Going Back to School Can Trigger Eating Disorders
Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders, the nation's leading eating disorder treatment center, reports eating disorders can develop or worsen upon returning to school. A majority of eating disorders begin at ages 14 and 18, when young women enter either high school or college. Statistics show 91 percent of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting and 22 percent said they dieted "often" or "always."
"Starting a new school can create an enormous amount of anxiety for young women," said Jennifer Lafferty PhD, staff psychologist at Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders. "Going to a new school means entering a new social environment where one's social status is unclear. The majority of teens today associate being thin with being attractive, popular and well-liked by others."
In addition to fitting into a new social environment, academic stress at a new school can also contribute to the onset of an eating disorder. If a teen feels that she is failing to live up to either internally or externally imposed standards of academic success, she may begin to compensate by pursuing success or perfection in other areas of her life over which she believes she has greater control, such as her weight.
"The first year of college often involves leaving everything that is safe and familiar including friends, family and routines", adds Lafferty. "Many teens will turn to disordered eating in an attempt to regain a sense of control, safety or comfort and some will turn to overeating and emotional eating in an effort to feel comforted or to numb out painful emotions. Some may develop patterns of binging and purging, which often serve to alleviate built up stress and relief from other negative emotions."
Remuda reports the risk of developing an eating disorder is particularly high in dormitory settings. A roommate with an eating disorder often teaches other roommates, or indirectly models, eating disorder behaviors. As a result, every time a boarding school or college student gets new roommates, the risk of eating disorders increases.
If a student realizes that she is struggling with an eating disorder, or if she feels like she is becoming too preoccupied with thoughts about food, weight, or body image, she should go to her school counseling program where she can receive confidential and usually free services to address the problem. If she doesn't know about her school's guidance program, most dorms have an "RA" or Resident Advisor who can assist her in locating resources on campus.
"The increase in eating disorders is alarming," adds Lafferty. "There are several reasons why women are resorting to pathological and self-destructive means of achieving an idealized body image. The first is that we're constantly comparing ourselves to unrealistic images and models in our culture that cause us to feel negatively about our bodies. The discrepancy between the 'average' woman and the typical female figure in the media has become so severe. In addition, women have increasingly become involved in competitive athletics during the past few decades. Participation in certain sports, such as track, cross-country, swimming, gymnastics and dance, are associated with an increased risk of eating disorders. Also, daily life stress and pressure to succeed seem to have increased for many women over the past several decades."
If parents are concerned about their daughter, ask her to go to her college's counseling offices for an evaluation. If she refuses, then parents may need to confront her when she comes home for the holidays. Parents may need to let her know that she may not be able to return to school until a doctor and a therapist evaluate her.
Editor's Note: This feature was originally posted on Remuda Programs for Eating Disorders, which has been helping people recover from eating disorders for more than 20 years. It is reposted with permission.