For many teens and college students, summer means time to relax, enjoying lazy days out in the sun, and a much needed break from the school-year routine. However, this long stretch of unstructured time can allow detrimental habits to sneak back into everyday life, which makes summertime uniquely challenging for those in recovery. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, and time away from routine and friends can be the perfect storm to allow eating disordered thoughts and symptoms to grow.

Summer Schedule

Routine and consistency are key for supporting and managing disordered thoughts and symptoms. There is a large increase in free time without adult supervision and typical weekly activities like school sports and extracurriculars often end with the school year. Especially for teens and young adults, these situations can mean time away from friends, and lead to feelings of loneliness and boredom which can manifest into emotion-triggered eating and restricting.

A change in schedule at home may mean sleeping in later, allowing for skipping breakfast, or working through lunch during a summer job. The weather may also mean an increase in time outside exercising, and teens may not increase their intake of food appropriately. For college students, summertime also means transitioning and adjusting back to the rules and routines of living at home, which can be notoriously stressful.

Summer and Body Image 

Transitional life events happen at any age, and can be very exciting and nerve wracking for everyone. Teenage years are full of them– starting high school or college, preparing to join a sports team in the fall, or applying and beginning first jobs after graduation, and a lot of them tend to fall around summertime. The pressures of these transitional points in life can lead to mental traps, believing that their bodies need to change to prepare them for these new experiences.

Summer also means teens are being bombarded with “bikini body” messaging and unrealistic images and videos on social media– which has a consistent association with developing an eating disorder.1 There is a strong social narrative that summertime can be used to lose weight and “transform your body,” and many teens and young adults feel pressure to change the way they look before going back to school or starting a new chapter in the fall.

How to Provide Support 

While summertime is definitely a challenge for teens and young adults, it can also be a great time to focus on strengthening coping skills and maintaining recovery. With the right support, this time of the year can be an opportunity to help your teen or young adult work on becoming more independent and capable of managing their recovery as they grow through life. There are many ways to combat these particular summer stressors and strengthen relapse-prevention:

  1. Maintain a consistent routine. Although it may be different from the school year, setting a schedule to follow with meal and snack times, as well as filling in times for stress-reducing activities and events can be incredibly helpful to stay on track.
  2. Keep a food/mood journal. Identifying and logging emotions and fears around food and activities  is a great way to recognize patterns, learn to check in with yourself more frequently, and identify and regulate future triggers.
  3. Stay consistent with a support team. Maintaining communication and checking in with a dietitian, therapist, and physician can help adjust to life back home and provide coping assistance.
  4. While more free time can support a negative environment for eating disorders, it can be a positive opportunity to focus on stress-reducing activities such as yoga, going on walks, or floating in a pool. The nicer weather makes connecting with and enjoying the beauty of nature easy.

Author: Suzanne Appel, MS, received her Masters of Science in Nutrition Education at Columbia University and is currently completing her dietetic internship here at Integrating Nutrition. She is passionate about eating disorder treatment, intuitive eating and all foods fit methodologies; areas in which she will specialize once she becomes a fully accredited Registered Dietitian.