are at a very high risk for developing eating disorders, because of the focus on appearance and weight amongst college women (and young women in general), and also because of the instability of life on a college campus, the pressure to do, look, and perform a certain way, and the general lack of resources and support. For someone trying to stay free and strong in their eating disorder recovery, the college transition can be tricky to navigate.

However, I believe (and I know from experience), that it is possible – it takes knowing what you’re getting in to, making a plan, and embracing the unknown. That’s the only special cocktail mixture that will do you any good when entering in to the most wonderful, exhausting, and potentially empowering four years of your life.

Charting the Course: What to Know Going Into College

  1. You are Responsible for You

  2. All decisions you make on your own now: what to eat and when, when to study, who to go out with, when to come home at night, how to prioritize, etc. While this can be freeing, it also can be overwhelming. No one is setting your schedule, few people are holding you accountable. This can be a great opportunity to learn responsibility, but there are definitely some tools we will discuss that can help make the newfound freedom of college a less stressful.

  3. New People, New Social Scene, Total Change in Support Group

  4. You might be happy to leave some high school friends behind – but with college comes a totally different network of friends, groups, cliques, and faces in general. Some people you’ll fit in great with – others, not so much. College is just as much about learning “academics” as it is learning how to find positive, caring people with whom to surround yourself. This also means practicing separating from toxic individuals whose lifestyles and conversations might be triggering to you if you’re in recovery.

  5. The Pressure of Invincibility

  6. With college come high expectations – from your parents (“it’s so expensive!”), from your peers, from the world (“a college degree is everything!”), from your professors. It is easy to be crushed under the weight of unrealistic expectations if you become a slave to measuring up. We know that perfectionism and the pressure to “do it all” and never show any emotion or strain – can be deadly. Especially for those who’ve struggled with an eating disorder. The truth is, we can conflate and inflate all of the expectations placed upon us during our college years, and rather than motivate us, they can make life miserable.

Staying the Course: Not Just Surviving, but Thriving

  1. Establish a Routine

  2. Knowing all of these changes are headed your way, it’s good to establish a plan for how to deal with them. Meet the challenges head on! One of the best ways to do this is develop a routine before you start the semester. It may be subject to change, but decided roughly when you’ll eat each day, how you’ll make time for snack breaks (even if no one else is doing it), when you’ll get regular moderate exercise, setting a “bed-time.”

    As you get into the groove with your class schedule, decide how much time you’ll spend during the day and weekend studying, versus “play” time. Set aside time each day to be in the Word, do a devotional, prayer time, or meditation in order to give your mind and heart some “space” from the busy-ness of class, homework, social life. Moderation, balance, and your relationship with God do not just happen – they need to be planned, committed to and practiced.

  3. Get Involved on Campus

  4. One of the greatest things about the college transition is the ability to get involved and engaged with a wide variety of service organizations, charities, athletic teams, the performing arts, Greek life. All of these can be hugely beneficial in boosting self-esteem, meeting new people and offer a much-needed break from studying. College is also a great place to fellowship with others who have a faith walk and make spirituality a part of their every day life.

    Your campus might even have a faith-based recovery or body-image group. Join! Get involved. Connect with other young people who have walked the path you’ve walked. Utilize faith-based counselors or the health center on campus to keep in check with your recovery. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other friends in your church group, recovery group, or other activity group for support. It’s what they are there for!

  5. Practice Acceptance

  6. The college experience becomes much more enjoyable (and more life-giving) when you come to terms with what you can control, and what you cannot. It is a great place to continue practicing the acceptance that we learn about in recovery. At first, in eating disorder recovery, we learn about accepting our bodies. Then we graduate to accepting ourselves, accepting the situation, accepting negative emotions, that a lot of things are out of our control, that there is a lack of perfection which seems to invade every part of our lives.

    We accept that by ourselves, we cannot earn love or admiration or respect. We accept that it is by grace alone that we have or can do anything. With the challenges and unrealistic expectations in college, the ED voice can beckon, from out of nowhere.

    The strongest weapon against the enemy is making him toothless by refusing to enslave oneself again to those unreachable standards – whether it be:

    • A certain weight
    • A relationship status
    • A GPA
    • Grad school acceptance
    • An internship

    Your worth cannot be measure by any metric the world proposes. This is a lesson we must re-learn daily, even after graduation. Fighting the battle for a right understanding of our relationship with God, ourselves, and the world, is one that begins, very much, in college.

Plan Ahead for the Challenges of Transitions

Those four years spent at University can be some of the most thrilling and the most challenging. For those in recovery from an eating disorder, the college transition is one to plan for, not one that has the power to de-rail you.

I made it through my college years, and it strengthened my recovery, as I learned to accept what I could not control, found fellowship with other believers and women who had won the fight against their eating disorder, and felt empowered that I could make healthy lifestyle decisions on my own – and be okay. With the right tools, and the right support, and a commitment to that faith walk which is so key to understanding grace – “Recovered” in college is not a dream, it is a life-saving reality.

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.