5 Relapse Prevention Tips For Eating Disorder Recovery

Woman standing by river with Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are complex illnesses that often require significant time for treatment and healing.

The recovery process is highly individualized, and everyone’s recovery journey will look completely different.

For some people who are recovering from an eating disorder, the healing process may take years.

For other individuals, the recovery process may happen over a shorter period of time.

This will vary, depending on a variety of factors, such as severity and length of the illness, the presence of any other mental illnesses and co-occurring disorders, available treatment approaches and time of intervention.

One thing that can be agreed upon is experiencing episodes of relapse is often part of the journey for many individuals recovering from an eating disorder.

Understanding a Relapse Episode

What exactly is a relapse episode? The experience of relapse is also unique depending on the individual and circumstances but can be described as a period of deviating away from a course of recovery and back into eating disorder behaviors.

Woman standing on river rocks

Relapse may look different for every individual recovering from an eating disorder, depending on where they may have been in recovery and what eating disorder behaviors are significant for them and their journey.

The most important thing to understand is that relapse episodes are not an unusual part of the eating disorder recovery process; in fact, these are often part of the recovery process that can strengthen a person’s resolve to continue progressing forward and learn different aspects of themselves.

One study on individuals who had recovered from anorexia nervosa found relapse rates between 35 and 41% in an average follow-up period of 18 months [1].

While relapse is not necessarily something that can be avoided, several steps can be put into place as a prevention strategy for relapse, ensuring that a person in eating disorder recovery has supported over the long-term.

Developing a strong support system is crucial to prolonged eating disorder recovery, as is identifying potential triggers that can lead to an increase in relapse.

Five Important Relapse Prevention Tips for Eating Disorder Recovery:

Have a Support System in Place: Recovery is an ongoing process, and while you may not always need to be at a certain level of treatment, it is a good idea to have constant support around yourself for your recovery journey. This may be a mentor that you meet with periodically for accountability, a support group that you can check in with, a therapist/counselor, dietitian, etc.

Relapses often occur during moments of vulnerability, so having a support system already in place can be an invaluable resource when you are needing extra help or encountering challenging circumstances.

Understand Your Triggers: As you progress in your eating disorder recovery, it is important to understand what situations, emotions, circumstances, etc. may trigger urges to engage in your eating disorder. Urges themselves are not a “bad” thing; in fact, eating disorder urges can be used to identify when a situation is triggering or difficult to work through.

For example, if you find yourself suddenly experiencing an increased urge to restrict, binge, purge, etc., this can be a helpful time to examine the circumstances in your life and identify what may be influencing these urges. The more you are better able to understand your triggers, the better you can anticipate situations that may influence eating disorder behaviors.

Develop Healthy and Appropriate Coping Mechanisms: Identifying triggers is one aspect of relapse prevention, while the other important step is to engage in healthy and appropriate coping mechanisms. If you experience a triggering situation, it may be comfortable to fall back into eating disorder behaviors, leading to relapse.

However, it is important to exercise healthier coping mechanisms to prevent relapse. Applying healthier coping mechanisms is something that you can exercise and practice in treatment with the support of your treatment team.

Develop coping skills can help you successfully work through triggering situations without engaging in your eating disorder. Self-care is also another fundamental aspect of being able to cope appropriately with triggers, which includes eating regularly, sleeping adequately, and keeping your appointments with your treatment team.

Learn How to Ask For Help: In eating disorder recovery, there are phases when you may feel comfortable where you are at, and this can sometimes create a sense of complacency with recovery efforts. It is important to recognize when you feel yourself straying from things you may typically do for recovery purposes and know when to ask for help, should you feel yourself struggling.

Eating disorders are characterized by isolation, and it is easy to stay quiet if you feel yourself struggling. Be prepared to ask for help, should you need it, in any type of circumstances.

Celebrate Your Victories: Relapse prevention is also about recognizing where you are and from where you have come. Sometimes, the recovery process from an eating disorder can seem endless, and it is easy to feel discouraged when you don’t see yourself where you would like to be.

Woman struggling with relapse walking on rocksLearn to recognize the victories that are significant for you: whether it’s following through with your meal plan, eating a challenging food, connecting with a support group, identifying your triggers, etc. All these steps are monumental toward helping you find strength over your eating disorder.

No matter what your journey may look like, know that there is always hope for recovery. Even a relapse does not mean you have failed and is an important part of your journey in overcoming your eating disorder.

Sponsored by Magnolia Creek

Peacefully nestled in 36 wooded acres and located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders treats women (18 years and older) who struggle with eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, and co-occurring addictive behaviors. Magnolia Creek’s phenomenal team of therapists, doctors, nurses, and dietitians is dedicated to providing the highest quality of care using current research-supported methods in a cozy, retreat-like setting. With a dual license to treat eating disorders and mental health disorders, we work collaboratively with our clients to create an individualized treatment approach for each client that not only nourishes the body but also strengthens the spirit.

LindasmithAbout the Author: Linda Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders in Columbiana, Alabama. Prior to joining Magnolia Creek, Linda served as an Electronic Interchange Consultant for Comprehensive Radiology Groups throughout the state.

She also worked with one of the leading facilities in addiction, Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services located in Hattiesburg, MS. She has extensive experience in inpatient, outpatient, residential and partial hospitalization treatment, and is well versed in eating disorders, co-occurring mental health disorders, substance abuse, and love and sex addiction.


[1]: Berends, T., van Meijel, B., Nugteren, W., Deen, M., Danner, U. N., Hoek, H. W., & van Elburg, A. A. (2016). Rate, timing and predictors of relapse in patients with anorexia nervosa following a relapse prevention program: a cohort study. BMC Psychiatry, 16(1), 316. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-016-1019-y

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on October 4, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 4, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com