A few weeks ago, someone reached out to me on Instagram with some questions about eating disorder recovery.* She started by saying she was feeling disheartened and discouraged because she felt like she was trending toward an eating disorder relapse. She explained that “After all the work I’ve done in recovery, I honestly just feel like I’ve failed.” She said later, “I’m embarrassed to tell my therapist because I feel like I’m kind of just heading back to square one.”

Back to square one.

As a little kid playing Candyland, I remember many times where I was so close to entering the Candy Castle, only to draw the card with the cupcake on it and be sent all the way back to the Cupcake Commons – a devastating move. This memory popped into my head as I read that she felt that her eating disorder relapse put her back at square one of her recovery journey; I distinctly remember my five year old self sitting across from my grandma, feeling incredibly discouraged that I had to travel all the way back down that candy-studded path. Of course, a setback in a board game is trivial and an eating disorder recovery journey is not, but I do think this exemplifies that deflated feeling that makes you wonder: Is it even worth it to try again? 

Recovering from an eating disorder is hard. The journey is wrought with many moments and marks of progress, and also many challenges and setbacks. An eating disorder relapse doesn’t mean failure; it’s part of the process for many. In fact, according to the American Journey of Psychiatry, around 35% of people who are in recovery for anorexia or bulimia will have at least one relapse. 

What is an Eating Disorder Relapse?

An eating disorder relapse occurs when “an individual in recovery reverts back to their previous disordered coping mechanisms and thoughts.” Because recovery is often a non-linear, continuous, and highly individualized journey, it can sometimes be challenging to identify a relapse. Recognizing the signs of a relapse early can empower you to seek support and take action. 

Some signs of an eating disorder relapse include:

Of course, the signs of a relapse differ by eating disorder, but the following signs are some of the common signs of an eating disorder relapse:

  • Resuming obsessions over food
  • Skipping meals 
  • Eating in secret
  • Sudden and drastic weight fluctuations
  • Perfectionist thinking returns or intensifies
  • cutting out food groups (Often in the name of “health” or “cleansing”)
  • feeling guilty and shameful after eating
  • lying to others about what you’re eating and eating habits
  • avoiding special occasions that involve eating
  • returning to repeatedly obsessing over and monitoring appearance and weight
  • feeling extremely anxious, irritable, depressed, and stressed
  • avoiding eating with others
  • isolating from friends and family

Steps to Address and Prevent Relapse

If you think you may be relapsing, the below steps can help you figure out what your net steps can be. These can also help heighten your awareness of strategies to help prevent a relapse in the future. 

1. Seek professional support from your team

One way to both address and prevent an eating disorder relapse is to stay in contact with your care team. Regular check-ins with your therapist, dietician, or doctor can help you address a relapse in a compassionate, individualized manner. If you are well into your recovery journey and you haven’t seen a member of your care team in a while, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of them – they are there to help.

2. Lean into your support system

If you are comfortable, lean into people around you who know about and are supportive of your recovery journey. In addition to your professional care team, it can be helpful to have people (friends, family) in your day-to-day life who you can talk to while you are struggling. This can help avoid feeling entirely isolated while you go through something challenging – like a relapse.

3. Develop coping strategies

Some of the biggest triggers for an eating disorder relapse are large or stressful life events – starting a new job, going through relationship changes, experiencing financial hardship, infertility, having a baby, receiving a new medical diagnosis, just to name a few. 

One way to address a current relapse and help prevent one in the future is to be aware of what triggers you are susceptible to and to intentionally create and build healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress and emotional triggers. Your therapist or dietician is a great place to start when looking to tap into helpful coping strategies. 

4. Self-awareness and action

Becoming, being, and staying self-aware can help you notice early signs of relapse and address them promptly. Spending time to identify what seems to trigger or put you at risk for a relapse can help you to work with your care team to best determine how to either avoid or cope with these triggers. Part of this self-awareness is remembering, too, that a relapse does not make you any less worthy of treatment, recovery, or compassionate, highly individualized care throughout the process.

A Setback, Not a Defeat: Understanding the Role of Relapse in Recovery

Experiencing a relapse in your eating disorder recovery can feel incredibly disheartening; it can be easy to feel like you are back at square one. And while it’s natural to feel discouraged and question your progress, please remember that a relapse does not define you or negate the hard work you’ve already put in. Recovery is filled with ups and downs, and setbacks are a common part of the process. A relapse is not a failure; rather, it’s a signal to yourself that there are parts of you that need attention, care, and compassion. And those parts of you deserve to be heard, seen, and validated throughout your recovery jourhey.

*Details of her messages shared with her permission.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of experiences and emotions that come with having and healing from an eating disorder , our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

With this in mind, we offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. Accordingly, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!