10 Ways to Cope with a Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery

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Nicole Davenport

“Healing comes in waves and maybe today the wave hits the rocks, but that’s okay, darling. You are still healing.” – Ljeoma Umebinyuo

Recovery is far from linear. In fact, when I first started my recovery journey six years ago, I felt like I was relapsing more than actually recovering. But you know what? There is recovery in the relapse. Just because you’re going through a relapse does not mean you are failing. You are learning, growing, and becoming stronger. Each time you choose to keep going despite all of the negative feelings and thoughts coursing through your mind that seem impossible to escape, you’re proving to your eating disorder just how resilient you are. 

Before I continue, what is a relapse? A relapse in eating disorder recovery is when someone resorts back to disordered habits, overly obsesses about their weight, and has continuous negative thoughts regarding their body size, weight, and food. 

Such a vital part of recovery is recognizing the “red flags” of a potential relapse. This doesn’t happen overnight. It has taken me many years, along with trials and errors to be able to realize when I need to ask for help again. I’ve had to let go of the “I’m not deserving” thoughts and start accepting that maybe there are times I can’t do this alone. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a little extra support. Taking action earlier rather than later when you think you’re heading down a dangerous road is crucial to your recovery progress.

First, I just want to say that relapses are common. You are not alone. Although, at times, it can feel like the loneliest place on the planet. It is also important to keep in mind that not every relapse is the same, the warning signs can vary, and the coping mechanisms that work for one person may not work for the next. Second, not every signal of a potential relapse has to be from your behavior. It can come from thoughts, how you’re talking to yourself, and how you feel. I know that for me, personally, the source of a relapse is mixed between all three, but what I want to focus on is what to do when you feel like you’re starting to slip back into old patterns. These are all things that I have done that work, and hopefully they can work for you, too!

1. Go to a professional right away.

It could be a therapist, doctor, social worker, teacher, school counselor, free source (such as NEDA), etc. As soon as I even have an inkling of dangerous thoughts/behaviors, I know I need to contact my therapist. The sooner you act on a relapse, the more effectively you’ll be able to “climb out” of it.

2. Let at least one person you fully trust know of the current situation.

You don’t need to go into detail, but you should express that a little extra support could go a long way in the current circumstance. Your support system is everything. Who you surround yourself with during your recovery will make or break it. Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who encourage, support, and love you no matter what. These people will not let you quit. They will remind you that you are so very worthy and more than enough. 

3. Stay on top of your nutrition.

Do not use this time of struggling as an excuse to act on any negative thoughts ED tells you. Believe me, I know the whole, “I’m already doing this bad so this doesn’t matter” thought process. It’s a lie. Hold yourself accountable. Making a schedule or meal plan is something that always helps me. Challenging myself during struggling times to eat meals with family or friends holds me responsible as well. It doesn’t have to be what everyone else is eating. It can be something you’re “comfortable” with. As long as you are fueling your body in some way.

4. List out all of the reasons why you deserve recovery.

Lists, for me, tend to be very effective because when I can’t seem to think of anything positive, I can resort back to them. If you have trouble coming up with any reasons to recover for yourself then maybe it’s for a friend, or to be able to travel to your dream vacation spot, or cross something off of your bucket list. A lot of times it’s for my dog. As silly as it sounds, hear me out. My dog literally cannot survive without me. I need to be here in order to keep her alive. You need to be here because you have someone in your life who depends on you and loves you. When you can’t think of any reason to love yourself, think harder because the people in your life are obviously around for a reason. Probably multiple reasons, actually. There are many great qualities that make you, you

5. Keep a journal of triggers.

Include how they make you feel, when they usually occur, and ideas on how to combat these triggers are a great way to stay on top of your progress. When I try out my ideas I cross off the ones that didn’t work and star the ones that do. I also journal out every thought that races through my head, even if it doesn’t make sense. At least you’re getting it out there and not bottling it up.

6. Music.

I find music to be one of the most therapeutic things that always finds a way to express what you cannot put into words. There’s always a song out there that just gets it. The songs where the lyrics are literally speaking right to you and all of a sudden it’s a rush of  relief. 

7. Daily quotes and mantras.

There’s nothing a good quote can’t cure, or at least help. Looking up motivational, inspiring, and positive quotes, affirmations, and mantras is a great distraction, but it also simultaneously may give you the courage and confidence boost you need to convince yourself that you’ve got this. Each day I have a new quote or mantra that I repeat to myself whenever I feel stressed, anxious, or down. I have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to recovery quotes and keep a photo album on my computer filled with affirmations. My favorite quotes get printed out and I hang them up in my room. That way, each day I have some form of positivity.

8. Be selfish.

And by that I mean focus on your “me time.” Hone into what you want to do and what will relax you. You could go for a walk, color, do some yoga…anything. Want to dive into a book and pretend you’re living in another world just to escape yours for a little while? Go right ahead. Want to light some candles and take a bubble bath? Go light some candles and take a bubble bath. Want to scream and break some stuff? Go scream and break some stuff (safely, please). Anything that you find to be healing for your mind, body and soul.

9. Laugh.

Go find a funny video, watch a funny movie, or reminisce on a ridiculous memory. Whatever it is that’s going to get you smiling. Never underestimate the power of a good laugh. When you feel like it’s the last thing you want to do is when you need it most and when it is the most powerful.

10. Throw out the scale.

Don’t use the mirror unless you have to. Even then, pick out an outfit you like, throw it on, see if it matches and tell yourself you’re beautiful and walk away from that mirror. The scale only shows a measure of gravitational pull and the mirror is just glass. Both mean absolutely nothing. Neither show your spirit. And isn’t that more important than a number or a piece of glass? This was the hardest one for me by far. It took me many years to work up to this point, but I have never looked back and thank myself every day I had the courage to do this. I would have not made the progress I have made lately if I hadn’t done this. 

Whatever point you are at right now, whether you are thinking about recovery, just started recovery, or have been in recovery for years now, the relapses will happen. However, they will start to happen less and less, but that requires you to keep fighting. The strength, bravery, and mental grit to wake up every day and fight for your life against your own mind is extraordinary. It is something most will never understand, but it’s also something that you should feel so proud of. It requires your tireless dedication and to dig down deep. Deeper than you think you ever could, but you do it. You will continue to do this because you can do this. Recovery is not easy, but it is possible and so very worth it. We all deserve a happy and healthy life. Our bodies are our temples and they deserve love and respect, just like you do.