Eating Disorders & Exams
Exams cause a very natural level of stress for the majority of people in schools, colleges and workplaces around the country every year. For some, however, the exam period can be a very particular trigger for the development or possible intensifying of eating disordered behaviour. For those affected by eating disorders, the pressures associated with exams can pose a particular problem.
In fact, people often seem to cope quite well with the exam stress, but it is the post-exam period that can cause difficulty. The sudden release of pressure, the lack of a goal, and the change from a structured routine, all contribute to making this post-exam time a difficult one for a person with an eating disorder. This is the time that a person with an eating disorder may need more support.
Facing into exams
Whether in a school, college or work environment, examinations can be a difficult experience for a lot of people. Exams can be particularly stressful for some people, depending on previous experience of exams and the level of support available to them. You may feel increased pressure coming from your own and other people’s expectations at exam time. It is important to try to find a healthy way of dealing with this pressure.
Ways of Coping with Exam Stress
Spending time with friends, without talking about the exams can help a lot of people relax and distract themselves from the stress of tests. Try to allow yourself a specific time in the day when you switch off from study and allow your mind to have a break.
Having a study routine incorporating regular breaks and meal times is very important, and setting yourself reasonable study goals can make the amount of work you are facing into less daunting. Try not to anticipate the exams themselves too much as this can add pressure and interfere with your ability to concentrate. Ask for support from those around you. Think about what will make this time easier for you and ask them to help with that. Think about ways that you can relieve the pressure for yourself.
Things you might notice yourself doing
You may find that your appetite has lessened, or that you are forgetting meals because of an intensive study schedule. You may find yourself deliberately skipping meals, or alternatively, study snacks may become a source of comfort for you. These can both occur if you are particularly anxious about the exams. It may be that your snacking gets out of control or you may become reliant upon it.
You may find yourself exercising very regularly as a means of coping with the stress of the exam period, and again if this becomes something you are relying on to feel okay, there may be a bigger issue there. All of the above are natural reactions to the stress that may arise around exam time. The important thing is to recognise if a healthy balance starts to slip out of your routine and whether your habits and routines return to a normal balance following the exam period.
During the exam period
Do your best to regulate meals and sleep, as keeping your energy up is an important part of getting through the exams process. Plan your time and remember to take regular breaks. Try to plan activities every week that let you unwind completely even for a few hours. If you feel that you are not coping with the pressure of upcoming exams, the sooner you speak to someone the better, whether you do it by reaching out to a friend, or to a parent or a teacher.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to confront the eating disorder immediately. Acknowledge that the issue is there, and plan to deal with it when you have the time and space to do so after the exams.
Do talk to someone. If you have previously received treatment for an eating disorder, it may be useful to let people around you know that the issues are arising again. Alternatively you can contact Bodywhys for confidential support. Don’t allow yourself to become isolated by the eating disorder. Your friends and family members can help you to get through this difficult period.
After the exams
When the exams are over, it is common for a person who has been focussing on that goal to feel deflated by the lack of a heavy schedule and specific goal. You may be overwhelmed by feelings of ‘freefall’ or a fear that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. The sudden lack of focus, lack of a goal to strive for, and the change in routine, can be very difficult to manage. This can often intensify feelings of being out of control and disordered eating behaviours. In fact, often this is the time that people with an eating disorder need more support.
Exams are often the end of an era and the start of a new challenge. It is natural to feel apprehensive about this sense of change, but it is important that you think about how you might cope with that change. It’s a good idea to make plans for what to do in the days after your exams end. Try to give yourself something new to focus on – this may be a trip you are planning, or a new project to work on over the summer months.
For those who are experiencing an eating disorder, it is very important to create a balance between relaxing and recuperating post-exams, but also keeping to some kind of routine in order to minimise the extent to which you feel out of control. If the exam period has brought the eating disorder to the fore, when the exams are over it may be the time to begin to think about getting appropriate help and support.
If you feel you are relapsing into eating disorder behaviours and thoughts
Reassure yourself: relapse is very common amongst people who have experienced an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Try to take charge of the situation as soon as possible. Stop and think about what is happening, and focus on why it might be happening. Acknowledge what has happened and try to take some positives from the experience.
Relapse can be a part of the recovery process and it does not mean that you have ‘failed’ at your recovery. Remember, it is important to take one step at a time and to recognise that using the relapse as something to learn from is an opportunity for a positive outcome. Going back a little isn’t the end of the world - the important point is to try to understand the ‘whys’ of the relapse so that you can begin to move forward again. Seek support and reassurance from others. You may feel overwhelmed and may need help to deal with those feelings.
Try to give yourself credit for getting through the exams – no matter what the results, working towards the exams is an achievement in itself and it is important to recognise that. Try to make some preparations for the next stage in your life.
If you are moving on to a new school, college or job, you may need to explore what support networks will be available to you there. If you have an eating disorder it is important to be conscious that the changes that you will face in the coming months may be difficult for you to cope with. It might be an appropriate time for you to begin to think about trying to get help and support to let go of the eating disorder so that you can be free of it in the next stage of your life.
Tips for Parents
Eating disorders can be seen as a way of coping with emotional distress, or as a symptom of underlying issues. Dealing with those underlying issues is vital to reaching and sustaining recovery. However, it may not be possible or advisable to try to deal with these issues whilst a person is trying to cope with the intense pressure during exam periods. It's important to understand that teens may not want to talk to you about their issues, and may instead prefer to talk with a therapist.
Depending on the severity of the condition, it may be helpful to support the person through the exams before addressing the eating disorder with them. If, however, they have become physically very unwell it may be necessary to prioritise the treatment of the eating disorder.
If you have not done so already, get as much information as you can about eating disorders so that you are better placed to support your child
Remember that an eating disorder is a coping mechanism, and that dealing with the underlying issues will be vital to reaching and sustaining a recovery.
Speak to your child and let them know that they can speak to you. It is vital to reassure them that they have a support network available to them.
Help your child to manage their time, including study plans and mealtimes, to remove as many stressors as possible from the situation.
If your child has previously received counselling/other assistance for a diagnosed eating disorder, it may be useful to revisit this option.
Support your child in making plans for the weeks and months after the exams. Having new goals and a new focus will help your child to move forward.
If your child is moving on to a new school, college or employment opportunity, it is important to work with them in finding support to ease that transition.
Do seek support for yourself too - if you feel fully supported you will be better placed to support your child.