Relapse & Seeking Eating Disorder Treatment Again

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Recovery happens over a duration of years. It can be a challenge to enter real-life after treatment to overcome an eating disorder.

Signs of Relapse

Eating disorder relapse can be a slow progression. It may begin with fleeting thoughts of food, dieting, or weight. Being dishonest with the treatment team, or a fear that you may be losing control over areas in your life can also signal a potential relapse.

For some, a return to unhealthy exercising or dieting is the start of a relapse.

A constant feeling of needing to have the perfect body, or keeping your appearance perfect, or a lack of stress relievers are other signs of relapse [1].

An individual may obsess about weight loss and state a fear of becoming fat. Friends and loved ones may comment on behaviors or changed appearance. A person will body check and start skipping snacks or meals.

Restriction can lead to missing several meals or snacks or going days without eating [1]. The individual can become irritable around food and express feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment when eating.

Social isolation and withdrawal are common during relapse. A person may begin to stay away from others due to an adverse body image perception, fear-foods, or heightened anxiety.

Tips to Remember

Relapse does not indicate failure, but it is something that has been experienced before. Recovery is possible for any sufferer of an eating disorder, but one needs compassion and acceptance for oneself as the recovery process begins.

Have an open dialogue with loved ones, supportive friends, and the eating disorder treatment team about relapse signs and symptoms.

Accept that everyone has limitations and relapse does not define who a person is or can be. Practicing the skills learned in treatment and aftercare can help slow down or stop the relapse until treatment is obtained.

It can help during the process to take a moment and remember to:

  • Redevelop a compassionate inner dialogue with yourself
  • Practice self-acceptance
  • Breathe and utilize mindfulness skills
  • Get out the treatment skills binder and use skills and techniques gained from previous treatment
  • Feel your emotions
  • Get back on a meal plan and gather friends and family to engage in supportive meals

Relapses are common and natural during the recovery process. It is a way to learn and grow from triggers that have yet to be identified. It is helpful to remind a sufferer that if the disorder has been chronic, it is more likely that they will relapse than someone who has had a shorter duration of the illness.

Underlying issues such as body image, self-esteem, self-worth, and trauma are concerns that take much longer to process than eating disorder behaviors [2]. Triggers or reminders of these issues can start an eating disorder relapse.

Risk Factors for Relapse

Continuing with exercise after treatment can trigger a relapse to occur. Obsessing thoughts around calories burned, duration of exercise and body comparison can be quickly turned into eating disorder symptoms.

The age of onset also plays a role in relapse. If a person is older when the eating disorder begins, relapse is higher [2]. This can be due to stronger development of beliefs, values, and self-worth tied to the disorder as a person ages.

Woman near the treeContinued negative life experiences or trauma can trigger a relapse. If a person leaves treatment, and trauma continues, or adverse life events occur, it can trigger a return to disordered eating behaviors. If the situation becomes overwhelming, it acts as a means to self-soothe in a time that no other skill of intervention does.

Health can also trigger a relapse. It is common for individuals to experience physical consequences of the eating disorder, even after recovery is achieved.

A change in health can shift behaviors and thoughts to give the person a sense of control over the situation.  Underlying co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can trigger a relapse, or even continue the disorder.

What to do if Relapse Has Occurred

Recovery looks different for everyone and includes overcoming physical, mental, and emotional barriers to restore healthy eating patterns, thoughts, and behaviors [4].

Recovery includes ending the cycle of obsessiveness or attitudes around self and food. For others, healing can be establishing a healthy physical self or returning to the normal social functions and gaining a sense of purpose.

Recovery has no timeline. It can take years to reach full recovery. It heavily depends on your treatment team, therapy, support system, and the sufferer’s commitment.

Utilizing resources learned during successful times and during times of relapse can aid in sustained recovery.

During treatment, it is essential for the sufferer to surround themselves with those who support treatment and recovery. This support can decrease feelings of isolation and increase feelings of hope.

Hope is powerful and can increase treatment motivation. Building sources of hope, whether through religion, spirituality, other sufferers, or quotes, can aid in recovery success.

Woman by the riverAcknowledging setbacks as a natural process is part of the recovery. Denying it is happening can worsen behaviors. Relapse is not a step back to square one but is a step up to working through new issues or ways in dealing with stress.

Lastly, keeping engaged in activities that bring purpose and joy is vital. Getting outside of oneself and connecting with humanity can aid in seeing the bigger picture.

It allows the person to be able to connect with their world and remember who they are outside of the eating disorder.

Relapsing can be scary, but with the right tools, support, and treatment, it can be a stepping stone up in the recovery process. Learn to embrace the challenge of a relapse and know that no one person is alone.

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] Slips, Lapses and Relapses. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from
[2] Relapse and recurrence. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from
[3] Phases of Recovery From An Eating Disorder Part 1. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from
[4] Understanding Recovery. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from

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 February 16, 2018.

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