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The Transition Into College & Eating Disorders

The transition from high school to college is a celebrated milestone for many families. Students are often excited about the opportunity to have independence, make new friends, and experience life outside of the home. However, no matter how excited a teen might be, the transition into college life has unique struggles. Unfortunately for some students, new stressors can lead to disordered behavior, including the emergence of eating disorders.

The new college environment and lack of parental structure will leave college students to forge new eating habits. In some circumstances, a college student’s efforts to make structure out of the chaos of a new environment can result in disordered eating and exercise. Students may wish to “prove themselves” in how well they can take care of themselves independently, which can result in an unnecessary emphasis on pathological thinness. Extreme dieting or purging behaviors may provide stressed students with a sense of control in their lives when everything seems overwhelming. Struggles to form new friendships or feelings of isolation may damage a student’s self-esteem, which may cause them to find faults in their physical appearances and take extreme measures to change them. All of these are ways in which the transition to college life can bring about the emergence of an eating disorder.

Because of the unique vulnerabilities of this transition, it is important to be familiar with some warning signs that a family member or friend might be suffering from an eating disorder. The central symptoms to all eating disorders are distress and anxiety surrounding food consumption and/or physical appearance. People suffering from any eating disorder may express self-loathing or self-critical talk focused on their physical appearance or eating habits. There are also more warning signs that may be indicative of a certain eating disorder. Signs of anorexia nervosa include avoidance and lying about food consumption, excessive exercise, and serious weight loss. Bulimia nervosa may appear as buying and hiding large amounts of food, disappearing after meals, and physical symptoms such as bad breath and tooth decay. Warning signs of binge eating disorder include rapid weight gain, eating in private, and withdrawal or depression. If a person sustains eating and exercise habits that are dangerous, unmanageable, and destructive to everyday life, seeking professional treatment is crucial.

A treatment which has powerful and evidence-based success for those suffering from eating disorders is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT is to recognize and change unhealthy thought patterns which drive eating disorders, and teach individuals skills to manage unhealthy behaviors. CBT functions on the active participation of the client in forming goals for his or her treatment, which accelerates the healing progress, resulting in a shorter course of treatment than other therapies. Therapeutic techniques must be tailored to each unique individual to provide the most effective treatment. Additionally, therapists may include teaching mindfulness as a way to cope with distressing thoughts and emotions, and nutritional counseling to define appropriate food intake. Eating disorders are some of the most destructive mental illnesses, with high fatality rates. However, with the proper treatment, individuals can heal and restore healthy habits with eating and exercise.

Certain myths and misconceptions may stand in the way of a person realizing they have an eating disorder or seeking help. Some of these may include:

  • “Only wealthy, white women get eating disorders.” In reality, a person of any gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status can have an eating disorder. Though it is more prevalent in females, males are also susceptible to eating disorders.
  • “Eating disorders are a cry for attention.” This is often the opposite of the truth, because many of those who are suffering from an eating disorder will go to lengths to hide their feelings or behaviors. They may fear disappointing friends or family or being forced to change their habits. This results in suffering in silence.
  • “A person who is normal or overweight cannot have an eating disorder” or “You can tell a person has an eating disorder by looking at them.” Being underweight is not a prerequisite for all eating disorders. In fact, people suffering from bulimia nervosa are often a normal weight, and people with binge eating disorder can become overweight or obese. People with eating disorders can be any shape or size.

These misconceptions can be extremely disruptive when they prevent someone from seeking treatment. College students, as well as their friends and family members, must be aware of the realities of eating disorders during this vulnerable time. For parents of teens going to college, summer vacation can be a valuable time to have important conversations about maintaining a healthy relationship with food and self-esteem. If your teen or young adult child is suffering from an eating disorder, getting the right treatment in a timely manner is critical. At GroundWork in Orlando, we provide evidence-based CBT treatment with therapist specifically trained to treat eating disorders for those who are struggling. 

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