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10 Signs of an Eating Disorder Relapse

Recognizing the signs of eating disorder relapse is crucial for individuals in recovery to maintain their level of progress and continue toward sustained recovery.

Despite the efforts and strides made on the recovery journey, many still experience potential setbacks – in fact, research suggests that up to 50% of individuals in recovery relapse within the first few years of treatment. While this information may seem discouraging, by recognizing these common relapse indicators and addressing them proactively, individuals can effectively manage recovery challenges and still maintain their path toward lasting, successful health and healing.

Whether you’re personally in recovery or supporting someone on their journey, familiarizing yourself with these common signs of eating disorder relapse can help navigate the future potential complexities involved in the recovery process.

What is Eating Disorder Relapse?

Eating disorder relapse refers to a recurrence or exacerbation of disordered eating behaviors and thought patterns after a period of recovery or improvement. It can manifest itself in various forms (often depending on the type of eating disorder) including restrictive eating, binge eating, purging behaviors, obsessive thoughts about food and body image, and a return to harmful weight control measures.

Relapse can happen for various reasons but is often triggered by stress, trauma, emotional challenges, or significant life changes, and it typically involves a regression to coping mechanisms used during the active phase of the eating disorder. Recognizing the signs of relapse early on is essential for proper intervention and support to prevent a full-blown return to disordered eating behaviors. 

Effective management of eating disorder relapse often involves addressing the root causes, seeking professional help, and re-engaging in treatment and support networks to regain stability and progress in recovery.

When Do Eating Disorder Relapses Occur?

Eating disorder relapses can occur at any point during the recovery journey, especially due to diet culture messaging popping up at nearly every corner we turn. However, relapse is particularly common in times of heightened stress, life changes, or triggering events. Some specific periods when eating disorder relapse may be more likely include:

  • Transitions: Moving to a new city, starting college, changing jobs, or experiencing relationship changes can often disrupt routines and trigger anxiety
  • Major life events: Weddings, graduations, or the loss of a loved one can evoke intense emotional reactions, anxiety, and stress
  • Holidays and celebrations: Festive occasions such as holidays and birthdays tend to revolve around food and eating, leading to the pressure to indulge or restrict certain foods
  • Periods of illness or injury: Physical health issues, injuries, or surgeries can potentially exacerbate existing mental health struggles, as individuals must learn to cope with changes in their bodies and routines
  • Times of increased body dissatisfaction: Changes in weight, appearance, or comparison to others may intensify negative body image
  • Unresolved emotional issues: Trauma, unresolved conflicts, or underlying psychological issues can resurface during periods of stress and anxiety

10 Signs of an Eating Disorder Relapse

Whether you’re personally in recovery or supporting someone along their journey, wondering if a relapse has occurred might be a sign in itself to reach out for extra support. Eating disorders have a sneaky way of letting themselves back in, often masking themselves as harmless thoughts or behaviors until they gradually regain control and leave behind the hard-earned progress of recovery.

Thus, recognizing the signs of an eating disorder relapse is essential for regaining needed support and moving toward sustained recovery. Here are some of the most common indicators of eating disorder relapse to be aware of:

  1. Increased Obsessiveness Over Food and Eating: Individuals may find themselves preoccupied with thoughts about food, constantly planning meals, recipes, or calorie counting, which can often consume their thoughts and distract them from other aspects of life.
  2. Increased Obsessiveness Over Weight and Appearance: A heightened fixation on weight, body measurements, or appearance may resurface, especially when body changes occur, leading to frequent weighing, body checking, and comparison to others.
  3. Rationalizing Small Eating Changes as “Okay”: Justifying alterations in the recovery meal plan or allowing oneself to engage in disordered eating behaviors under the disguise of being “healthy.”
  4. Deviating from the Post-Treatment Plan: Neglecting or disregarding recommendations from healthcare providers, therapists, or dietitians regarding nutrition, self-care, or behavior management often indicates a regression in recovery efforts, which may include skipping meals, avoiding certain foods, or neglecting therapy assignments.
  5. Secrecy Around Food and Exercise: Hiding food, eating in isolation, or concealing exercise habits from loved ones may suggest a return to disordered behaviors, with this secrecy often more intense during relapse due to the person’s loved ones being aware of their eating history and treatment plan.
  6. Social Withdrawal: Pulling away from social interactions, avoiding gatherings involving food, or isolating oneself from supportive networks may indicate emotional distress and reluctance to acknowledge or seek help for their relapse.
  7. Mood Swings and Emotional Instability: Fluctuations in mood, heightened irritability, anxiety, or depressive symptoms can accompany relapse, as it often reflects the internal struggle and inability to cope effectively with stressors.
  8. Physical Signs: Observable changes such as weight loss or gain, hair loss, dental problems, fatigue, or gastrointestinal issues may manifest as a result of disordered eating behaviors resurfacing.
  9. Perfectionism and Rigidity: Returning to rigid food rules, perfectionistic tendencies, or all-or-nothing thinking patterns can signify a regression to maladaptive coping skills and disordered eating thoughts and behaviors.
  10. Resistance to Treatment or Support: Displaying reluctance or outright refusal to engage in therapy, receive support, or seek guidance indicates a lack of readiness to confront and address the relapse, which may prolong its duration and severity.

If you recognize any of these signs of eating disorder relapse, it can feel daunting to know how to handle the situation, particularly when it involves someone you care about. Demonstrating love and support without judgment is key to helping a loved one who may be struggling. Simple gestures like sharing meals with them, offering to talk with them about their struggles, or providing support group resources can be immensely helpful in shifting the focus away from relapse behaviors and toward maintaining their healing journey.

Find Recovery Support with VERY

Recovering from an eating disorder is an extremely challenging and tedious journey that can bring even more difficulties when relapse occurs, which is why having trusted community support is highly valuable. 

Our RecoVERY Community is designed to help those with all types of eating disorders achieve a successful, lasting recovery. With continuous community support from members with similar experiences, daily psychoeducation, meal support, and other beneficial recovery resources, our goal is to help you regain a healthy relationship with food and body, free from the rigid rules of the eating disorder.

Join the community for free to see how it can help transform your healing journey.
Have questions?Schedule a free consultation to learn more about how our team can help support your recovery.