Coping with an eating disorder at university

Submitted by Elise

I’m Elise*, aged 21 and I am in my third year of university. (*name has been changed)

Being at university and having an eating disorder can be challenging.  I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 13, and at times throughout my struggle the idea of going to university felt like an impossible dream. However, by the time I applied for university I’d had been discharged from CAMHS and was doing really well in my recovery. I was in a good place; feeling physically and mentally strong, excited about the next chapter of my story, and confident that the next three years at university would be an amazing adventure.

“At first everything was great. Living away from home, meeting new friends, and a non-stop social life was so much fun!”

However, once the initial buzz had calmed down and it was time to buckle down to my studies the self-doubt kicked in. I felt homesick, missing my boyfriend (who was at another university 200 miles away), my younger sisters, and my dog. Uni work was harder than I’d expected, and I started to worry if I was actually capable of doing a degree. I think these are common struggles for any student, but when you have an eating disorder, emotions and feelings are amplified and old ‘voices’ can start to kick in.

I went home for Christmas, and back in my familiar surroundings with my family I felt good again. I was sure it had just been a blip due to the huge life change and that everything would be ok when I went back to uni.

However, over time when I went back, I noticed I was struggling with things I hadn’t struggled with for a long time. I found it hard being around my housemates when they were eating, judging them on what they were (or weren’t) eating. I felt bad for having these thoughts and started avoiding the kitchen when anyone was in it. As there were eight of us sharing a kitchen, my housemates were in and out all the time, so it was hard to get in there on my own to make something for myself. I started binge-eating junk food that I didn’t need to cook in my room.

“I was really scared of going backwards.”

After all the years of therapy and being in recovery, it was hard to admit that I was struggling and at first I didn’t ask for help. I managed to get through to the end of first year and went home, throwing myself back into life with my old friends and getting a part-time job for the holidays. I pushed the eating disorder aside and felt like ‘me’ again.

As the summer came to an end, I started to dread the thought of going back to university. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, because I did – I liked my course and had made some good friends – but because I knew the eating problems and anxieties would return. I was determined not to fall back into old habits, so I took the step of opening up to my boyfriend first, and then my parents and a few close friends. I told them that I was struggling again, which was terrifying as I felt I’d them down, but they were all great and gave me the love and support I needed.

With the help of a friend for moral support, I went to student services and asked about counselling.  I was surprised at how much help was available for students struggling with mental health, and they make it really easy to access. My university offers free counselling as well as workshops, wellbeing activities and online resources and apps.

Counselling has been brilliant for helping me to get back on track. It prompted me to find other ways of feeling in control, such as staying organised and on top of my university work, so that I worry less about food. I also have to-do lists and plan my meals to have structure and control of my days, which I found really helped my anxiety.

My advice if you’re struggling with an eating disorder at university

Ask for help – I can’t stress enough how important this is. If you are struggling, please reach out to your family, friends; anyone who you know who can support you. Use your university’s services, they are there to help. You don’t have to go through it alone.

Get organised – Getting organised, keeping on top of your work (speak to your tutors if you are struggling), planning your food and your day will help keep your mind clear, meaning you won’t end up off track or forgetting to eat.

Look after your mind – Remember to make time for you. Do the things you love and spend time with friends. It’s just as important as studying!

Overall being at university when you’re in recovery or have recovered from an eating disorder is challenging but not impossible. With the right support and help you can overcome these challenges and achieve everything you want during your time at university.

Sources of further support

Here are some organisations that specialise in supporting students:
Student Minds
University Mental Health Advisors Network
Students Against Depression

If you are a student yourself and experiencing an eating disorder or eating distress, or worried about someone who is at university, talk to us. We have a range of support services to help.

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