Eating Disorder Therapy

Returning Home for the Summer: Maintaining Recovery

Helpful tips for navigating recovery when college breaks for the summer.   

It’s almost summer again, so many young adults are preparing to return home from college. This is a normal transition for college-aged students, but that doesn’t mean it will come without challenges. Research suggests that moving is among the top three most stressful human experiences. For a young adult in recovery from an eating disorder, increased stress can cause an uptick in old thoughts or behaviors.  

Having a plan for navigating the transition home for the summer is important, as unstructured time mixed with a change of environment can cause old eating disorder behaviors to creep in. This article will discuss the relationship between eating disorders and transitions while also offering practical tips for maintaining recovery during the summer. In addition, parents will be given resources to support their young adult children when they notice they’re struggling.

Eating Disorder Recovery and Transitions

Moving from college back home is a normal transition many young adults face, but when you are also navigating eating disorder recovery, the transition can trigger old thoughts and urges. Eating disorders can develop due to a myriad of environmental and biological factors, including a way to cope with difficult emotions. The stress brought on by transitions can create an emotional state where eating disorders thrive. Therefore, whenever a person in recovery is anticipating a transition, it is essential to plan how to maintain recovery.

Helpful Steps to Take to Maintain Recovery 

Returning home for the summer after being away at college can bring up various emotions. This is natural, as transitions are stressful and require an adjustment period. Navigating eating disorder recovery during a time of transition comes with added challenges. The increased stress or discomfort can bring up old thoughts or urges.

In addition, many eating disorders develop in adolescence, so being back at home could mean returning to the environment where the eating disorder first existed, which can cause a resurgence of eating disorder thoughts or memories. For all these reasons and more, taking specific steps to maintain your recovery while you’re home for the summer is important. 

Below are some ideas of steps to implement that promote recovery:

  1. Get enough rest. Your brain is still developing as a young adult, so you require a lot of rest. It is recommended that college-age students get a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Following a specific sleep hygiene routine can help you get consistent rest.  
  2. Keep meals stable and consistent. Eating disorders can sneak up on you, especially during times of transition. Make a plan for meals and snacks while you transition home.
  3. Maintain a support system. If you had a therapist and dietitian while at college, consider planning for treatment support over the summer. This could mean setting up video appointments with your providers or finding a new therapist near home.
  4. Build a routine. Planning can prevent the eating disorder from sneaking in. Following a routine can make it easier to be consistent with meals and snacks. It can also lower anxiety and depression levels, which could contribute to increased urges to use your eating disorder.  
  5. Set aside time to practice mindfulness. Cue the eye roll. How many times are you going to be told to practice mindfulness? But, regardless of your thoughts about it, research proves that even just a few minutes of mindfulness a day can improve mental health.  

Navigating Family Dynamics 

Another challenging aspect of returning home from college can be navigating family dynamics. While you’re away at school, you live independently and don’t have to regularly confront family relationships and roles, so it can be a shock when you return home and are put back in an old environment. Here are some ideas for managing family dynamics during the summer:

  • Process concerns with your therapist.
  • Work on communicating with your family rather than keeping thoughts inside.
  • Reach out to friends from school so you still feel connected to your college life.
  • Make plans outside the house to balance your independence with family time.
  • Engage in hobbies that bring you joy, such as creative writing, listening to music, drawing, or cooking.

Additional Tips for Parents 

When young adults come home from college, parents may notice concerning changes that signal a slip in their child’s eating disorder recovery. Since children in college are over eighteen and accustomed to living independently, parents can find it challenging to know how to support their children when they notice them struggling. 

However, research shows that regardless of the child’s age, parent’s support has the most significant impact because they have a deep emotional bond with their children. This means parents shouldn’t hesitate to talk with their children if they are concerned. As a parent, you might think, “I agree, but where do I start? What do I say?” For tips on how to have difficult conversations with children who are struggling, check out these articles:

In addition to having supportive conversations, here are some practical things parents can do to support their college-age child in their eating disorder recovery during the summer:  

  • Make sure summer outings and plans incorporate time for meals and snacks. 
  • Pack snacks when your family is going on outings or trips.
  • Model balanced sleep and eating behaviors for your child.
  • Practice spontaneous meal or snack outings, such as going out for ice cream or pizza without prior planning.
  • Take time to ask your young adult about their recovery.
  • Consider setting your child up with a therapist for the summer so they can have a place to process any recovery concerns.

How to Know if You’re Ready to Return to College

If you notice throughout the summer growing concerns regarding your eating disorder recovery, you may question whether you should return to college in the fall. Though recovery is specific to each individual, and the parameters aren’t black and white, professionals have created recommendations for evaluating when someone in recovery can go to college.

Many eating disorder professionals recommend at least six months of solid recovery before returning to college. This can be hard to hear if you’re noticing yourself struggling, but the reality is that attending college while actively struggling with an eating disorder keeps you from being able to experience what the school has to offer. Taking time away from school to focus on recovery could mean that when you return, you can fully embrace the college experience.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when trying to decide whether to return to college or not:

  • Are you medically stable? (This means your weight is stable, you’re hydrated, a medical doctor has cleared you, and you feel mentally and emotionally safe enough to be on your own.)
  • Do you have an awareness of your triggers and plans for managing them?
  • Are you able to turn to healthy coping mechanisms when your triggers do arise?
  • Do you have a treatment team close to your college campus that you can use for support and accountability?
  • Are you able to nourish your body even when schedules or plans change?
  • Can you be flexible with food choices and eat what is provided without turning to eating disorder behaviors?

When to Seek Out Support 

Summer break can be an excellent opportunity to reevaluate your needs and make new goals for your recovery. The time away from classes allows you to establish routines that prioritize your recovery, such as getting enough sleep, eating consistent meals, seeking a support network, and practicing mindfulness. 

Over the summer, if you notice an uptick in eating disorder thoughts or behaviors or you just want additional support while at home, consider reaching out to our expert team here at Hilltop Behavioral Health. We offer free consultation calls where we can get to know a bit about you and provide recommendations for support. 

References 

Bardone-Cone, A.M., Hunt, R.A. & Watson, H.J. An Overview of Conceptualizations of Eating Disorder Recovery, Recent Findings, and Future Directions. Curr Psychiatry Rep 20, 79 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0932-9

Dolhanty, J., & Lafrance, A. (2019). Emotion-focused family therapy for eating disorders. In L. S. Greenberg & R. N. Goldman (Eds.), Clinical handbook of emotion-focused therapy (pp. 403–423). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000112-018

Li, M., Li, W. Q., & Li, L. M. W. (2019). Sensitive Periods of Moving on Mental Health and Academic Performance Among University Students. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1289. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01289

Semple RJ, Burke C. State of the Research: Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Children and Adolescents. OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine  2019; 4(1): 001; doi:10.21926/obm.icm.1901001.