Ugh, exams. As if school isn’t stressful enough on the daily, exams creep up and make things even worse. For those of us who have an eating disorder, exams can be an especially vulnerable time. At their core, binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, and other eating disorders can be considered emotional eating disorders. We eat or restrict in response to feelings. Developing new habits around coping with our emotions, along with extending compassion to ourselves, can help us deal with exams and other school-related stressors. Let’s look at how to get through all the exam stress.
Emotional Eating Disorders: Emotional Eating Is Okay
One common misconception is that there is something “bad” or “wrong” with emotional eating. There’s nothing wrong with emotional eating sometimes. The act of eating can help us to relax. Some foods have powerful emotional connections for us, reminding us of our family or friends and times when we were happy. Everyone does this at times. After all, food is more than fuel. Eating is something that can be pleasurable and enjoyable.
Those of us who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder may approach emotional eating differently, though. Instead of it being an occasional occurrence, we may turn to eating any time we feel a strong or unpleasant emotion. While there’s nothing wrong with eating as an occasional coping mechanism, it shouldn’t be the only tool in our emotional toolbox.
When should we be concerned about emotional overeating? Consider questions such as:
- How often are you engaging in emotional eating?
- How do you feel during emotional eating?
- How much are you eating during these times?
- What are you hoping will come out of emotional eating?
If you are engaging in emotional eating multiple times per week, feeling a sense of loss of control or eating significantly more food than you normally would, then you may be engaging in disordered eating. This should be addressed with your treatment team, if you have one. If you don’t, you may want to consider eating disorder treatment.
Your Emotional Toolbox
When it comes to high-pressure times like exams, we should take a look at our toolbox for managing stress and intense feelings. What tools are you currently using? Let’s look at some options we could add if we’re not using them already:
- Meditation. We might associate meditation with sitting completely still for an hour while thinking of nothing. Meditation doesn’t have to take that long or be that elaborate, though. Guided meditations through an app or a YouTube video can be a great way to start. Look for something short to begin with; even just a few minutes of meditation can help you feel more relaxed and focused.
- Laughter. Take the time to watch or listen to something that makes you laugh. It might be a stand-up comic or a slapstick scene from a silly movie. Laughter can be healing.
- Movement. Take a break from your studies to do movement that you find restorative and joyful. Maybe a quiet walk in a park is a good fit. Or maybe a big, loud aerobics class. Lifting weights can help you feel strong and more in tune with your body. Some people find yoga to be restorative. YouTube has seated workout videos if you want to stretch and move in your seat for a few minutes. Any movement can help you relax and refocus.
- Connection. Take a study break and talk to someone. If you’re away at college, call a family member or friend back home. Call or message a friend at school who’s dealing with exams too. If you’re seeing a therapist, schedule a session. Don’t skip during exams, even if it’s tempting. We all need to connect. Talking to professionals, family members, and friends give us a healthy outlet for our feelings.
- Sleep. During exams, it might be tempting to study late into the night. It’s best to aim for six to eight hours of sleep per night, though. When we’re tired, everything feels more difficult. Sleep is an essential part of self-care, and we deserve to take care of ourselves.
- Have fun. Take some time to do something fun. Watch a movie, play a game with some other friends who need a study break, or put on some music and throw an impromptu dance party. Do something that brings you joy.
- Give yourself a break. Many people who have emotional eating disorders are perfectionists. We set unreasonable standards for ourselves that no one can reasonably meet. We need to remember that we don’t have to be perfect. No one can be perfect. It’s okay to get less than perfect grades on exams. It really is.
It can be difficult to incorporate some of these tools on our own. Professional guidance can help. If you or a loved one has an eating disorder, now is a great time to seek treatment. If you’ve finished treatment, exam time is an opportunity to refresh yourself on the skills you learned and reach out to your treatment team for advice.
Exams are stressful, and it’s okay to feel stressed. It’s even okay to eat due to stress. Instead of focusing on what we don’t want to do, it’s often more helpful to focus on new things we can do. Pick one or two new tools that resonate with you to try this exam season.