It takes a lot of courage, hard work, strength and support to recover from an eating disorder. Most people can’t reach this point without a few slips and minor setbacks. Relapse is when a person who is in recovery goes back to disordered eating behaviours or negative thoughts about food, weight and body size. The way to prevent a relapse is to recognize and deal with some of the things that could get in the way of recovery. There are several things a person can do to prevent relapsing.
“So the more I learned what my triggers were, what I was good at and where my vulnerabilities lied – the easier it was for me to adapt. Likewise, the more I knew what strengthened me and the support and resources I possessed, the easier it was to adapt.” ~Amy
Strategies for preventing a relapse:
1. Develop a support system – and use it!
It is very important to surround yourself with people who love, support and encourage you. These people can be members of your family, your friends, or your care providers. They will be there to help you when you are struggling with a difficult situation or experience. It’s not always easy to reach out, but you should feel comfortable asking for help when you need it. Some people find it useful to make a list of names and phone numbers to call if they start to slip back into old thought patterns or unhealthy eating behaviours.
2. Reduce negative influences
Try to identify the negative influences in your life, and find ways to reduce or avoid these unhelpful situations. These negative influences might include people who make unhelpful comments about their own weight and appearance, or trigger you to make unhelpful comparisons about your weight or shape. Your own thoughts can also be unhelpful! Learn to challenge any destructive thoughts you have about yourself. Make a list of all of your good qualities and use it when you feel critical or negative.
3. Identify your “triggers”
A “trigger” is anything that can cause you to return to disordered eating behaviours or thoughts. Each person has their own triggers. They often include feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or lonely. Sometimes an upsetting or traumatic experience can be a trigger. Some people are more likely to relapse at certain times of the year, for example during holidays or exams. To identify your triggers, think of times when you were tempted to act on eating disorder urges. Try to figure out what contributed to these urges.
4. Make a personal coping plan
Make a list of different triggers that could cause you to act on eating disorder urges. Then, come up with a plan for dealing with each of these triggers in a healthier way. Your coping plan might include calling a friend, taking a walk, or writing in a journal.
5. Eat snacks and meals regularly
A meal and snack schedule can prevent you from going back to disordered eating or unhelpful eating behaviours. Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time, and stick to your plan! Eat three meals a day, plus snacks, at regular times (about every 3 hours). A consistent schedule will be good for both your emotional and physical health. Your family may be able to help by eating meals together with you as often as possible.
6. Keep busy and stay involved
Get involved in a hobby or activity that you enjoy. It can be anything from arts & crafts, to volunteering, to nature walks, to joining a club. If you make time to do the things you enjoy, or to do nice things for others, your focus will shift away from your eating disorder. It can also help to keep you motivated to recover and to stay connected to your surroundings and the people in your community.
7. Make time for yourself
It is important to take time to do something good for yourself every day. Some people find it helpful to use this time to relax or reflect. Some do yoga or meditation. Others draw, paint, write, or listen to music. No matter what you choose, remind yourself that you are important. You deserve to take this time to do something that is just for you!
Signs of Relapse
It is important to remember that recovery is possible, even for those who have struggled with eating disorder symptoms for a long time. If we know some of the signs of relapse, we may recognize when someone is returning to eating disorder patterns. Then, there is a chance to prevent a slip from turning into a relapse.
Examples of warning signs include:
- checking weight daily
- skipping meals
- over exercising
- needing to be perfect
- increased need for control
- difficulty coping with stress
- feeling sad or hopeless
- wearing loose-fitting clothing
- worrying about weight
- avoiding situations that involve food
- looking in the mirror a lot
- spending a lot of time alone
If you notice some of these signs in yourself or a loved one, and are worried that a relapse may happen, it is important to get help right away. The support of a mental health professional can be very important in preventing relapse. This is especially true during the early stages of recovery, which can be both frightening and overwhelming.