Any major life change can cause a person to experience anxiety, stress, and feelings of vulnerability as they adjust to their new surroundings. Moving away from home and starting college is, often, the first such transition in a person’s life. And all too often, the stress of that transition, paired with the ongoing high-pressure college environment, can trigger an eating disorder, says the University of Alabama’s Mary Boggiano, Ph.D. Often, eating disorders emerge as a way for the individual to gain a sense of control in their life. When uprooting their living situations, taking challenging classes, navigating new social dynamics, working part time jobs, and learning what it means to be out on their own, college students are, not surprisingly, particularly vulnerable to feeling out of control, even if they’re having fun.
A second element, which doesn’t help, is the growth (in both number and sophistication) of pro-eating disorder websites, as documented by NPR earlier this summer. Such sites offer community and networking features, much like more general social networking sites. Users encourage and motivate one another to continue their eating disorders, and post photos of dangerously thin celebrities for “thinspiration.” Experts say that people struggling with eating disorders may gravitate to such sites because they feel isolated or misunderstood by those around them who do not have eating disorders. The viral nature of the internet makes the sites particularly threatening, as people who may have otherwise sought help may find it easier to embrace the “encouragement” of pro-eating disorder websites.
The challenge of overcoming eating disorders is twofold: knowing how to identify dangerous behavior, and connecting people who suffer to resources that can help them recover. College campuses offer counseling services that can refer students to more specialized help if they need it. But students also need to be willing to look out for their peers. If a roommate, classmate, or friend becomes preoccupied with his or her weight or caloric intake, becomes obsessive about exercise, frequently skips meals, appears to have guilt or negative feelings associated with food, purges after eating, or relies on diet pills or laxatives, these can all be signs of an eating disorder. It is essential for that person to seek counseling (and possibly medical attention) immediately to avoid the long-term and often life-threatening health problems associated with eating disorders.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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