Eating Disorders and Exams

Exams at all levels of education can make people feel stressed and anxious. For people with eating disorders, or who could develop one, exam season can be especially difficult, and people may find their illness worsening.

This page covers some of the feelings and behaviour that stressful situations like exams can cause, ways to manage stress and take care of your mental wellbeing before, during, and after the exam period, and what support may be available from your place of study. There’s also some guidance for friends and family members if you’re worried about someone you know.

Remember you can also use Beat’s support services at any time, including our student line on 0808 801 0811, and our student support group Owl on Tuesdays from 7 – 8.30pm.

How can exams affect people with eating disorders?

In the period before and during exams, you might find yourself or someone you know:

  • Eating more than usual to try to relieve stress.
  • Exercising more than usual to try to relieve stress.
  • Losing appetite due to worry.
  • Forgetting to eat while studying, or deciding to miss meals to continue studying instead.
  • Withdrawing from important relationships.
  • Setting very high personal standards that are difficult to achieve.
  • Finding it hard to feel positive about the exams and what the future holds.
  • Focusing on fine details and struggling to look at the bigger picture.

Anyone can react to stress with changes to their eating and exercise habits, but for people with eating disorders, or who might develop one, this can be particularly serious. If you’re worried you or someone you know is developing an eating disorder or relapsing because of exam stress, seek treatment as soon as possible.

If you have an eating disorder, you might find it directly impacts stress levels by, for example:

  • Affecting your confidence.
  • Affecting your ability to concentrate.
  • Affecting flexible and “big picture” thinking, making it harder to prioritise.
  • Causing tiredness and/or making you struggle to sleep.
  • Preventing you from eating properly, meaning you don’t have the energy to study and focus.
  • Making you spend time you would like to spend studying on eating, exercising, or purging.
  • Conflicting with your studies or exams – for example, you might have an exam at a time when your eating disorder might usually compel you to exercise.

Managing stress during exams

You might have heard comments that seem to minimise the importance of exams. This might not always feel helpful, especially if your plans for your next steps depend on you getting certain exam results. It’s not that exams shouldn’t feel important to you, but that other things, including your wellbeing, are important too, and it’s healthy for you to make them a priority before and during your exams. Here are some ideas for how you can do this:

Talk about your concerns

Let people know if there are things they can do to help during your exams. Anyone who is supporting you with your eating disorder will want you to both do well and be healthy, and it isn’t imposing to ask them for help.

  • Friends could study with you or share resources like notes.
  • Family and friends could help you take breaks or have meals with you.
  • Your doctor could tell you about what food will help maintain your energy levels.
  • Your teachers or tutors could go over areas of study you’re unsure about.
  • Pastoral care at your place of study can advise you about any extra support available.

You could direct people to the guidance for anyone supporting someone with an eating disorder, below, if they’re looking for ways to help.

Make sure you feel clear about what you need to do

This can help you to figure out what’s best to prioritise while studying, as well as highlight areas where you perhaps don’t have to worry so much. Teachers and tutors will also be able to help you prioritise. It might help to know:

  • The structure of each exam and the topics each exam covers.
  • How much of your final result each exam is worth, and how many marks you’ll need to get the results you’re looking for.
  • How much you need to learn to feel confident about each exam.

Think about how you’ll study best

  • Look at everything you need to cover across your studying time, and consider the rate you’ll need to work at to get this done. This can help you avoid giving too much focus to some areas and not enough to others.
  • Many people find making a schedule helpful. You may want to plan your whole revision period, or you might find it easier to plan shorter time periods. You could try different things to see what’s best for you.
  • Plan your studying during the times you’ll work best. You might not feel your most productive in the morning and instead prefer to work in the afternoons, or it may be that by the evening you find yourself flagging.
  • Build places where you can be flexible into your schedule – for example, if something is lower priority, make a note of this so you can drop it if you need time for something else, or add in free blocks where you can decide at the time what you want to study.

Give yourself a break

It’s common for people to put pressure on themselves when they’ve got exams coming up, but people with eating disorders may especially find themselves doing this. Try to give yourself a break, both physically and mentally.

  • Consider what’s realistic. You can’t study non-stop, or study to the best of your ability if you don’t get enough sleep, food, and time out from revision.
  • Put time to eat, sleep, take short breaks, and relax into your schedule too. This isn’t “slacking” or anything to feel guilty about – it’s good for your wellbeing and productivity. Be firm with yourself about this and ask others to help if you need it.
  • Remember, most exam guidance doesn’t consider the challenges an eating disorder presents, like lower energy and concentration, or time needed for ongoing treatment. You might find you don’t progress as quickly as others, or as quickly as you did before you were ill. This doesn’t mean you’re doing badly, just that you’re working in different circumstances.
  • The way eating disorders can make you feel can sometimes make small setbacks seem worse than they are. Pushing yourself harder can cause more issues, so if you’re really worried, talk to someone who can help you put the issue into perspective and get back on track.

Organise your space

Getting everything ready beforehand will help you get started quickly and keep to your study plans.

  • Decide where you’ll study best, and make sure it’s tidy with all your study resources easily accessible.
  • If you work best to music, decide on what you might like to listen to in advance so you can just press play.
  • Make sure you have water within easy reach while you’re studying to ensure you stay hydrated.
  • Set alerts or alarms in line with your schedule – this will help remind you when you need to move on to something else, or, just as importantly, when you need to stop and have a break.

What your place of study can do

Reasonable adjustments

There may be changes around your exams that your school, college, or university can or is even legally obliged to make, or extra support they can offer you. Depending on the effect it has on your daily life, an eating disorder can be considered a disability under the Equality Act of 2010. This means your place of study should make any necessary changes to ensure you are being treated fairly and can complete your studies to the best of your ability. These are known as “reasonable adjustments”. Examples of reasonable adjustments it might be necessary to make for eligible students include giving them extra time to complete work, allowing them to take exams in a private room, or allowing them to use a laptop.

Have a look on your school or university’s website for the process for arranging for reasonable adjustments, or talk to a member of staff who can help.

Deferral

Either in advance or on the day, you might be too ill to take an exam. Depending on your circumstances, you could be allowed to take it later. If you need to miss an exam, let your place of study know as soon as you can and find out what the process is for deferral of assessment – it will vary, although you will probably need to get a doctor’s note.

Extenuating circumstances

If you do feel your illness has seriously impacted your ability to complete your work, your place of study may consider you to be affected by “extenuating circumstances” – usually these are defined as circumstances that are sudden, unexpected, outside your control, and seriously disrupt your studies. If your eating disorder has recently developed, or has become worse, speak to your school or university as soon as possible to find out what they can do for you.

Student support

All learning institutions should have some form of student support in place. Universities usually offer specific services to support your mental, physical, and academic wellbeing – this might include things like mental health or academic advisors, counselling or disability advisory services, and your university’s medical centre. Your university may also have created online resources, which could be useful if you don’t want to speak to someone about how you feel.

You should be able to find information on your university’s website, but if you’re not sure, you can ask your representatives at your student union, who should be able to point you in the right direction.

If you’re at school, there may be dedicated pastoral services, but all teachers have a duty of care to you as a pupil. If you don’t have a student wellbeing service, talk to a member of staff you trust about how the school can support you during the exam period.

Beat’s support services are also available if you’re looking for somewhere to turn. You can find details of our Helplines and online support groups here.

After your exams

You might find yourself dwelling on your exams after finishing them, or that the end of something you’ve been very focused on has an effect on your eating disorder. If you’re worried about this happening, preparing for it can help.

  • Make plans for after your exams. You may not have the energy for anything big, but it could be as simple as picking a book to read or planning to spend time with friends. This way you’ll have an idea of what you’re doing after your exams, rather than finding yourself with nothing to focus on or distract you from thinking about how you’ve done.
  • If you have concerns, let people know so they can check in with how you’re feeling and help you if you find your eating disorder behaviours become worse once your exams are over.
  • If you’re attending therapy or counselling for your eating disorder, it might help to have an appointment shortly after you’ve finished your exams, if you won’t already be doing so, to talk about how you’re feeling.

Try not to worry about your results too much. Taking exams at the same time as having a serious illness is so difficult, and you should be proud of yourself.

Exams can be daunting, but you can get through them, especially if you have the right support in place. We hope this page will help you think about practical ways to lower your stress and make the exam period easier, but if you’d like some further support from Beat, our Studentline is open every day, and you can also drop into Owl, our student online support group, every Tuesday from 7 – 8.30pm.