Education and University can be very stressful and intense – particularly for those struggling with mental health. I, for one, found it incredibly stressful and put a lot of pressure on myself to do well and found that the exam period was particularly stressful and – like many students – my routine became unhealthy.
So during my exams in third year last year, I noticed a few annoying habits that were creeping back into my routine. A big trigger for my eating disorder habits has been the anticipation of events like a night out or holidays for example that I look forward to. Times that I want to feel really good and really enjoy myself and unfortunately my mind still associated looking good (or more specifically looking thin/fit) with that sensation.
I think that’s because for nearly 10 years now that’s been drummed into my head (and of course it’s not a simple nor a quick process to change your thoughts) and a lot of this – for many illnesses I think – is due to control. I can’t control how people will treat me. I can’t control what the weather will be like. I can’t control what this future event will be like. But I can control my body and if the rest of the time was shit, I could at least be content that the photos from it will be pretty good! – not a good way of thinking.
But what’s different now and towards the end of university, is that I can notice these thoughts. I can rationalise and realise that these aren’t the thoughts I want to be, nor should be, having. They’re not healthy. And although maybe I do recognise some habits (thinking or behaviour) and ignore them or try to put them down to circumstance, I noticed quite a few during my final year and luckily alarm bells went off in my head and I could try and fight the thoughts. I can turn on my ‘think of the future mindset’ and instead of eat less and exercise loads to try and look good for this future event, I’m going to challenge those thoughts and actions to save my future self from something a lot worse!
Sorry – ramble over! Here’s some of the actions I noticed during the exam periods – obviously they’ll be different for different people but this is a little reminder to try and be conscious of old habits – it’s so easy to fall back without even realising it!
- Nervous for finishing exams where they’ll be a lot of drinking alcohol, eating takeaways and cake and eating out!
- Trying to get enough workouts in to compensate for future indulgence
- Attempting (being the operative word) to avoid ‘unhealthy’ snacks like biscuits and chocolate when revising to compensate for future indulgence – then feeling bad about myself and my abilities when I do succumb!
- Upping exercise routine (edit: thinking it was for fitness/endorphin purposes but was probably a bit of food compensation too) but not changing my eating accordingly
- Smaller boobs – yep they shrunk again!
- Aches and pains – I used to get a sort of what I can only describe as sciatica although it hasn’t been diagnosed, pain in my right buttock and base of my back – and Good God does it bloody hurt! Again guessing slightly, (although a nurse did suggest it a while ago) it’s down to pressure on the spine causing the sciatic nerve to be trapped, eliciting shooting pains – most likely because there’s not enough fat on my back so when doing exercises on my back (crunches & the like, or sleeping funny for example) this could likely be the source of the pressure. I got this quite bad a while back as I focussed a lot on ab exercises and with all the hunching at a desk revising for 20 hours a day together with not eating enough it came back hard during exams.
- Getting fuller on less! What I thought was just unusual bloating, I’m now thinking was my stomach just being full – and usually I can cram a whole lot in there! This does present a bit of a dilemma where my stomach is bulging (can often trigger unwelcome worries and anxiety) but isn’t quite full (maybe this is mindset as I’m used to eating more? I’m not sure – anyone else experience this?)
- No periods. Nuff said.
These are some of the examples of past ED habits I realised I was falling into during the exam season. A lot of the time, I would put these habits down to exams and stress, and yes it’s true I had that on my mind and often the possibility of relapsing scares me so I ignore the thought completely. But ignoring it and not fighting bad habits is never going to help and I realised that if I ever want to beat this I need to continuously fight these thoughts and feelings. And luckily I know from experience that eating more and being at a healthy weight does make me happier, I just need to practice being able to maintain that myself!
And whether it’s because I’m now living at home again or whether because I’m not at university anymore the stress of that has elevated, but I’m at a much healthier weight and mindset and can easily pinpoint if I ever fall back into these habits. It’s tough, I won’t deny it – relapse is a part of recovery – but it’s worth noting these kind of things, triggers and habits that are specific to you or that you know you’re prone to doing to make sure you can recognise when they happen.
I thought this was an important topic to address during Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and hope to encourage anyone to talk this week about their experiences or struggles, and if you identify with any of the above, take the leap and seek help from somebody. I hope people – whether you suffer from an eating disorder yourself, know someone who does, or have nothing to do with them – can become more educated this week (and beyond) and to feel ok to speak up and talk about the subject. Discussing and learning about these issues helps break the stigma and therefore encourages those struggling to seek help and helps others to offer it!
Anyone else experience anything like this? With any mental health condition, not necessarily eating disorders?