Starting college is a major milestone in a young person’s life. New friends, a demanding course load and part-time jobs, not to mention the freedom of being away from home for the first time, make college an exciting yet stressful time.
While stress can be healthy, it can also lead to dangerous behaviors such as eating disorders. Many young men and women develop eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder during college as a way to feel in control of an otherwise unmanageable life. Social pressures to live up to unrealistic ideals of beauty and efforts to avoid the dreaded “freshman 15” can also lead to excessive dieting, compulsive exercising, and bingeing and purging behaviors.
Eating Disorder Signs
College students and their friends and family should be on the lookout for common signs of eating disorders, including:
- A preoccupation with counting calories, fat grams and carbohydrates
- A need to weigh oneself more than once a day, and allowing the numbers on the scale to determine mood
- Obsessing over exercise, and using it to burn every calorie eaten rather than to stay healthy
- Eating compulsively or in secret
- Feeling ashamed or guilty after eating
- Worrying endlessly about weight and body shape
- Abusing laxatives or diet pills
Preventing Eating Disorders Among College Students
Effectively managing stress is a skill that college students will use for the rest of their lives. Some ways to keep stress levels in check include:
Develop a Support Network. A support network of close friends and loved ones can provide the assurance and encouragement you need to get through stressful times. Participating in extracurricular activities and on-campus clubs can help you build this network during college.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle. A healthy diet, regular physical activity and a consistent sleep schedule can combat stress, improve mood and boost energy. Practicing yoga, deep breathing or relaxation exercises can also relieve tension.
Avoid Alcohol and Artificial Stimulants. A growing number of college students are turning to caffeine pills or prescription medications to stay awake all night or get an edge on the competition. Many others stay up all hours drinking and partying and then expect to be able to perform in their 8 a.m. class. Pushing your body to its max causes stress and exhaustion, making it difficult to function.
Make Time for Fun. Even if studying has become a full-time job, try to schedule a couple hours of fun each week. By continuing a hobby or activity you enjoy, you’ll be less likely to lose your sense of self or buckle under the pressure of college life.
Get Help Early. If you suspect that you or a loved one might be developing an eating disorder, get help right away. Eating disorders are life-threatening diseases that get worse over time, not better. You can start by talking with the campus counseling center, a family doctor or a community support program like Overeaters Anonymous.
Because of the nature of these diseases, many college students with eating disorders will require professional eating disorder treatment. The best eating disorder treatment programs provide individual and group counseling, family therapy, medical monitoring, meal planning, restaurant and grocery store outings, and other interventions to help college students address the emotions underlying their eating disorder and learn healthier coping skills.
Stress is a natural part of life, but no college class or social engagement is worth sacrificing your health and well-being. By getting help to manage stress and anxiety, you can begin to balance school, friends, family and life while also taking good care of yourself.