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Coming Home from College: Eating Disorders and College Breaks

Article Contributed by: Gregory Jantz, Founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 30 books on eating disorders and behavioral health.

Pisgah_Home_Historic_District,_Highland_ParkGoing away to college for the first time is expectedly a large adjustment. Students experience a newfound freedom to navigate through campus life—and life in general—all on their own. However, what many students and parents don’t foresee is the trying readjustment when students return to “the nest” for summer beak.

The social pressures of college and fears of the “freshman fifteen” can create new insecurities that sometimes manifest as eating disorders. For these students, coming home might be an opportunity to re-calibrate and find valuable recovery support from their parents.

When Home Is Exasperating An Eating Disorder, Not School

But for individuals struggling with an eating disorder spurred from pressures or dysfunctions in their family, this summer break readjustment is exacerbated. For most, home is a loving and safe environment. However, for some, home may have been different:

  • It could be a place where punishment was dealt out quickly, strictly, and often physically
  • Guilt or shame may have been used to control behavior
  • There are strict rules and rigid discipline
  • There might be a standard of unattainable perfection that didn’t allow for a normal, safe, carefree childhood

For young adults that grew up in these types of environments, college is a safe haven and an escape. Conversely, summer break at home is a submersion back into a toxic environment they’ve temporarily been able to escape.

College Is Not Always The Culprit of an Eating Disorder

GrouptherapyFor students seeking this escape, the autonomy of college may even have a positive effect on their eating disorders. Potentially, for the first time in their lives, they are the person in control of their own life.

While at college, they no longer need to bear the weight of their parents’ expectations, control, and sometimes even abuse. Their eating disorder may ease as they settle into the rhythm of calm, peace, and freedom at college.

This freedom, however, may come to a jolting halt when they return home from college. These students, who have adjusted to being self-sufficient adults, once again feel forced back into their role as a child. Coming home for the summer can therefore cause anxiety, stress, and ultimately worsen their disordered eating behaviors.

How to Cope With Being Home During the Summer

If you are home for summer break and struggling with an eating disorder, here are some things to keep in mind:

Elevate your relationships:

As a young adult, you now have the opportunity to approach the relationships in your life differently, and more maturely. While you ultimately cannot control how your parents or family will respond, you can make your own effort to break any unhealthy cycles and elevate the relationships.

All of us have been hurt and all of us cause pain; it’s the nature of who we are as human beings. The point is not to avoid relationships in order to avoid pain. Instead, the goal is to learn from the pain and grow as individuals dedicated to reducing the pain we cause others and ourselves.

Practice forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a major destination on your healing journey. If the child of the past and the adult of the present are to integrate fully into the healed person of the future, there comes a time to release the hurts of the past and forgive.

Forgiveness builds a solid foundation so you can grow beyond the hurt and pain fueling your anger and your patterns with food.

Create a routine:

Many students, regardless of their home life, struggle to recreate a healthy routine during the flexible summer months. If you are simultaneously struggling with an eating disorder and navigating a dysfunctional family system, having a routine during the summer can be an important part of maintaining balance.

Find a summer support group:

There are many virtual and physical groups around the country that are designed to provide you with help, hope and advice. These support groups can be a great asset to lean on during the summer months, especially as you adjust back to life at home.

Seek professional help:

Sometimes situations are too complex and painful to deal with on our own or even with the help of a support group. This is why individuals and organizations dedicate themselves to helping those struggling with dysfunctional families and eating disorders.

When evaluating treatment options, seek to find an organization or professional that understands the importance of holistic treatment, and will work with you to create an individualized recovery plan.


Resources:

Holston, J. I., & Cashwell, C. S. (2000). Research: FAMILY FUNCTIONING AND EATING DISORDERS AMONG COLLEGE WOMEN: A MODEL OF PREDICTION. Journal of College Counseling, 3(1), 5-16.

Jantz, Gregory. (2010). Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders. Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press.

Lundholm, J. K., & Waters, J. E. (1991). Dysfunctional family systems: Relationship to disordered eating behaviors among university women. Journal of substance abuse, 3(1), 97-106.

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