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How to Prevent Eating Disorder Relapse

Recovery from an eating disorder can be an up-and-down rollercoaster. Food is a part of our everyday lives, and unlike other harmful behaviors, abstinence or avoidance isn’t an option. The urge to continue disordered eating habits is constantly being tested, with every mealtime bringing a collection of past negative thoughts and routines that can be difficult to break. 

 

Pushing back against these impulses takes strength, insistence, and determination, but maintaining that momentum is a whole other story. Relapse isn’t the end of the recovery journey–it’s simply a part of the process. Many with eating disorders will go through periods of recovery and relapse until achieving long-term wellness, though some residual beliefs may take longer to subside. 

 

Knowing relapse doesn’t mean failure is important to acknowledge when starting your own quest for fulfillment and healing. Almost a third of both anorexia and bulimia patients relapsed after managing a full recovery, so while the process might not look linear, there is still progress and effort being made.

 

Knowing the warning signs of a possible eating disorder relapse beforehand and utilizing prevention strategies are the best ways to equip yourself mentally and physically for potential setbacks. Over time, these skills can benefit you in identifying worrying behavior, understanding your place in your recovery journey, and ultimately, catapult you to achieving not just partial remission, but full recovery. 

 

The Signs to Look For–Yellow Flags

 

The symptoms of an eating disorder relapse are obvious, such as a binge episode or a severe food restriction. But most people who are actively battling their eating disorders don’t quickly jump back into their past disordered eating behaviors. Rather, many relapses may start with incremental thoughts and habits that pick up traction over time until the pressure becomes overwhelming. 

 

Some warning signs can start at first as just yellow flags, additional life stressors that may not even be overtly malicious. This added stress can create a subconscious pressure in the mind of an eating disorder recoverer, awakening old disordered patterns of coping. Think of these as prerequisites to the red flags, the ones that need to get waved before introducing the truly dangerous signals. Some include:

 

  • Beginning a relationship
  • Moving houses or to a whole different area
  • Starting a new job
  • Losing a loved one
  • Having financial problems
  • Conflicts with friends or family
  • Receiving difficult news

 

Red Flags to Watch Out For

 

The red flags to identify early on in your recovery in order to prevent a relapse tie more directly in with food and thoughts and beliefs that are inherent with eating. These, over time, can start increasing the frequency of “food noise” and lead to higher chances of eating disorder relapse if you’re not quick to address them. Some include:

 

  • Worrying about the nutritional value and calories while eating
  • Marking certain foods as good or bad
  • Skipping snacks and meals
  • Fantasizing or thinking about food constantly
  • Avoiding situations with food altogether
  • Weighing yourself frequently 
  • Checking the mirror for long periods of time or avoiding it altogether
  • Discussing weight and comparing how you look

 

Other categories of red flags can include the ones that influence your mentality and contribute to negative self-talk, such as:

 

  • Feeling out of control and/or desperate to regain it
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling unable to cope with stress
  • Avoiding social interactions with friends and family
  • Spending lots of time alone 
  • Telling yourself you’re ugly, unlovable, disgusting, and other negative beliefs

 

Recognize These Signs Sooner Than Later

 

By recognizing these indicators early on, you can acknowledge them and take the necessary steps to prevent a potential setback in your recovery journey. Understanding what activates your negative behaviors and patterns, as well as being mindful of the yellow and red warning signs that indicate a potential eating disorder relapse, can empower you to make healthier choices and seek support when needed. With this knowledge, you can better navigate the complexities of recovery and avoid falling back into harmful habits.

 

How to Prevent an Eating Disorder Relapse

 

Now that you know the signs that call for increased attention and awareness of your beliefs and behaviors, implementing strategies that can help avoid or prevent relapse is critical. For those who are about six months to a year into their recovery, this period can be especially turbulent as relapse rates at this time are at their highest.

 

Resources like utilizing a treatment team, establishing coping mechanisms for triggers, setting realistic goals, and prioritizing mental and physical health are all methods to set up a successful foundation for long-term remission. Having a combination of support, both internal and external, can disperse the pressure of battling an eating disorder and alleviate the burden were you to go at it alone without help. 

 

Your Treatment Team is Your Best Friend

 

Physicians, therapists, dietitians, coaches, and other eating disorder specialists know what to do to help you build a healthy relationship with food and your body. These experts offer invaluable tools like meal plans, medications, and medical guidance, but more than that, they are simply there for you. They’ll offer encouragement and support when your negative thoughts and behaviors start becoming too much to handle and be there to triumph your wins or assist you during your losses.

 

Therapy and eating disorder recovery coaching sessions serve as safe spaces to dive into the root causes of disordered eating, working through trauma and stressors to address negative habits and cultivate a healthier approach to eating. Dietitians work to provide nutritious meal plans for you to follow in your journey toward physical well-being and overall health. Medical professionals monitor progress, manage any associated complications, and adjust medications and treatment plans as necessary. Coaches work with you in real-time providing additional support to change eating disorder behaviors and thoughts, along with setting weekly goals, and offering exposure response therapy all while collaborating with the rest of your team to ensure unity.

 

Early Stage Treatment is Critical

 

Together, these dedicated eating disorder treatment teams offer unwavering support during times when relapse seems most imminent, steering you back on course. Even if you’re seeing progress and feel like the benefits of talk sessions or other supportive services are no longer useful, it’s crucial to remain vigilant. Especially during the early stages of recovery or times of heightened stress, continuing these valuable treatment sessions is vital. Increased vulnerability can heighten the risk of relapse, so ongoing support is essential for maintaining progress in those unsteady times.

 

Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms in Response to Triggers

 

In order to maintain long-term recovery from an eating disorder, it is essential to develop healthy coping mechanisms. These coping strategies can help you navigate the difficult emotions, triggers, and stressors that will inevitably pop up during your recovery journey. 

 

A trigger, or something that may cause a person to revert or relapse into disordered eating behaviors, is inherently unique to each person’s experience with their eating disorder. It may be the way a relative speaks to you about your weight, the abundance of food at a holiday party, or the smell of a certain food that triggers a negative reaction and subsequent urge to enable your eating disorder. 

 

Instead of turning to harmful behaviors as a way to cope, finding healthy ways to manage your emotions and challenges is necessary for the future “you” that doesn’t rely on maladaptive tactics to cope. Take the example of the holiday party. When you know you’re about to enter a situation that heightens pressure for eating disorder thoughts, ask yourself what about the event is triggering. Then try to visualize yourself, with detail, managing and overcoming each situation. 

 

If you want to avoid pointed questions about food and eating, list up possible responses that will help you feel more comfortable. If you’re worried about what kinds of food will be there, bringing a “safe plate” of food to eat is perfectly fine if it helps you prevent relapse and is not a restrictive behavior. Knowing and prepping ahead of time will reduce the impact of the triggers, increasing the likelihood of avoiding relapse.

 

Setting Realistic Goals and Boundaries

 

Setting achievable goals can help you stay motivated and track your progress while establishing boundaries can protect your mental and emotional well-being. By clearly defining what you hope to achieve and what behaviors or situations you need to avoid, you can create a roadmap for success in maintaining your recovery. Remember to be gentle with yourself and understand that progress may not always be linear. By setting realistic goals and boundaries, you can empower yourself to stay committed to your recovery journey.

 

Prioritizing Self-Care and Mental Health

 

Taking care of your mental well-being and practicing self-care activities can help you manage stress, anxiety, and triggers that may lead to a relapse. Prioritize activities that bring you joy and relaxation, whether it’s through meditation, exercise, journaling, or spending time with loved ones. 

 

By making self-care a priority, you are investing in your overall well-being and resilience against potential challenges. Furthermore, working on your mental health also helps to safeguard against the potential negative self-talk that can occur after a relapse. Relapse is a common occurrence during eating disorder recovery, and reminding yourself of that when you feel at your lowest is important in putting your experience in perspective.

 

If you’ve relapsed, redirect the pressure and energy you may be feeling towards yourself during this time. It’s happened, and now you’ll go forward and learn from it. Every relapse is an opportunity to examine new triggers and the coping mechanisms that need tweaking, leading to a brighter future for yourself and putting an end to your eating disorder once and for all. 

 

You are not a failure for relapsing and you are not always going to have an eating disorder. You are lovable, important, and worthy of happiness. Your recovery is possible.


With Peace,

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