Managing Exam Stress with an Eating Disorder

It’s natural to feel stress around tests and exams, that’s what they say anyway. For someone that has an eating disorder the upcoming exam period is possibly the most daunting time I’ve experiences so far in recovery.

My parents don’t understand, although they try. It feels as though they think my eating disorder lives at home. It’s as like they think I go back to being a typical teenager at school, feeling the ‘normal’ amount of stress that everyone feels during coursework, exams and playground politics. Actually, my eating disorder has woven its way through all areas of my life. It magnifies all areas of stress in my life and apparently my exams are the peak.

Things feel impossible when I’m trying to revise. How can I learn all of this information, for every class and every exam with such little time? What if all of this is for nothing? These thoughts can take over and distract me from ACTUALLY revising. And then, the eating disorder thoughts creep in… Do I have time to eat? Because if I stop revising, I could fail… And food isn’t worth failure??

It sounds silly as I write it down, but for those who have an eating disorder you know how convincing they can be in that moment.

I feel lucky that I have a good network of support. Particularly online with advice for when my ED starts to creep into my thinking. I recently saw a post on TIKTOK about exam periods (from a uni student, but it still felt relevant!)

Numbers don’t define you and that includes our exam results. What matters is our recovery because that is what is going to help us live a full and wonderful life… Exams can be retook in a few months or next year. Recovery is now.

First Steps ED Service User (CYP)

Exams can be a difficult time for anyone, whether that be in school or university, and sometimes even in the workplace. However, for those struggling with their mental health and/or an eating disorder, the additional stress can be a challenging trigger within their recovery, particularly if there is additional pressure from peers and parents around revision, effort and results.

It is important to find ways in which you can manage any stress or pressure at the moment. Here are some ways to get started, but first make sure you have a solid support network – either with friends and family, or a support worker.

Ban the exam talk

Make time for events or occasions where exam talk is off the table. This might be ensuring lunchtimes are for you, and conversations about interests, hobbies and the latest TIKTOKs that have you giggling! It is important to give your brain a break, and to take your mind off revision and expectations.

Check-in with yourself 

Your eating disorder might be telling you to miss a meal, or perhaps stress is affecting your appetite and you’re forgetting to eat. Likewise, you might find that snacking whilst you’re studying becomes something that provides you comfort and reduces some of the anxiety you’re feeling.

If you find that your mealtime and snacking routine is being impacted it is important to look at the bigger issues at play here. Whilst all of the above can be a normal reaction to exam stress, it is important to recognise how this is impacting your recovery. We don’t have to work for hours every day, so make time for regular meals and snacks – perhaps with friends or family whilst you ‘ban the exam talk!’

Keep your energy up

Food, sleep and relaxation is critical in keeping us feeling focused through the exam season. At the weekend, make sure you’re scheduling time to unwind. If you’re into the outdoors, plan one of your favourite walks or hikes, or why not get your friends together for the cinema, bowling or an escape room! Think of an activity which can get you away from the desk for a few hours.

If you feel as though you’re not coping, it is important to speak to someone. This might be a parent at first but, if needed, reach out to a professional. A teacher might be able to help you schedule your time to create balance between exams, revision and relaxation. A support worker, like here at First Steps ED, can offer you guidance and support for managing difficult feelings and thoughts.

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Contributed by Lucy Robinson

Fundraising, Marketing and Communications Lead