Eating Disorder Relapse Prevention: How to Cope in Recovery

By Britt Berg, M.S.

Looking for an eating disorder relapse prevention plan? Here are the tips you need to get back on your feet in eating disorder recovery.

An eating disorder relapse can leave you feeling confused, devastated or even ambivalent. These feelings are all normal and valid. If you suspect that you may be headed for a relapse, we want you to know this:

If you are experiencing an eating disorder relapse or think you are at risk of relapsing, we encourage you to reach out to your treatment team and your support network now. This is a great opportunity to restabilize in recovery.

When navigating life in eating disorder recovery, relapse is fairly common. Rates of anorexia relapse range from 35% to 41% in the first two years after treatment [1]. In a study of 116 people, rates of bulimia relapse were 27.6% within the first six months after treatment [2].

Eating disorder lapse vs. relapse

To understand how to proceed following an eating disorder “relapse,” it’s helpful to know what a “lapse” is, as well. 

An eating disorder lapse is an isolated incident where one engages in eating disorder behaviors. Also called a “slip,” lapses are very common and can often be contained easily and quickly. 

An eating disorder relapse lasts for a longer period and can be challenging to overcome as you try to get back on track in recovery.

Eating disorder relapse triggers

Life transitions are a prime time for relapse. When we are off our normal routine or creating a new life routine, it can be hard to stick to our meal plan and remember our coping skills. Life transitions preceding a relapse include:

  • Starting/ending school or college
  • Starting/ending a job
  • Starting/ending a relationship
  • Moving to a new residence
  • Becoming pregnant
  • Having a baby/becoming a parent
  • Weight changes associated with physical health, aging or pregnancy
  • Physical injury or lessened mobility
  • Experiencing a trauma

It’s okay to seek out additional support from friends, family and your treatment team when you are dealing with major life transitions and other stressors like these. And it is totally normal to struggle, at any age, when going through transitions like those listed above.

Symptoms of eating disorder relapse

  • Not completing meal plan
  • Eliminating individual food items or groups of foods
  • Demonstrating less openness to talking about recovery or believing you can recover
  • Making changes in diet
  • Unexpected weight changes
  • Eating alone or avoiding mealtimes with others, including not going out to eat

What to do if you relapse

If you are going through a relapse, please remind yourself that you are not alone and that you are not the first person who has faced this challenge. Next, take some time to explore your internal state. Think about what might have led to this relapse. Consider journaling as you explore the following questions:

  • Did something specific cause this relapse?
  • Has there been a significant change in your life recently?
  • Have you been under more stress or experiencing more anxiety?
  • Have you started a new job, school program or other activity?
  • Has there been any change at home with your family or significant other?
  • Has something been upsetting or bothering you?
  • If you have a trauma history, has something triggered you or reminded you of your trauma?

Please reach out to, or make appointments with, your dietitian and therapist and discuss what you’ve learned through this journaling exercise. If journaling is not your thing, please let someone know what’s going on. Your treatment team would be more than happy to support you during this challenging time.

Eating disorder relapse prevention: creating a plan

A detailed, personalized relapse prevention plan is essential to help you get through recovery. If you have not made one already with your treatment team, we encourage you to take that step now. The plan should list all the factors that indicate that you are struggling and possibly at risk of relapse. The plan should also include the steps to take when you are close to relapse. Share your relapse prevention plan with your support system to provide you with support and accountability. 

How to avoid relapse

  1. Be prepared for a possible relapse.
  2. Create a relapse prevention plan. Share it with your support system and keep it handy.
  3. Draw on the wisdom and strength of your treatment team and personal support system. Let them know when you’re struggling so you can prevent things from getting worse.
  4. Talk compassionately to yourself, forgive yourself for slips and lapses, and know that lapses are a part of a normal and healthy eating disorder recovery.
  5. Always have hope that you can achieve a long-lasting recovery.

Try compassionate self-talk

If you have relapsed, above all, do not assume that all hope is lost. Do not fall into a belief that you are a failure or that recovery is going to be impossible. Instead, try supportive self-talk that is more recovery focused such as:

“I am disappointed that I used an eating disorder behavior and will now focus on the next best recovery-focused decision.”

“I do see what I need to do differently next time. And I won’t wait as long to reach out for help.”

“Slips and lapses are bound to happen in recovery. Overall, I am doing much better than before treatment and that feels hopeful.”

Self-compassion goes a long way in supporting yourself throughout recovery. Compassionate self-talk is much more beneficial in the long run than beating yourself up over any lapses that might occur.

Eating disorder relapse help

No matter the events that might have led to your relapse, we want you to know that you have the strength within you to get through this. One of our top recommendations for our alumni who are struggling with relapse is to attend regular eating disorder support groups. Remember: Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible!

Find an eating disorder support group here.

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Sources

1. Berends, T., van Meijel, B., Nugteren, W., et al. (2016). Rate, timing and predictors of relapse in patients with anorexia nervosa following a relapse prevention program: A cohort study. BMC Psychiatry 16(316).

2. Olmsted, M.P., MacDonald, D.E., McFarlane, T., Trottier, K., & Colton, P. (2015). Predictors of rapid release in bulimia nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 48(3), 337-340. 

This page was updated on May 16, 2023.

Written by

Britt Berg, M.S.

Britt Berg, M.S. is a highly experienced writer and editor who has worked in the behavioral health field for nearly 20 years. She holds a bachelor's degree from Emory University and a Master of…

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