Updated July 07, 2014.
It is well-documented that periods of transition are high risk for both the development of eating disorders and for relapses. Leaving home for college is one of the most exciting and liberating times in one's life. However, it can also be scary and emotionally challenging. The issues surrounding this transition can challenge even the most stable recovery. Learn what you can do to make this transition smoothly and without an eating disorder to worry about.
Choose your college with recovery in mind. When you tour colleges and think about where you would like to go, not only is it important to choose a great town and a college that offers your major of choice. It is also important to think about how the college with either support or hinder your recovery. Does the college offer counseling services? Is it close to home or far away? Do you find a smaller college to be more supportive than a larger school?
Be realistic about your schedule. The first semester of college can be challenging for anyone. Keep this in mind as you choose your classes and create your schedule. Be honest with yourself about how many semester hours you can truly handle without getting burned out. You may also want to consider taking classes that you would consider less challenging this semester rather than committing to classes that will be stressful and take up a lot of time and energy. This is also true of your extracurricular activities. Be wary of signing up for multiple commitments.
If you find that you have extra time on your hands, you can always add things to your schedule at a later time.
Set up counseling services before you leave. Even if you've been in recovery for awhile, it's a smart idea to locate a counselor (either on or off campus) and set up an appointment for after you arrive. If you begin struggling with your eating disorder (or other issues) you will already have someone to talk with about it. If things go smoothly, simply use the appointment to check in with someone locally. If you are currently seeing a therapist and/or dietician, make sure to arrange for your previous treatment team to forward records to your new counselor. This will help make the transition easier.
Plan your meal times. Many of my clients who are also students complain about college cafeterias and eating options. Sometimes, the cafeteria is only open for a limited amount of time, making it difficult to get a meal if you have a class that overlaps. Limited dining options and a lack of support at meals can also be triggering and stressful. Find out what your on campus and off campus dining options are beforehand. Seek out supportive people to eat with on a regular basis and work with your dietician to create possible combinations of foods. You may also want to consider types of foods that can be easily stored in your room. If you struggle with binge eating, you may want to plan to only purchase limited amounts of non-triggering foods to keep on hand.
Identify your red flags. Work with your therapist, dietician or a support person to identify red flags that you should be watching for. These will certainly include overt symptoms of your eating disorder but may also include things that might not be so obvious such as skipping breakfast or beginning to feel anxious and/or depressed. These red flags will be unique to you.
Connect. Connect. Connect. One of the most helpful ways that my clients report being supported in recovery is to connect with supportive people. Going to college where you may not know anyone can make connection really, really difficult. Plan ahead of time to call or Skype regularly with your family and friends back home. Seek out people to connect with at school. These may be people you meet in your dorm, classes or in various student groups. It can be anxiety-provoking to put yourself out there and make new friendships, but you are worth the effort!
Regardless of how much planning and effort you make to prepare for your transition to college, it still may be difficult. And, you still may experience a relapse. Don't beat yourself up. If this happens to you, make an appointment and get into treatment again. The faster you begin addressing the issues, the faster you'll be back in recovery.