It’s back-to-school time for parents and students across the country. Big changes in routine are an adjustment for anyone, and especially for people in eating disorder recovery. In addition to shifting schedules, these individuals often face additional difficulties this time of year. This article covers the potential triggers that can come with going back to school, as well as strategies for coping with these challenges in eating disorder recovery.
Student Mental Health Crisis
In 2021, more than a third of surveyed high school students in the U.S. reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year, according to a recent CDC study. In a 2020 survey of 1,000 parents around the country, 71% said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health.
While we may have avoided widespread lockdowns during the last school year, the effects of the pandemic on mental health still linger. Given this trend, it is no surprise that the number of people in need of eating disorder treatment has skyrocketed over the past few years. Being aware of the eating disorder triggers associated with going back to school is crucial to protecting your or your child’s recovery.
Potential Back-to-School Triggers
There are several unique challenges associated with going back to school in eating disorder recovery. Below are some examples of potential triggers facing a child or teen this fall:
Bullying can be extremely harmful to someone who is recovering from an eating disorder. In fact, as many as 65% of people with eating disorders say bullying contributed to their condition (NEDA). Weight-based bullying, in particular, is a common form of bullying that can have a massive impact on a person’s body image.
If bullying contributed to the development of your eating disorder, it makes sense that bullying could potentially trigger you in recovery as well. The hard work done in recovery to separate worth from weight could be tested, increasing the risk for harmful eating disorder habits to remerge.
Exposure to diet culture
At school, some groups of friends relate to each other by making negative comments about their own or others’ bodies. Other groups may celebrate dieting, overexercising, or weight loss, emphasizing thinness and physical appearance. After working to unlearn these unhelpful messages and behaviors in eating disorder recovery, seeing them normalized again could understandably be upsetting.
Change in meal times and eating in public
When returning to school, you may eat lunch at a different time of day than you’ve grown used to this summer. A different lunchtime could mean a different time for breakfast and dinner as well. Eating intuitively could also be challenging when lunch is set by a school instead of the individual.
In addition, it can be hard for some students in recovery to eat in front of others at first. If this is the case for you, you may feel urges to engage in eating disorder behaviors such as restriction.
Many people with eating disorders have perfectionistic tendencies that may be magnified in a school or sports setting. Pressure may surround grades, college acceptance, sports, and other extracurricular activities. For those in recovery, a low grade or sports performance could trigger a slip into old eating disorder behaviors.
Coping with Back-to-School Triggers in Eating Disorder Recovery
Triggers will happen in recovery and setbacks can occur as a result. Fortunately, anticipating triggers and developing coping strategies can make these hard moments more manageable. Below are ways to cope with the triggers that may result from going back to the classroom:
1. Come prepared
When entering a school environment in eating disorder recovery, it is essential to have a plan in place. Create this plan with your treatment team and loved ones. It might include scheduling your therapy appointments around school and extracurriculars, planning your meals, and deciding what you might say to peers if they ask about your illness. If your health is unable to be maintained while in school, then you should plan to get the professional support needed at the level of care right for you.
2. Know your triggers
You and your treatment team are most likely aware of the situations that may trigger your eating disorder. If you can anticipate these triggers, you can plan to make these situations a little less overwhelming. If competing in a certain sport triggers you, for example, perhaps you could partake in a different activity you enjoy, like acting in the school play or joining the debate team. If people talking negatively about their bodies is a key trigger, plan how you will remove yourself from these conversations. It may be asking to change the subject or simply leaving the room or moving seats. Do whatever you need to do to protect your recovery.
3. Know what self-soothing techniques work for you
Treatment teaches coping skills for times when eating disorder thoughts are particularly loud. These can be incredibly handy when going through a transition like starting a new school year. Some self-soothing techniques include meditation, going on a walk, reading, journaling, talking with a friend, or anything that brings you a sense of peace.
4. Lean on your support people
An eating disorder thrives on secrecy and isolation. Sharing your concerns with your loved ones takes away some of the disorder’s power. Just expressing your feelings about the struggles you’re experiencing is a way to prioritize recovery, and knowing you have support can make a world of difference.
5. Continue meeting with your treatment team
Having friends and family for support is essential but it cannot replace professional help. Your multidisciplinary care team has the knowledge and skillset to help you in ways that your loved ones do not. Lean on them.
Everyone’s recovery journey is different, but no one’s is linear. Struggle is a normal part of recovery. Transitions can be an especially difficult time in anyone’s life, let alone a person recovering from a serious illness. Parents and students: Give yourselves some grace during this time. Do the best you can to prepare, and lean on the support available to you.
Additional support materials are available on the Family Resources and School Resources sections of our website. For personalized eating disorder care, contact us today at 1-855-875-5812 or complete our online form.