Starting college is a time of freedom, intellectual exploration, and personal development. However, it is also typically stressful. Eating disorders among college students have increased considerably over the years. Therefore, during particularly demanding times, such as midterm exams, it is not unusual for stress eating and binge eating to arise.
There are several factors that play into the occurrence of stress eating and binge eating. Moving away from home can be exhilarating – and scary. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility and uncertainty. Without a familiar structure, such as family meals, it falls on the student to create their own schedule and order. Stress eating is one source of comfort that is accessible, even in a dorm room. Bingeing is a more extreme attempt to deal with uncomfortable feelings.
The college years are notorious for their demanding academic requirements and overwhelming schedules. When rushing from class to study group to work, it is all too easy to eat erratically. This could mean missing meals or grabbing a quick snack instead of pausing for a satisfying meal. Some students may restrict food in order to deliberately control or lose weight, while a rising number of college students experience some level of food insecurity.
Whatever the reason for undereating, it increases the risk for stress eating and binge eating, particularly during demanding times such as midterms. When our bodies are not provided with enough energy (food), we have innate biological processes that encourage us to eat. Combined with stressful circumstances, our wise bodies entice us to eat what is available in the closest vending machine.
Stress eating and bingeing are attempts to meet real needs. Some are biological, such as compensating for sporadic nourishment; and some are psychological, such as avoiding uncomfortable feelings. Here are some suggestions to help with these behaviors.
Without parents, siblings, and other familiar faces such as teachers and youth coaches, the transition to college can feel daunting. Creating new social support networks takes time, but is worth it. During stressful exam times, reach out to dormmates, classmates, or the resident assistant.
Most colleges provide counseling services for no additional charge. In addition to providing treatment for issues like depression, anxiety, and adjustment difficulties, there are likely groups for eating disorders or body image. A diagnosis of an eating disorder is not necessary to talk to a professional. If a hometown treatment team was already in place, it may be possible to continue services, such as through virtual therapy sessions.
Midterm exam time can feel like there is no time to breathe. However, think more about efficiency. Pulling an all-nighter may seem beneficial, but the increased stress and reduced cognitive ability usually make it counterproductive. Taking a short break to eat a nourishing meal, meditate or do yoga, take a quiet walk can do wonders for making study time more efficient and less stressful.
Disengage from Black and White Thinking
Black and white thinking is evident in phrases like “always,” “never,” or “ruined.” It is a hallmark of perfectionism, which is linked to eating disorders. If it is difficult to imagine any outcome other than total success or failure, jot down at least three other possible outcomes that would be in between.
About the Author
Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more.
Borreli, L. (2014). Food insecurity: Why 59% of college students may suffer from malnutrition.
Lethbridge, J., Watson, H.J., Egan, S. J., Street, H., & Nathan, P.R. (2011). The role of perfectionism, dichotomous thinking, shape and weight overvaluation, and conditional goal setting in eating disorders. Eating Behaviors, 12(3), 200-206. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2011.04.003
White, S., Reynolds-Malear, J., & Cordero, E. (2011). Disordered eating and the use of unhealthy weight control methods in college students: 1995, 2002, and 2008. Eating Disorders – Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 19(4), 323-334. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2011.584805