Growth: The Uncomfortable Comfortable

If I asked you to walk home in the rain, how would you respond? Would you tell me to open my eyes; it’s raining, duh? Or maybe you might feed us both an excuse that you don’t have your umbrella and it’ll ruin your hair? What if I told you that sometimes taking the uncomfortable option can help you grow? Now I know you’re not a thirsty plant, but hear me out! Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is essential for developing resilience, a “Fuck It” attitude and for finding out what you are really made of. Most of the time, these uncomfortable situations that we frantically avoid aren’t all that bad, such as walking home in the rain. Sometimes they may even be a source of joy, imagine that! Walking home in the piss wet rain could be a highlight of your day? Maybe you think I’m full of shit. Maybe I am, but let’s ignore that for a moment because there is one person who we owe it to to do the things that make us feel uncomfortable – and that is ourselves.

Every day I see people that inspire me to push myself, whether it’s that they have something that I want *ahem a Marathon Majors 6-Star Medal cough* or they’re holding the first copies of their newly published book – I’m jealous, so shoot me! I just want to smell crisp new pages covered in my words! What lies between where I am now, and where I want to be is very simple and very painful: a whole lotta growth.

Make yourself do unpleasant things so as to gain the upper hand of your soul – W.E.B. Du Bois

This is where owing it to yourself to get comfortable being uncomfortable comes into its own. Do you remember any of your teenaged growth spurts? Those HURT! Growth is uncomfortable, and of course, it takes effort to grow, relentlessly unforgiving and continuous effort. You owe it to yourself to challenge yourself and get comfortable being uncomfortable. By becoming comfortable with discomfort we learn how much we can push ourselves, we realize and learn our limits, and that our resilience reaches beyond our own imaginations.

The option to stay exactly where we are is always there. When we have had enough we can always stop and decide if we like it just as it is. Maybe you do, or maybe it’s just easier to stop, for a long time self-harming was more comfortable than facing the rawness of my psychology and mind, learning to eat was more uncomfortable than starving myself and there came a point when being unwell becomes more comfortable than undertaking the journey to becoming well because being unwell was all I knew- I soon learned that growth happens in the most treacherous and uncomfortable of waters, as the adage and many a meme go. It’s true. That shit is scary and itchy ants-in-your-pants uncomfortable. The best teacher and arena I have found in persevering through discomfort has been exercising, without it, I doubt I would have recovered as much as I have.

Sometimes when you’re covering a large distance in one go, hi there marathon, or hiking and climbing up a mountainside (Tryffan, we have unfinished business), it is uncomfortable. It is hard. In each task, by putting one foot in front of another, a very simple yet vastly symbolic act, the finish goal will eventually appear. In continuing to show up for yourself through the challenge and continuing to push on through the burning quads, aching knees, jarring concrete and absolute monotony that can be associated with covering distance, you get there and all of a sudden the intense and immense gratitude, pride, sense of accomplishment that you feel makes it all completely 100% worth it. You don’t forget the pain, this isn’t childbirth, it just all becomes worth it.

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So taking this ideology into a bigger playing field is the next step, and they don’t always have to be huge strides of progress that are acquired during an activity for it to be worth it, next time it’s raining, which if you’re in London is probably tomorrow lets be honest, walk for a bit in the rain even though you don’t want to go out in it. Go for that walk in the cold. Take your shoes off, feel the ground and the cold iciness of a wintery puddle submerge your toes. Practice different types of discomfort, physical, emotional, mental: turn the heating down to below comfortable for a day, have a cold shower, go for a run up a hill. This is the reality. Life isn’t always sweet, it’s mostly pretty grim. In practise, you empower yourself to manage situations when you lack control over a situation. Sit in the overwhelm and when exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations, go ahead and nurture yourself as well. Self-soothe yourself through the discomfort, learn how to do this for yourself. Figure out whether it’s a mantra that you repeat in your head, a texture that you feel, a particular way of fidgeting your fingers that is soothing. This is great practice for self-soothing in situations that are uncomfortable where you have no control over being able to escape them, i.e. depression, anxiety, that presentation in front of your colleagues, public speaking, a race, a challenge, commuting on an overpacked tube at rush hour. It doesn’t mean you always succeed, just that you will succeed more than when you couldn’t tolerate any discomfort.

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Back to Slaying School!

As I sit here in my favourite alcove on campus, watching over the trees as the squirrels dance over the grass at the edge of campus, I realise that I have just two years left at uni. This seems like most of the course to a lot of people but I’ve been studying part time which means my degree will take a total of five years to complete. I’m in no rush.

Call me Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Going into my first lesson of the year ahead, I walk in without worry and sit in the middle of the lecture theatre. I know what is going on just intermittently as we delve into the complexities of metabolic pathways and that’s ok. I’m more chill about no understanding everything the first time you’re introduced to it. I’m not panicked by not having the end seat on a row. I’m not concerned that people are saying about me, if they’re even saying anything at all. I’m not wishing the world woud swallow me up whole and make everything disappear or that I could immediately teleport home.

The anxiety I used to face at the start of the year, when all the freshers turn up in their hundreds and cram along the corridors to queue for lectures is no longer the major challenge that it was when I started uni in 2016. I’m pretty much at ease with myself and the situation at hand. I’m at ease sitting in a lecture theatre, I’m at ease walking around the corridors and I’m at ease finally with being in the uni environment. My anxiety has downgraded from high octane fright night levels of panic to meh!

No longer do I find myself dodging and flirting my way around campus crevices, hiding in empty rooms because the study room full of students is overwhelming. No longer do I longingly stare at the train tracks as each train that isn’t mine passes me by, wondering if I should just get it over and done with. Still, I experience The September Issues but I’m sure as hell not suicidal in any way nor do I feel paranoid, fearful or desperate to feel nothing instead of the everything that overwhelms me.

I’m a loner on campus but not a loner in life, and this gives me an extra confidence within myself. My confidence has grown so much over the last couple of years that I am very much a different person to when I started here and I still have two years to go. I no longer need weekly welfare meetings, or fitness to study meetings with the Head of College. I’m quite excited to see what I will grow into by the time graduation comes around for me.

Overall, I’ve only had one or two admissions since starting my course and I’ve got stronger and stronger with each successive year. I’ve learned the course content, alongside learning to manage more demanding workloads and how to function despite a shitty ass mood episode. I’ve managed to get myself into my lesson despite how much I’ve hated being awake or going out that day. My resilience has improved and now my life is no longer dictated entirely by my emotional state alone. I imagine that I probably still have a relatively severe case of resting bitch face, and you know what, who cares?! I’m functioning at a higher level than I ever have since the summer of 2011.

Attending uni part time has been absolutely paramount in my getting better at managing life, alongside my therapeutic input and medication alterations. It has taught me to push through when I can, to open up and be honest about needing to rest when I need, and that I can do something with my life outside of the mental health system. I have learned to play a team sport, which has an impact beyond my university life. When my anxiety makes a comeback, instead of isolating and hiding, I’m like a legendary slayer from Final Fantasy, slaying that beast, gain some XP and continue on my way. I’m surpassing levels I never thought I’d get the opportunity to entertain, and as I sit here in my favourite alcove on campus, I am proud, excited for the future and so absolutely fucking grateful for the health care and education system we have here in the UK for helping me get to this place.

Let’s see where this takes me, yeah?

Brighton Marathon: Hopes, Nopes and Notes

There’s all sorts of bugs to be caught as we go through our lives: the travel bug, an influenza bug, the reading bug, and hopefully not the Ebola bug. I’m not sure if I have caught the running bug as such, but I am quite sure that I have caught the “Challenge Yourself with Disgusting Feats” bug. Is that a bug?It’s not as catchy a name as Ebola but I think we’ll roll with it.

As I am starting to be more serious about my training commitment and overall role that exercise plays in my life and health maintenance, I am pleased and slightly sickened with nerves, to be running Brighton Marathon in April. Does anyone ever stop at one marathon? I’m hoping to be quite firmly in the multiple marathon runner camp by the end of the year. Not every runner chooses to run marathons, 45% of runners have run 2-5 half marathons whilst 50% have never tried a full marathon [1]. Of those mad enough to opt for the full marathon distance though, I am convinced that not many people stick to running just one.

I am running Brighton with my Dad for CHICKS [2], a charity that gives children who are carers, living in difficult circumstance such as care or have been living in abject poverty a break away at a holiday camp. [Sponsor Link].

Maybe I caught a special type of madness during London last year for arduous challenges and pushing myself to my limits, repeatedly and all in the name of adventure? The thought of another marathon excites me and fills me with dread: I had such an epic experience last year and I’m wondering what other experiences there are to be had whilst running for a sickening distance. Every race we participate in as amateur runners is only against ourselves. Naturally I’m going to have some hopes for this marathon, some nopes and some notes based on last years “THIS IS NOT A RECOMMENDED METHOD” experience.

Hopes
– Get a PB from last year’s result
– For good running weather, not too hot and not too cold or rainy.
– To enjoy myself.
– Survive in one solid piece as a human being (fingers and toes are all crossed for no injuries)
– That my training although far from perfect is adequate.

Nopes
– Not training. I may not be very good at sticking to training plans but I am actually doing some this year!
– Over hydrating without electrolytes or salty snacks!
– Relying on gels for energy and glucose

Notes
– Get Body Glide without SPF because it is more glidey without the SPF
– Carry electrolyte tabs, SIS Lemon flavour, for adding to water on course
– Flapjack is a good snack for half way energy, Chia Charge all the way!
– Sun cream with a super high SPF that is water resistant so will survive my sweating buckets – maybe carry some extra if you can?
– Music is your best ally on race day

Sources:
[1] http://www.marathontrainingschedule.com/blog/45-mind-numbing-facts-figures-statistics-running-2/
[2] https://www.chicks.org.uk/

RED January: Active Everyday To Beat The Blues Away

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If you’re on Instagram it’s quite likely you will have seen some people going on about RED January. Maybe you think it sounds like another new year resolution fad like: Veganuary (please don’t shoot me, I’m an animal too) or Dry January, for those pretending that quitting alcohol is hard for them after an indulgent Christmas. Dietary cleanses and detoxes are once again circulating although I’m not in on the scoop of which one is most trendy this year. Are we still on the Whole 30, alkaline and keto “lifestyle change” tips? Either way it seems that whatever direction we turn you can’t help but be faced with lifestyle challenges promising to transform you into a new you and make you feel miraculously better about your shitty life. RED January could fall into this trap if you frame it in such a way, but it needn’t do.

Run Every Day January is a campaign to encourage people to be active on a daily basis throughout January in an attempt to buffer against the blues. Unlike the title suggests, you don’t have to run every day, I think RED January is just easier to market and brand than MED (Move Every Day) January. A lot of people do interpret RED January as another punitive challenge and as such, that you have to run every single day. It isn’t and this defeats the purpose of the campaign. Instead you just move, whether that’s a kick about in the park with your kids, walking to the shops instead of driving, running a Park Run or doing some yoga. You’re not supposed to break yourself over it, it is quite the opposite; it is about prioritising and taking the head space to move your body, connect with your body and in the meantime reap the benefits of moving for your mood.

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There are heaps and heaps of evidence for the positive effects of exercise on our mental and emotional well-being. It is now common knowledge that we can’t avoid to the point of GPs prescribing Park Run for mild depression in patients. Don’t be fooled, it isn’t a cure-all but it is a good place to start in terms of looking after yourself. Despite the accessibility of moving, 1 in 3 adults and children in the UK do not get enough physical activity. Let me repeat this. 1 in 3 adults and children in the UK do not get enough physical activity. This is quite shocking and with the benefits of exercising being so vast and varied, it really is an under tapped resource that most of us have.

I don’t mean that in a “no excuses” kind of way. It’s not easy starting to get active from being inactive for a period of time. It’s daunting, it’s hard work and sometimes it hurts but bear with me. Bear with yourself because in the long run you’ll be glad you got up and did it (pun entirely intended).

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There are numerous ideas and theories as to why achieving adequate physical activity is so difficult. Sometimes how we frame the idea of physical activity in our minds can really affect our perception of movement (Mental Health Foundation, 2013). Is it an extra and particularly painful chore to fit into our already busy schedules? Or is it a part of your self-care regime? Admittedly, with January being one of the coldest and darkest months of the year often curling up somewhere cosy with a book or a film feels immediately much more appealing. The greater benefits of movement may not be such an immediate gratification, but doing a steady amount will usually provide some hard-earned gratification immediately after exercise. So perhaps, the delay of immediate gratification by 30 minutes isn’t the worst after all.

The health benefits of movement are numerous, particularly for our mental well-being: from providing a protective factor to developing depression and anxiety (Fox, 1999) to increasing our work productivity and performance (Wiese, Kuykendall and Tay, 2017). The best news? You don’t have to go hard or go home; no matter how small or unimpressive you may perceive the achievement and effort to have been, any activity is better than doing none at all: what have you got to lose other than 30 minutes to try and see? (Mental Health Foundation, 2013).

The results from last year’s RED January participants speak for themselves. Last year in a survey of 3000, 87% of REDers felt significantly better physically and mentally after January 2018 from partaking in the challenge. Aside from the RED January challenge and their partnership with the mental health charity, Mind there’s oodles and oodles of evidence, scientific and anecdotal, about the benefits of moving your body.

This isn’t a weight loss message, but a 100% emotional wellness message. Regardless of your size, you DO NOT NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT before you can get active. There is no prescribed aesthetic or requirement in order to move. If you are concerned about your health impacting your ability to exercise I have added a link to a PAR-Q (Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire) here.

The important focus is just to get moving, preferably in a way that’s enjoyable to you. Exercise does not have to be punitive, and in fact, to get the most from working out a healthy push of your limits is encouraged but don’t put yourself off forever. Start small and keep it real. Punishing yourself for eating something, or to look a certain way is not going to harvest the positive results that make you feel good, empowered and emotionally sound. It will only serve to do the opposite.

In this respect, the virgin active ad recently is a good message: Enough.


Sources:

Fox, K.R. (1999) The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition. 2(3a) pp.411-418.

Mental Health Foundation (2013) Lets Get Physical. London: Mental Health Foundation.

Wiese, C.W., Kuykendall, L. & Tay, L. (2017) Get active? A meta-analysis of leisure-time physical activity and subjective well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 13(1) pp.57-66.

How To Get Rich and Thin in 2019

Endings and new beginnings can be emotional times, whether it’s excitement for the future or sadness for the end of a really good chapter. There’s no time of year when we communally experience this sensation as a planet more than the turn of a new year. Cue the dieting, resolution-ing and lists of life vows that make wedding vows look like a pinky promise in the playground.

For as easy as it is to be over ambitious the key to success is to be realistic; instead of loading up the 1st of January like a mountain mule to only be disappointed when the mule collapses from exhaustion, go small, regular and achievable. The very edge of your comfort zone is ideal, not the oceanic depths beyond the void.

For the money minded there’s big business to be done, where capitalising on insecurities, steroid jacked hopes for huge lifestyle changes and pipe dreams are a cash flow wonder. Weight loss warriors and life coaching gurus start popping up all over the shop, trying to sell to us an intangible and unrealistic expectations for in which the failure of realisation and execution keeps the profits turning. They’re business counts on you failing. You are a cash cow, who can be guided via raw diets and zen retreats to a whole new sparkling version of you at a price. The price isn’t always monetary though, often times the price paid is sanity, happiness and self worth. The irony is astounding.

Those trying to capitalise and gain from your outlandish goals and their subsequent failure “make 2019 your year”, they’ll say, as if every other year in your life up until this point has been of much less value. Of course next year 2020 can be your year and then 2021 too. You are not limited to having and making the most of any one year over another. Some years are good and some are not so good, we have control over how we perceive these experiences but very little in the way of controlling what happens around us. Some years will just be a series of unfortunate events and a life coach or diet won’t and can’t fix that.

My point here? Don’t let your failure become someone else’s profit to exploit. Especially if your failure is of attaining the unrealistic standards that are sold to us via our subconscious. Shut that shit right down right now; ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!

Giving up on setting goals though is the least likely avenue to reap any results or success, but a good ~40-something % of us make resolutions at new year and of those roughly 40% see results and effort beyond 12th of January. When we shift the focus from January the 1st as being a deal breaker, and from setting enormous unachievable goals, we can move towards the idea of gentle progression and change with consistency.

This can save ourselves from the emotional rollercoaster that comes with getting our hopes up about exciting new changes and results we are going to see very soon, and then the disappointment of failure softened by the comfort eating everything in sight, which is even more counterintuitive to any dieting and health goals if that’s what you’re after. However, when you skip the restrictive dieting practices and make small sustainable lifestyle changes in any area of your life, the rewards you will get won’t be as drastic but they’ll also not be as temporary.

Push yourself and learn to respect your limit, be kind and comfortable with being uncomfortable. As Alex Honnold says about his feat of conquering a first in climbing history, “No one ever achieved great things being cosy in their comfort zone”.

He is the first person to free solo El Capitan, the biggest and most epic centre of the climbing universe. It was first ascended in the 50s, and when they ascended it they pulleyed up instead of climbing all the way because they just couldn’t do it. We live in an incredible world with a lot of people doing incredible things. We can’t all be Alex Honnold, but we can all push ourselves slightly beyond comfort and apply our energy to reaching our goals.

A good starting point would be to dare to make goals that go beyond attempts to control your body size or appearance. Go climb a mountain, start a project, try a new sport or apply for that promotion. You don’t need to diet, transform your body or only eat “clean” to do this.

“We could die any day so why not spend the time we do have here doing something we love, even if the potential consequence could be death” – Alex Honnold

P.S- I have no useful advice for getting rich and thin in 2019.

The September Issues in Marrakech

[When I wrote this] I was supposed to be relaxing in a gite in the Atlas Mountains of Morrocco. The people who I met the previous Sunday and shared an evening meal with will have been doing exactly that after summiting the highest peak in Northern Africa, Mt Toubkal. Instead I am at home in London, having slept for the majority of the last few days.

There are a few times of year that are particularly difficult for me with my mental health: March/April and September in particular. I have a feeling that it is related to the changing seasons, and others have theories that it is a result of my daily stresses and goings on each time. It could even be related to historical events playing with my memory and emotions on a subconscious level. There really is no knowing of the exacts except for that they happen, and they happen at these times of year. After a number of years I have named them the Spring Bounce and the September Issue. I am not the only one to have such a pattern to their moods and well-being, it turns out that a lot of people, particularly those with mood disorders like Bipolar, struggle immensely at the onset of spring and autumn.

It could be a vast number of things but the experience feels familiar: moodiness, snappy encounters and a general grey scaling of everything: colours, smells and tastes. I need a lot of sleep: this means a long night and 1-3 naps during the day. I need a lot of cups of tea for soothing the soul, because is there anything that a cuppa can’t help with? I have a weird relationship with my appetite. I want sugar and comfort foods, yet at the same time everything tastes muted and I desire much less of it. I am slow. Speaking in sentences can at times be difficult because my words get muddled and I certainly don’t seem very capable of speaking and thinking at the same time. I feel like anyone who laughs within earshot of me is laughing at me after saying mean things. This has resulted in some stern stares to try and figure out the truth and if I need to confront them. Sometimes when this happens I turn around and no-one is there. The sun in the day may as well be night time all the time right now because that is exactly how it feels.

So instead of being up a mountain, hanging out and exploring I have been sat in my flat in London trying to minimise the effects of my mood on others as much as possible.

I was unsure about whether I should go to Morrocco or not and I went anyway with the theory being that I would never know unless I tried. Additionally, it could have gone very well or very badly. When I booked it in september, with the prior knowledge that i struggle at this time of year, I naively thought that having something to focus on and look forward to, and essentially distract myself would end a potentially self fulfilling prophecy of The September Issue’s reoccurrence. Of course, just as with the september issue of our favourite fashion magazines, nothing is going to stop the september issue from launching and being ever so extravagently big and jam packed with chaos, whether its mental health chaos or fashion chaos. I have had a brilliant summer, it’s in the top 5.

Even though I got to Morocco I had a break down on the sunday evening and walked home, having excused myself early from the group meal, crying. I decided to sleep and see how I felt in the morning however, after packing and prepping for the day ahead I just broke down crying. It would not stop. I knew at this point that pushing myself further would not reap any good results. When I cry like this, it is usually only going to get worse until I sleep extensively. It happened in Berlin last year, also in september, and at home. Even this morning, although apparently over nothing I cried and cried and cried until I eventually went to bed to sleep it off. No trigger. No cause. No reason. It just is.

Sometimes the right decision is not the one you want to make. There are many lessons yet to be learned. Even with potentially over doing it on the insight and reflection stance I will probably still make mistakes and much to my dismay, may never be fully in control of all of my mental health shenanigans. Sometimes when you live with chronic mental illness you have to make difficult decisions because ultimately, no matter how much I try, my illness will most likely always hinder me in some way. I won’t let it defeat me. I can’t. Instead all is can do is all that I will do, to keep working on getting what I want from life by working with my illness.

How Gratitude Can Help Improve Body Dissatisfaction

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The power of practicing gratitude has the potential to be something quite incredible. Culturally in the West we are conditioned almost to always want for more, or with our bodies ironically we want for less. Less waist, less weight, less is more when it comes to beauty and looking good, or so we are told. We are primed to be perpetually discontented, dissatisfied and looking to others who always seem to have more of whatever it is we want: friends, tech, clothing or, ticking more beauty standard ideals with their appearance.

Like any other skill in our tool box of tricks to get us through our days reasonably content and in one piece, it takes a bit of practice in order to change our thinking patterns. The good news is that it can be done and that it can be an effective tool to develop a healthier relationship with your body and body image.

In a study conducted by Armstrong State University, USA, gratitude and cognitive restructuring were compared for effectiveness in reducing body disatisfaction amongst college age females. The group studied had not sought clinical help for body disatisfaction and eating disordered related issues. The importance of body image and dissatisfaction is that the feelings we have towards ourselves often permeate other areas of our lives: body disatisfaction has been associated with depression (Jurasico, Perone & Timnko, 2011) and social anxiety (Cash, 2011) for example.

Cognitive restructuring is a CBT technique. CBT is an established treatment for many mental health and well-being complaints including: bulimia, anxiety, depression. SOURCE THIS. By comparing a gratitude based intervention to an established intervention such as cognitive restructuring, the effectiveness of each intervention on body dissatisfaction can be compared.

The strength of using gratitude based interventions for body dissatisfaction is that it increases appreciation for non-appearence based aspects of one’s self and life: gratitude interventions have been found to be causally related to improvements in intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of well-being including: increased happiness, decreased depression, improved pro-social behaviour, decreased aggression, improved sleep and concentration (Watkins, 2014).

There does need to be more studies in order to confirm or dispute similar findings. However, with this in mind gratitude is a promising intervention for people experiencing body dissatisfaction without a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Gratitude works is by changing perspective on what is important in life and how and what we judge ourselves and ourl ives to be worthwile. This study illustrates the potential effectiveness that can be had from introducing and working on gratitude in order to improve well being and happiness.

With this. Line of thought fresh in my mind, and my own practicing of gratitude lately I will be exploring some personal experiences of gratitude and how practicing gratitude has helped me alter my automatic thought patterns over time. As a disclaimer I am not suggesting gratitude is a cure-all, but more of a handy tool to help contribute to a changing way of relating to the world around us.


References:

Cash, T. F. (2011). Cognitive behavioural perspectives on body image. In T. F. Cash, & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image, A Handbook of science, practice and prevention (2nd ed., pp. 39-47). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Juarasico, A. S., Perone, J., & Timko, C. A. (2011) Moderators of the relationship between body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Eating Disorders, 19, 346-354. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2011.584811

Watkins, P. C. (2014). Gratitude and the good life: Toward a psychology of appreciation. New York, NY: Springer Science

Wendy, L. Wolfe & Kaitlyn Patterson (2017) Cpmparison of a gratitude-based and cognitive restructuring intervention for body disatissfaction and dysfunctional eating behaviour in college women, Eating Disorders, 25:4, 330-334, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080.10640266.2017.1279908