Preventing Relapse of Eating Disorders

Article Contributed By: Amy M. Klimek, MA, LCPC, Director of Program Development, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

2064863489_0b37281e5c_zEating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, which is why treatment is often so critical. In eating disorder treatment, those with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder are given the tools and skills to get well.

These strategies are designed to help them cope with uncomfortable feelings or distress; they are intended to replace the need for the eating disorder. Because the truth is, an eating disorder is an unhealthy, maladaptive coping technique.

Relapse Prevention Planning

When considering relapse prevention planning, one can start with looking at people, places and things.

People are an essential component of avoiding relapse and maintaining recovery. We are inherently social beings, created for community. We need one another on a variety of levels, especially during times of difficulty or strife. Those in recovery need intimate friends and family for support, just as professionals are required to provide direction, knowledge and insight.

To a large degree, support groups offer both, friendship and guidance, in a non-judgmental, accepting environment. Conversely, those who directly or indirectly impede recovery should be avoided. A woman trying to heal from prolonged anorexia should reconsider spending time with certain women – those who are always dieting and constantly talking about losing weight, clothing sizes, or body dissatisfaction.

Looks For The Things that Help & Hurt Recovery

Noticing the places that will benefit a person’s recovery or work against recovery will be helpful in the planning process. Places like meetings and support groups will continue to provide guidance in the healing process of recovery. Additionally, places can prompt negative behaviors.


If an adolescent exercised excessively as part of her eating disorder, returning to the same gym is unwise. Although many eating disorder behaviors take place at home, it is unrealistic to think the home will be sold.


Therefore, a person can take steps to change that all-too-familiar environment. If mirrors cause a modicum of distress or anxiety, place encouraging, uplifting words or messages right on the mirror, transforming the act of looking at a mirror into a positive experience.


Myriad objects can also prompt negative feelings. Scales are a prime example. Although life is rife with unalterable things, this is not one of them. A scale is not a necessity to sustaining life, so a woman in recovery probably should not have one. It is that simple.

Developing New Life Patterns

In relapse prevention, people, places and things often overlap. This can mean a challenging place, such as a grocery store, which is full of difficult things for someone with an eating disorder – food items, crowds, and self-judgments. At least initially, support in the form of a person, is recommended.

Developing new life patterns takes strength; there is no shame in asking a friend to go to the grocery store, talking to someone about the struggles, and recognizing when positive experiences are happening. These actions could be the difference between a highly stressful or completely successful experience.


American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), July 1995, p. 1073-1074, Sullivan, Patrick F