Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery - Gillan Elizabeth
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Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery - Gillian Elizabeth -

Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery

A relapse, simply put, is a period of deterioration after a period of recovery. Sometimes relapse creeps up on you over time while other times it seems to explode in your face and take over your life in one fell swoop. It can happen for a variety of reasons from boredom to grief, trauma, or any other trigger. The tricky part of relapse is that many people get used to these periods of deterioration and struggle, accepting that this is their ultimate reality while feeling completely defeated and powerless.

In regards to eating disorders specifically, a relapse may include these signs or symptoms:

  • skipping meals, starting a new diet, becoming unusually rigid about eating (such as the time of day, type of food, or location), avoidance of specific foods for no reason, and/or labeling foods
  • weighing or measuring yourself often
  • choosing to be alone and binge, restrict, purge, or over-exercise
  • lying to others about what you’re eating
  • thoughts consuming you about food and weight
  • collecting thinspiration pictures


While engaging in any of these eating disorder behaviours can feel very much like taking two steps back instead of two steps forward it is important to acknowledge this is very much a part of the process of recovery. Everyone goes through relapses, no matter how “large” or “small” they may seem. It’s important to note that if you find yourself relapsing it’s important to begin to take steps again towards recovery. It’s also important to recognize that eating disorder behaviours are ingrained in your neural connections. This has become your default reaction for coping with your life. Remember, this is simply one tool of many that are available to you. It will take effort and time to rewire this pattern but it is possible. When you recognize this you can begin to choose whether you want to participate in actions that will benefit you positively while coping (or negatively). The choice is yours depending on how you want to feel.

Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery - Gillian Elizabeth -

So what to do next if you’re experiencing a relapse?

1. Acknowledge that relapsing does not make you a bad person. Allow yourself to let go of any resistance to these behaviours; release your shame and discouragement. Instead of focusing on what happened, begin to take positive action steps to recovery by following the guidance below. If you feel resistance to continue reading because you feel like it is pointless and you have already done this too many times allow yourself to mentally play out what your life will look like and feel like if you continue the path you are on now. Picture what your life will look like over the next week, two weeks, a month, a year, and five years from now. Now, mentally play out what your life could look like in the next week, two weeks, a month, a year, and five years from now if you start to make positive action steps towards recovery again. Pick your path and commit to that in this moment.

If it helps, write down what your life will look like when you are recovered. Ask yourself why you are choosing the path you are choosing.

2. Recognize what triggered this behaviour. What kind of relief were you looking for? Are you in need of self-care, relaxation, decompression from a stressful situation, or connection to others?

To help you identify what need/s you were trying to fulfill use your journal or a piece of paper and write about what’s going on, how you feel about it, and what it makes you realize about your life. Once you identify what need/s you were trying to fulfill by engaging in this disordered eating pattern clearly write it down. Next, write down other ways that you can fulfill this void. What will allow you to move in a direction in your life that isn’t too stressful, that isn’t full of too many responsibilities? Pick one of these methods and fulfill your need. If you notice that your eating disorder behaviours were triggered by too many responsibilities, work through what you may be able to let go of and what responsibilities you can delegate to others in your life. Begin to design the type of life for yourself that will prevent relapse in the future.

If you’re looking for connection it’s especially important to choose to engage with people that are supportive and that you feel you can truly connect to. If you don’t have any friends or family that you can connect to book a session with me today. I would be happy to support you and guide you through this time. I know it can be extremely scary to be honest about your struggles but I have been through it all (trust me, there is no shame or guilt here). I once even ate brownies out of a garbage because I was trying to force myself to stop binging and then regretted throwing them out less than an hour later. I am here to help you through this and remind you of the tools and skills that are available to you to keep you moving in the direction that feels good to you.

3. Recognize that relapse does not mean you have failed! Healing is like journeying through a labyrinth. It can seem as if there is a direct path to the centre (and to heal) from point A to point B. In reality, as you set upon the journey to healing there are many twists and turns you don’t expect to encounter. Know that if you continue on the journey at some point recovery will happen (just as you will reach the centre of the labyrinth). It can feel tempting to rush in hopes of getting there faster but realize that there is no need to rush because each step requires presence. Let go of the intense focus of the goal and instead know with each step you are making your way to the centre without forcing it, you are allowed to be where you are in each present moment. Standing from the outside looking in, it can seem like a daunting, even impossible, task. But remember that all you need to do right now is take the first step and you are already creating a new path. As you walk through the labyrinth (and your journey to wellness) you will encounter walls, just as you will encounter relapse in recovery. These walls can be seen as teachers to allow you to work through the deeper levels of your very being. Just as within the labyrinth and your recovery this spiral inward will be full of meandering but ultimately it can bring you to a purposeful path. These relapses challenge you to become more aware and conscious of yourself. The most important thing is to learn from your relapse. What were the warning signs? What triggered you? How can you avoid it next time? If you learn from it, you can more easily move past this relapse and continue along your road to recovery. Just as the labyrinth is designed to bring you to the centre of your being before going back out into the world, so too does your journey to recovery demand this of you. 

It can be extremely therapeutic to physically walk a labyrinth during your healing process.Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery - Gillian Elizabeth - Guided meditation is also a great tool to dive deeper into your own being, uncovering triggers, and learning to master your mind. Meditation gives you the space to slow down the momentum of your relapse and take a moment to become aware of yourself. Allot 15 minutes into your daily schedule to meditate, scanning your body to become aware of any sensations, thoughts, or feelings that are connected to this behaviour. For more information on how to start meditating read this article titled How to Start Meditating. Mindful meditation is particularly beneficial to utilize during relapse because it allows you to learn how to stay in the present moment without judgments. You will more easily be able to take things day-by-day, instead of getting stuck in the past. Watch this video to learn more about this technique and listen to a guided mindful meditation.

4. Take full responsibility for your life and take action in the direction of wellness again. Carrying out these steps will give you back a sense of self-confidence and empowerment.

If you lose momentum during recovery go back to your mental reflection in step 1 to remind yourself why you are doing this.

I would like to note that intuitive eating comes after recovery. Do not force yourself to be an intuitive eater right now, it will gradually happen as you follow the steps towards recovery and as you feel ready. If you are experiencing bloating, digestive issues, stomach pains, hunger confusion, and other symptoms from restrictive eating or overeating this will confuse you and likely lead to discouragement towards eating intuitively.  

I know that relapse is a hard part of recovery. I feel your pain and discouragement but know that this does not mean anything about you personally. Everyone experiences what you are experiencing. If you still feel like giving up look at it this way, if your car gets a scratch are you going to get out a sledgehammer and take out your head lights, tail lights, windshield, and engine because of a scratch? I didn’t think so. By giving up, and going full fledge in the direction of your disordered eating pattern, and falling into defeat with relapse you are intentionally making it harder for yourself. Recovery is possible, take it one step at a time, one meal at a time. You don’t need to continue to sabotage yourself today and wait until tomorrow to recover, take that step right now.

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