PhD and eating disorders.

I decided to put together this blog article after a post I made an Instagram post talking about my recent struggle to accept my body. I gained a significant amount of weight over the last few months due to my poor mental health and this is badly affecting my mental health, self-esteem and confidence. I have been dealing with eating disorders as far as I remember and I got to be aware of this only recently. Eating is a way for me to ease my depression and to hide from people during social occasions (welcome social anxiety!) Coincidently, this comes close to the Eating Disorders Awareness Week which will run from the 25th of Feb until 3rd of March.

Navigating your way through a PhD is definitely a roller coast of emotions. Many students report poor mental health, work-life balance and little time for self-care. (1,2) Is the poor wellbeing one of the major factors that contribute to developing/aggravating eating disorders in grad school? To the best of my knowledge, there’s no study that underlines such a relationship. This doesn’t really come as a surprise because talking about mental health in academia is quite a recent thing. The problem came to surface in 2017 when a Belgian study showed that 50% of PhD students suffered from depression and anxiety. (3)

In such poor conditions, it is quite easy to rely on comfort food or skipping meals because one is too busy to eat or cook. The worst thing, as it was for me during my childhood and teens, is that you might have/start having an eating disorder and you don’t know about it because you think that some feelings/symptoms are normal.

Many people aren’t aware of the most frequent symptoms/feelings that come with eating disorders.

The National Health Service (NHS) classifies 4 types of eating disorders: bulimia, anorexia, bing eating and all the other disorders which are borderline between all those mentioned.

Symptoms of eating disorders include (4):

  • spending a lot of time worrying about your weight and body shape
  • avoiding socialising when you think food will be involved
  • eating very little food
  • deliberately making yourself sick or taking laxatives after you eat
  • exercising too much
  • having very strict habits or routines around food
  • changes in your mood

You may also notice physical signs, including:

  • feeling cold, tired or dizzy
  • problems with your digestion
  • your weight being very high or very low for someone of your age and height
  • not getting your period for women and girls.

If you recognise yourself having some of those symptoms, I think it’s important to accept it and talk to someone. Being open about your vulnerabilities is empowering and the first step to take action and solve the problem. I am not an expert on this field and I know little about it. However, based on my experience, I can give a few pieces of advice.

Seek professional support. If you are currently struggling with your body weight and accepting your body shape, find yourself yoyo dieting, alternating periods of normal eating to period of over/undereating, please reach out to your GP or a therapist/nutritionist. Very often eating disorders are associate with some forms of mental illness and starting a diet isn’t enough to tackle the problem seriously. You might be surprised to know that many cases of morbid obesity come as a result of abuse and trauma during childhood/adolescence. If you are rich enough to pay for private counselling, book an appointment. If not, Universities usually provide loads of resources (at least in the UK). Look at their webpage and see what they have to offer. With a simple Google research, I came across this website First Step ED and booked my first appointment with a specialist. For students in the USA, I found this non-profit association called MEDA that provides help for eating disorders. If you are based in Australia, you might want to book an appointment with the Butterfly Foundation.

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Download an app. Don’t get me wrong about this. I know that these apps are designed to count calories which isn’t a good way to lose/gain weight. But you can use them smartly and check if the amount of food you eat is enough, too much or too little. You can also see if your diet is balanced which means getting the right amount of proteins, carbs, fats and vitamins every day. Some apps allow you to log in you food by scanning the bar code which is really helpful in tracking the amount of nutrients you get! This is just a beginning. After that please sick professional advice too.

 

Your wellbeing (physical and mental health) should be a priority equally important to your education

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You need to adopt permanent changes towards healthy habits. Many folks that start a diet end up gaining more weight than they lost. This is because diets do not work. You need to revise your lifestyle entirely. For PhD students, this is so much needed because working unsocial hours and prioritising your studies over your health is the norm. However, body and mind work together and your wellbeing (physical and mental health) should be a priority equally important to your education. If you don’t have the time or money to get a gym membership, YouTube is really your friend here. There are plenty of tutorials you can watch online and do at home. One of my fave cost-free exercises is running. I love it! I once read that one hour of running prolongs your life of seven hours. Fact or fiction? Who knows? But the benefits are real, above all for your waistline.

Do not compare yourself to others. Never. Loads of research has been done on the negative effect of social media on wellbeing, above all among teenagers. (5) Young and not so young folks tend to compare themselved to skinni tea influencers and feel bad about their bodies because they can’t much up their level. Falling into the trap of comparing is unhealthy. The truth is that most of the people you see on social media hire professional photographers, have personal trainers, shoppers and dieticians because this is their full-time job. With this being said, most of the skinni tea influencers make loads of claims about their products. A bit of reading about Gwyneth Paltrow might be enlighting. (6) Not to mention all the photoshopping and photoediting. I always suggest unfollowing accounts on social media if the message they deliver doesn’t make you feel good! By choosing a career in science, you will spend most of your days in the lab or sitting in front of a laptop. Your body might not be perfect but look at the positive things in your life. How many people are currently enrolled in a PhD programme?

There is no quick fix to your physical and mental health. It’s a journey of commitment, pain and most importantly you need to want it! No pain, no gain!

This is by no means a compehensive guide on how to treat eating disorders. It is a starting point on how to take action and feel good about yourself. For more resourses you can check Beat Eating Disorder UK, a charity assosiation that provides help and a landline if you feel you need to talk to someone. I also recommend buying this book about Emotional Eating.

(1) Doctoral students’well-being: a literature review, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES ON HEALTH AND WELL-BEING, 2018, 13, 1508171

(2) Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education, Nature Biotechnology, 2018, 36, 282.

(3) Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy, 2017, 46, 686.

(4) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/eating-disorders/

(5) https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/11/16/new-research-shows-just-how-bad-social-media-can-be-for-mental-health/#7504d7ff7af4

(6) https://www.businessinsider.com/gwyneth-paltrow-goop-bad-health-advice-2016-5/?r=AU&IR=T

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