Recovering from an eating disorder is like journeying through a labyrinth. The journey involves many unexpected twists and turns, but in the end, if you just keep going, you’ll make it to the other side. One of the most common twists people experience during recovery from anorexia nervosa (AN) is a relapse.
And while it may feel like they’ve completely fallen off the recovery path and lost their way, the truth is, relapses are often just part of the journey towards recovery. So if you or a loved one are experiencing a relapse in recovery, know that you are still on the recovery track, and there is hope and encouragement in your anorexia relapse.
What is an Anorexia Relapse?
A “relapse” in anorexia recovery occurs when an individual falls back into ED symptoms and behaviors for a period of time. A relapse may last for a few days, a few weeks, or even longer.
In contrast, a “lapse” in anorexia recovery is an isolated instance where the individual engages in a disordered behavior. If handled properly, a “lapse” or single slip-up can be quickly contained.
On the other end of the spectrum is a “collapse” in recovery. A collapse occurs when an individual cannot contain a relapse and requires a higher level of care and support (e.g., residential or in-patient care) to work through their symptoms and get back on the recovery track.
Relapses are Common
“When I first started my recovery journey six years ago, I felt like I was relapsing more than actually recovering,” writes Nicole Davenport in a National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) article . Research shows that Nicole’s experience with relapses is a common part of the recovery process for many individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN).
In fact, some studies show that between 35 and 41 percent of AN patients experience relapse . A study published in the BMC Psychiatry journal reveals individuals with AN are most at risk of relapsing between 4 and 17 months post-treatment .
The good news is, when handled properly, relapses can be an opportunity to learn more about your triggers and discover positive ways to better navigate the next situation and keep moving forward in recovery. “There is recovery in the relapse,” says Davenport.
“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” .
So no matter if you’ve experienced a temporary lapse, a relapse, or a collapse in recovery, know that you’re not alone. Relapses are often part of the recovery process and, if handled properly, can be used as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and grow stronger in your recovery.
3 Ways to Navigate Anorexia Relapse in a Positive Way
Have a Plan
Research shows that relapse rates among AN patients are significantly lower when a personalized relapse prevention plan is in place . Therefore, the first and most important step is to have a plan in place, so when a lapse or relapse occurs, you are ready and prepared.
This typically means talking to your treatment team or specialist to find out how you can 1) prevent relapses and 2) contain them and stay on track if/when they occur. It might also mean talking to your parents or a family member/friend to let them know a relapse may occur and ask them for support and help if/when you need it.
Another critical way to plan ahead is to stay in some form of treatment. No matter how strong you feel in recovery or how long it’s been since you were in treatment, relapses can still occur.
But by having a strong recovery support system around you before a relapse even occurs, you will be much better equipped to manage potential relapses and stay on track in your recovery.
One of the keys to navigating anorexia relapses in a positive, recovery-focused way is to reject shame and guilt and embrace self-compassion. In fact, research has shown that how someone talks to themselves about their relapse or slip-up can determine whether they stay on the recovery track or fall further into their disorder.
For example, after a slip-up or during a relapse, you might be tempted to say, “I really blew it this time. I guess I’m never going to recover. All that treatment stuff just doesn’t work for me.” This kind of negative self-talk only brings you more shame and guilt, which, in turn, can lead you to fall deeper into ED behaviors and symptoms.
A more positive way to respond to relapse is to say something like, “I’m disappointed I turned to an ED behavior to cope with what I was feeling in that moment. I can see what I need to do differently next time to be better prepared.
And even though I lapsed/relapsed, I know this is often part of the process and that, on the whole, I am doing much better than before I started treatment.” This type of positive, self-compassionate talk helps you build a healthier relationship with yourself and keeps you focused on your recovery goals.
Turn to Your Support System
Finally, if you’ve experienced a lapse or relapse in recovery, don’t try to navigate it alone. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy, meaning when you’ve fallen back into ED behaviors, it’s common to want to isolate yourself from others and hide what’s really going on from those who care about you.
Unfortunately, this response will only make your recovery journey more difficult. So reach out to your treatment team, parents, or a trusted friend as soon as possible to let them know what’s going on and ask for support.
Resources: Davenport, N. (2018, February 20). 10 Ways to Cope with a Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/10-ways-cope-with-relapse-eating-disorder-recovery.  Berends, T., van Meijel, B., Nugteren, W., Deen, M., Danner, U. N., Hoek, H. W., & van Elburg, A. A. (2016, September 8). Rate, timing and predictors of relapse in patients with anorexia nervosa following a relapse prevention program: a cohort study. BMC psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5017136.  ibid.  Davenport, N. (2018, February 20). 10 Ways to Cope with a Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/10-ways-cope-with-relapse-eating-disorder-recovery.  Berends, T., van Meijel, B., Nugteren, W., Deen, M., Danner, U. N., Hoek, H. W., & van Elburg, A. A. (2016, September 8). Rate, timing and predictors of relapse in patients with anorexia nervosa following a relapse prevention program: a cohort study. BMC psychiatry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5017136.
About the Author:
Sarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.
Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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 December 28, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on December 28, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC