Reviewed by Amy Baker Dennis, PhD, FAED
Recovery is a long and difficult process, and it’s common for people to return to eating disordered behaviors, especially during times of stress. Some common stressors include:
- Going off to college
- Moving to a new town or away from home
- Starting a new job
- Financial challenges
- Infertility or getting pregnant
- Birth of a child
- Marriage or divorce
- Death of a loved one
- Diagnosis of a chronic disease
It’s not uncommon to be tempted to return to old behaviors during these times because you remember that they once made you feel better, at least temporarily. Hopefully, time in recovery has also shown you how much fuller life can be without an eating disorder.
Common Warning Signs of Relapse
Just as all eating disorders are slightly different, so are all relapses. Still, many have a similar set of signs that can help identify potential problems:
- Avoiding meals and events involving food
- Making efforts to eat alone
- A return to obsessive thoughts around food and weight
- Overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt after eating
- Hiding information from loved ones and your treatment team
- Resuming repeatedly checking appearance in the mirror and weighing outside of treatment
- Justifying small slips and lapses, saying that it’s no big deal or it’s not that bad
- Becoming irritable when the subject of food or eating disorders is brought up
- An increase in stress with no way to manage it
- Increasing anxiety, perfectionism, and depression
- Sleep disturbances
- Isolation from friends and loved ones
The best way to deal with relapse is to accept the possibility that it might happen, soon or in the distant future, and make a plan to prevent or help manage it if it does happen.
- Identify your triggers. Based on what you’ve learned in recovery, identify the types of situations where you think you might be most likely to struggle. Write down as many as you can realistically think of.
- Identify warning signs. What are signs that recovery is continuing to go well for you? What about when you might need more support? Lastly, what are the signs that you are in full-blown relapse? Note the psychological, behavioral, and social signs, such as engaging in disordered eating behaviors, not sleeping well, increasing perfectionism, irritability, and breaking plans with friends.
- Identify support people. Identify your support system during your recovery so they are available if you begin to slide back into eating disordered thoughts or behaviors. Find several people, including a therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, or other professional, whom you can turn to when you are stressed or having concerns about emerging eating disordered behavior. If appropriate, encourage them to talk to you about any concerns they see as well.