College Life and Academic Pressures: When Eating Disorders Become an Outlet for Stress

Article Contributed By: Michelle Lippey, Lamplight Counselling

summertime_sadness_by_xmicolx-d59kkdpI loved my college years but they were extremely stressful. My first class was in a room called Hut B1 in a mysterious area entitled “lower-middle campus”. The week before semester started, we had an “orientation week” designed to show students around the campus and introduce student societies etc.

Even though I’d attended orientation-week every day (and by attended I mean I played Frisbee on the library lawn and joined the film and theatre society,) I had no idea where Hut B1 was. Needless to say, I was late to my first class and the full first hour was devoted to the virtues of punctuality. I considered myself thoroughly slapped on the wrist.

Coping with Additional Stress

But college can be stressful for a whole range of reasons. For a lot of people it’s the first time you’ve ever lived away from home. That can mean experiencing the stress of splitting bills in a share-house or negotiating 2am parties in a dorm for the very first time.

Second, most high schools simply have fewer people than the average college so if you felt important where you were, it’s easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond. Third, even if you were a dedicated student focused on high-achievement in high school, the workload in most college courses is much more demanding and it can be hard to keep up.

Finally, many colleges are extremely competitive when it comes to athletics so if you’re expecting to be an A-grade athlete at college, it can mean sticking to a demanding training routine, attending classes, working part-time and still finding time to keep up with family and friends.

Putting Up a Facade to Look Like You’re Coping

If you’re the kind of person who deals with pressure by working harder, all of those factors can create a lot of strain. Many people around you might seem to be coping effortlessly, but that’s rarely the case.

If you’ve also had a pre-existing fear about food and a pre-occupation (or full-blown obsession) with your weight, shape and size then college can be an extremely difficult time. In addition, there can be whole new levels of social pressure around being thin that you’re just not used to dealing with.

New Food, New Schedule, New Stress

Monroe_Community_College_CafeteriaFor a start, you might suddenly have to deal with food stresses you never had to worry about before. Maybe there is a range of food outlets on campus and suddenly you have to make food choices you never had to make before. If college is the first time you’ve had to plan meals or cook for yourself that can be challenging too.

And if you express stress by eating less or eating more, you might find it difficult to deal with the emotional fall out that follows. Maybe that means struggling with more guilt when you’ve eaten something you didn’t used to eat.

Maybe it means loosing a lot of weight because you just don’t get enough time or enough calm to eat regularly. It might mean both. Either way, it’s a really good idea to get some help if you find your eating disordered behaviours increasing.

It might mean being honest with your house-mates about your struggles with food, seeing a counsellor who has specialised training in eating disorders or seeking out courses in how to prepare simple, healthy meals that don’t take an age to prepare.

Eating and Exercising Can Become Disordered

If you’re prone to exercise compulsively, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on how you’re exercising. A bit of gentle exercise can help improve your mood but if you’re constantly raising the bar on your exercise routine and it’s never enough, it might be a good idea to pull back on exercise altogether.

Exercises like yoga, tai chi or gentle walking can all help to moderate your anxiety better than high-energy aerobics or running marathons.

Asking For Help Is a Necessary Step

3088120425_0eeb73ecef_zIt might not be in your nature to ask for help. The important thing to remember is that asking for help is perfectly normal and it gets easier the more you do it. Most colleges offer free or low cost counselling through the student centre and that might be a really good place to start.

Talking to family and friends can also be difficult if you think they won’t understand. But finding people who can support you will really help if your college stress is coming out as an obsession with food, weight, shape or size.

None of this is to say that college can’t be wonderful. For me, it was an exciting time of taking classes that interested me. I met like-minds in areas that I’d always wanted to know more about. But it might mean managing your workload and stress levels in new ways, a way that allows you to enjoy all the wonderful parts of college without becoming too overwhelmed!

About the Author:

Michelle Lippey: B. Arts (Hons), B. Sci (Psych), Grad Dip. Counselling

I am a qualified Counsellor and member of the ACA (the Australian Counsellors Association). I have worked for Butterfly, Foundation for Eating Disorders in Australia and specialise in my private practice treating Eating Disorders. I have frequently counselled via Skype as well as face-to-face. My website is:


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