Recovering from an Eating Disorder in College: A Survival Guide


Annie Stewart

“Hey, look at that tree, Annie. That’s just like you. Your roots go down so deep, and one day you will be like that tree—reaching out, expanding, flourishing so that you can help others.”

As I am about to begin my senior year, I am reminded of these comments my mother made to me as I began my journey at college. College has been a time of incredible growth and self-discovery, both academically and personally. My university has been the place where my passion for women’s empowerment, social justice, and global engagement has increased to a degree I never thought possible. I have found professors who care about me as an individual, who not only know my name, but also my story, my goals, and my dreams for the future. I have friends who have given me unconditional love and support through every season of life. As I reflect on my past, I am filled with gratitude. But I am also filled with sadness, because I know my experiences are not universal.

As I walk around my campus, ready to begin the new year, I think about the incoming freshman. I think about the new students arriving to campus who are nervous and scared to begin this new season of their lives. Most of all, I contemplate the incoming students who are struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating. This is one reason I am starting a support group for those struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating on my campus. I want to provide a place where others can feel safe to share their joys, trials, and everything in between. There is hope, there is healing, and there is a life free from ED. The road is never easy but it is worth it.

One of the most beneficial aspects of my recovery are the “skills” I learned in treatment. The eating disordered thoughts did not disappear once I returned from impatient treatment. Therefore, I had to replace my eating disordered thoughts with positive, realistic thoughts. I have been told that eating disordered thoughts often increase when one is undergoing a major change or life transition. This makes sense to me, because I am someone who likes order, routine, and schedules. When life feels out of control, I have been tempted to resort to old patterns. However, this is not the end of the story. You can, and you will, fight these thoughts and live a life free of ED. This takes hard work, perseverance, and patience.

Here are my top five tips for surviving college in recovery:

1. Listen to your body

As I’ve gotten older, I have become even more amazed at what our bodies can do, rather than how our bodies look. Take the time to listen to your body. When you go into the cafeteria, think, “What do I want? What do I feel like eating today?” “Is there something in particular I am craving?” Do not participate in the comparison game or body bashing. If you are feeling stressed and are tempted to revert to old patterns, engage in an activity that celebrates your body for what it can do for you, such as going for a walk, hiking, a bike ride, or another activity you enjoy. One of my favorite activities in the fall is going for a nature walk. Isn’t it amazing to watch the leaves change colors in autumn? Spend some time outdoors in our beautiful world and be amazed at the colors, the creativity that nature holds.

2. Two is better than one

One of my favorite quotes about friendship is this one, and this has been especially true for me in my recovery: “Two people are better than one, because they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach down and help.” College is great because there are so many opportunities to make friends—in the cafeteria, in the classroom, in your living area, not to mention the myriad of clubs available. However, that does not mean you have to share your story with every person you become acquainted with. Your story is valid and your experience is precious. Having a few friends, or even just one friend to confide in is enough. Everyone’s personality is different in terms of how much social interaction they need.

3. Build a community

Having a treatment team in place while you’re at school is important. Everyone’s journey is different, so it is up to you and your treatment team to determine how often to meet. Regardless, make sure to stay connected to your treatment team. Be aware that there will probably be times in the semester that are harder than others (and I don’t just mean academically). This is why we have therapists and nutritionists and doctors—to guide, listen, and encourage during those stressful and triggering times.

4. Negative to positive

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist. I remember getting second place in my 2nd grade spelling bee and hating myself for “falling short.” There are times I still have to strive for balance in the process of working hard without falling into a perfectionist mindset. Simultaneously, from a young age, I’ve been very detailed and organized. I put my whole heart into everything I do. I emphasize these traits, because a rewarding part of recovery is being able to change negative traits into positive ones. I now hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection. I use my attention to detail and organization for goodwill, like in my sociology classes. A good sociologist must be detailed and organized, but certainly not perfectionistic. Perfectionism will only hold us back from fulfilling our destinies. When the goal is perfection, we will always fall short. When the goal is perfection, we can’t stop to ‘smell the roses’ because we’re so focused on whatever it is we’re trying to be perfect at. So, how do you nip perfectionism in the bud? Three little words: Tender Loving Care (TLC—or that’s what I call it anyway—create whatever words you like!). No matter how busy and hectic life can get, it is imperative to take time just for you. Take a bubble bath, watch a movie, read a book (textbooks don’t count), go to your favorite coffee shop. The point is, do an activity you enjoy just for the sake of being kind and good to yourself. Having time for yourself will help you avoid burn out. Once you return to your studies after this TLC, you will feel more rejuvenated and ready to tackle that homework or whatever else you have to do.

Note: I have learned that everyone is different in terms of how much TLC they need, based on introversion/extroversion. I myself am an introvert but I realize every person is different. Know yourself and what you need—this will make college a much more rewarding experience!

5. Don’t forget…have fun!

All in all, college is such an amazing time in your life. Take this time to get to know yourself and others. College is one way you discover your likes and dislikes. Travel, explore, find what gives you joy and fulfillment, and pursue that with all your heart. What makes you feel fully alive? What penetrates your heart with deep passion and joy? Maybe that’s in your biology class, on the soccer field, or volunteering at an organization to help others. Everyone has a different purpose in life, and college is a wonderful time to begin that journey of self-discovery.

Wherever you are in your recovery, remember that everything happens for a reason. I never even thought I could go to college and here I am, about to begin my senior year. I am passionate about social justice relating to the disempowerment of women, whether that be concerning issues like sex trafficking and genital mutilation, or issues like eating disorders, body image, and depression. Most of all, I am passionate about being a voice for those who are struggling to find theirs. I want to walk with others as they learn to live free and empowered lives. I want to walk with others as their own roots go down deep… just as mine have.

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This content was originally published on in 2013.