It is that time of year; if you are starting or returning to college, you may have spent the last several weeks making to-do lists for all the things you need to buy, pack, and accomplish before you move into your dorm or apartment. And now, you’re getting ready to move in, maybe meet new roommates or reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a while. The buzz of energy on campus is palpable. This is an exciting time, but parts of it can also be scary and stressful.

College is a time of significant transition, exploration, and discovery. This may be the first time in your life where you are living on your own, making more autonomous decisions about both your present and future, and this may be a time where your awareness of your body and how it changes grows or continues to grow. Studies have shown that college is a time where many people develop an eating disorder for the first time. There are several factors that can contribute to the development of eating disorders in college students.
Studies show that many eating disorders develop between the ages of 18 and 21, and that between 10 and 20% of women and 4 to 10% of men suffer from eating disorders in college. These poignant statistics make it all the more important to be aware of some of the triggers that can contribute to students developing eating disorders in college. If we can identify some of the common triggers, we can be better-equipped to handle them proactively before a recurring trigger turns into a full-blown eating disorder.

Eating Disorders in College: 5 of the Most Common Triggers Reported Amongst College Students

1. Fear of the “Freshman 15”

 We have all heard about it. You may even have had family and friends joke about it. The fear-mongering that surrounds weight gain in college is something that can impact our body image and relationship with food before we even step on campus. The hyperfocus on potential weight shifts at the beginning of college can make you hypervigilant to changes in your body and can cause you to perceive changes you notice negatively.

2. Changes in Food Routines and Accessibility

When you were at home, you may have been used to a parent or guardian doing the grocery shopping, making meals, and providing some kind of structure (even if only consequently) to the times you ate each day. Having this structure at home may have made it so you didn’t actually have to think about food choices, routines, or accessibility often. Many of these decisions may have been made for you.

When you start college, you all of the sudden have to make *all* of your food decisions: where to eat, when to eat, what to eat. Suddenly you may feel like you are at the mercy of the on-campus dining hall. This can cause a variety of responses when adjusting to college life: if you have internalized a fear of gaining weight while in college, you may feel a lot of dissonance about the amount of responsibility you feel to “make the right choices” when it comes to food. You may find yourself fixating on your food access and consumption, which could end up complicating your relationship with food.

3. Social Pressure

 Many people experience a significant social transition when starting college. You will meet new people, make new friends, find your niche within classes and on campus. Some college students report feeling an increased amount of social pressure to look a certain way in order to “fit in” in college – whether that is with an athletic team you are on, new roommates, potential romantic partner, or a certain club you want to join. There is a lot of social pressure that accompanies many students as they acclimate to college life, and you may feel a pull to manage this pressure through controlling some aspect of your diet in order to “manage” your appearance.

4. Increased Academic Workload and Stress

You may feel an increase in workload, specifically the amount of work you have to do outside of class, in comparison to your high school years. This can contribute to more stress than what you are used to, and you may find that this stress impacts your body image, your relationship with food, and/or your eating habits.

5. Significant Changes in Your Daily Routine

When you’re in college, your days won’t follow the same routine that you may be used to from high school: school all day, every day, followed by an afternoon or night of sports, extracurriculars, hanging out with friends, homework, or some combination of these. Now you have class sporadically through the days, a night class once a week, no Friday classes (yay!), and a lot of unstructured time that you have to decide what to do with. This perceived lack of structure can sometimes cause temporary discomfort, which some try to alleviate through implementing regimented routines with food choices, eating times, or exercise regimens.

These are only a few of the many transitions and challenges students report can or have triggered the onset of eating disorders in college. I, personally, wish I would have been more aware of how influential some of these triggers could be in forming and shaping my relationships with food and my body during my own college years. Awareness can help you notice a potentially harmful thought or behavior and intervene before it turns into a complicated relationship with food, your body, or an eating disorder.

 Tips for Addressing Potential Eating Disorder Triggers in College

If you notice these or other triggers starting to interfere with your ability to enjoy food, social events, or any other aspect of your college life, your relationship with your body and your body image, consider the following tips:

1. Assess the Trigger(s)

Once you have identified what is triggering negative thoughts about your body or food, think about whether or not this is a trigger you can eliminate entirely, or if it is one you can work to manage differently. For instance, if you find that the increased workload is causing you to try to control your diet more, the increased workload may not be something you can eliminate entirely. But are there other ways that you can manage this workload? Can you create a regimented study and homework schedule? Can you wake up an hour earlier to increase your productivity in the morning? Conversely, if you find that one of your main triggers is that you are fearing weight gain, that may be a trigger we can work to eliminate entirely through therapy and other means of dismantling this internalized fear.

2. Sensory Evaluation

If you are struggling with food, consider doing a sensory evaluation when you walk into the dining hall, on-campus coffee shop, your dorm room, or any other space where you may be eating:

  1. Are you hungry for a whole meal or a snack?
  2. Do you want something sweet or savory? Crunchy or soft? Warm or cold?

This can be a helpful tool for addressing a variety of triggers, as it can help you check in with your body, become more in-tuned to what your body is communicating in terms of how it’s feeling and what it’s craving. This can also help you make autonomous food decisions that do not rely on what your friend is eating, what you feel like you should or shouldn’t be eating, on any other internal or external voice that may be trying to manipulate your food choices.

3. Seek Help

 If you feel like you may be developing a strained relationship with your boy and/or food, it is never too early or too late to seek help. Get in touch with your on-campus counseling services, reach out to a practice in the area, or simply start with telling a trusted friend or adult in your life what you are experiencing.

Learn about these and more tips directly from Dr. Colleen Reichmann in the video below:

The presence of eating disorders in college can be serious, and can rob you of the opportunity to really live during this formative time in your life. You deserve to have a college experience that is full of self-discovery, learning, enjoyment (yes, that includes enjoyment of food, too!), social connection, and growth. There are so many parts of you and your life that are waiting to be developed during college – and let’s work to safeguard your mind and body so that an eating disorder is not one of them.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Eating Disorder Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions you may experience while on your eating disorder recovery journey, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health , maternal mental health, therapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!