Returning to School after Eating Disorder Treatment
Returning to the classroom can be difficult after eating disorder treatment. Transitioning back to school life may involve adjusting to new educators, having a new schedule, adopting a higher level of independence or even taking on a more rigorous curriculum.
The stress of being able to live up to expectations or meet certain academic goals can push you back into disordered eating and cause you to restrict your food intake or purge, to cope. Whether you’re returning to school after summer break or are returning to school mid-year after being in a treatment program, here are some ways to manage your eating disorder as you go back to school.
Have a Plan
For those in high school or middle school, returning to the classroom after an eating disorder treatment program can be especially difficult. During treatment, you’re able to structure your meals in a specific way and have gotten used to that routine. However, throughout the school day, there are specific times and places where eating is allowed. While you prepare to return to the classroom, you can slowly transition your eating schedule to align more closely with the routine you’ll have at school. This gives you time to adjust to your new schedule, making it less stressful. You can also stick to this schedule on the weekends so it’s consistent.
For those in undergraduate or graduate programs, classes aren’t as structured. Some are only offered on certain days or only have a few time blocks to choose from, which can make it hard to establish a routine between classes since each day of the week can look completely different. While your class schedule might be turbulent, you can still maintain your eating schedule. Outside of scientific laboratories, most lecture halls and professors allow eating during class. Bringing your meals and snacks with you during class usually doesn’t present an issue. If you have a problem with eating in public, you can take a seat in the back of the classroom where people can’t see or hear you. Your professor also might have breaks during class, which can also provide an opportunity for you to eat.
Know Your Limits and Boundaries
Many of those with an eating disorder have the desire to be perfect, and oftentimes this translates into academic performance or involvement in extracurricular activities. When returning to school, it’s important to remember that you are still recovering from your eating disorder and recovery should be your top priority. It may be best to cut down on sports or extracurricular activities, especially those that may have been a point of stress that contributed to your disordered eating behaviors.
This might also involve resetting expectations for yourself and reminding yourself that you don’t need to be top of your class, president of a club or organization or team captain in order to be happy or feel accomplished. It’s important to remember you can still enjoy activities and succeed academically without burning yourself out or trying to be the best. Ambition is a great trait, but it should never come at the cost of your mental health and wellbeing.
When you return to school, this might also be a great time to learn how to say “no.” Sometimes we can feel pressured to take on more than we can bear as to not feel weak or incompetent. But knowing what you can and cannot do is not incompetency or weakness. Saying “no” is a valuable skill, and important to maintaining your recovery. It is the ability to be transparent about your needs and boundaries, which ultimately helps you maintain your recovery until you get to the point where you can happily say “yes,” knowing you’re willing and able to take on the challenge or obligation.
Know Your Safe Coping Mechanisms
It can be tempting to return to old coping mechanisms when you’re feeling stressed. Knowing your safe coping mechanisms and keeping them in the front of your mind reminds you that there is another way other than your eating disorder. Maybe this means going for a walk between classes, taking a few minutes to meditate on your way to or from school, practicing deep breathing during class, journaling at the end of the day or doing some other activity you enjoy once you get home.
Reach Out to Your Support System
Having people in your corner to support you during this time will make all the difference. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to members of your support system for help.
One way is to be a part of a support group for those with eating disorders. When someone has a similar lived experience, they can give you advice and support from a place of true understanding that others in your support system don’t have.
For students in high school and middle school, you can involve school counselors, nurses and administrators in your recovery. Working with them can help make recovery during school easier, as they might be able to offer a place for you to eat in private or work with you for alternative scheduling or education opportunities if you find your transition particularly hard.