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5 Tips for Navigating Eating Disorder Relapses & Promoting Sustainable Recovery

Written by: Rebecca Gonley, MHC-LP, MS, CASAC
Site Director, The Renfrew Center of New York

Eating disorders do not discriminate and the journey to sustainable recovery is not always easy. It is essential to approach the topic of recovery and relapse with grace, self-compassion and commitment to your goals and continued wellness. In this blog, we will go through some tips and tricks for sustainable recovery.

Eating Disorder Relapses

Eating disorder relapses can occur when individuals return to maladaptive coping behaviors after a period in recovery. Chances of relapse can increase due to various factors, such as life stressors, personal challenges, or lack of support. Recognizing if you or your loved one is struggling again is crucial for engaging more support to prevent relapse. Common signs of relapse can be increased isolation, eating disorder symptoms, and emotional distress.

Identifying Relapse

It’s essential to have checkpoints for self-awareness. These can be tracked either through journaling skills or even discussions with loved ones. Outpatient therapy or nutrition sessions can be non-judgmental spaces to regularly assess urges and the frequency of symptoms. Regular check-ins with a mental health professional or support group can help create a personal safety net. Identifying signs of a relapse early on can assist with increasing clinical support and reducing chances of the relapse requiring more in-depth treatment. Acknowledging the warning signs, such as an increase in negative self-talk or isolation, allows individuals to take proactive steps toward recovery.

Practical Tips for Long-Term Recovery

  1. Seek Professional Support: When recovering from an eating disorder, it’s vital to remember that you shouldn’t have to do it ALONE. Professional support from an outpatient team can be the glue for a strong and sustainable recovery. Eating Disorder Professionals can assess and support your needs as they fluctuate.
  2. Create Support Systems: Support can look different depending on your needs; in addition to an outpatient team, having a support system composed of friends, family, coaches, teachers, or colleagues can also be helpful for sustainable recovery.
  3. Setting Boundaries: Setting boundaries is key for sustainable recovery and is a skill that can be developed. Everyone’s boundaries feel and look different. It is vital for you to think about what your boundaries within recovery are, and what you would need to firmly maintain these boundaries (i.e., “I do not want you to comment on my appearance.”)
  4. Establishing a Routine: Routine is very important, and repetition can be helpful when creating new habits. Having a routine (i.e., setting alarms for mealtimes and snacks) that supports your needs for nutritional intake can also be a helpful trick.
  5. Set Realistic Goals: Take time to identify your short- and long-term goals. Break down larger goals into smaller steps and establish realistic, time sensitive tasks to work towards those larger goals. Build in rewards or find ways to celebrate when you take a small step forward. No goals are too small. Make sure your goals align with your values and belief systems.

Answers to Commonly Asked Questions

Eating disorder recovery is a non-linear path and highly unique journey for each person traveling it. There are usually many ups and downs, and you may find yourself wondering if you’re on the right path, what you should do next, or how you can best support a loved one who’s struggling. It’s normal to be curious and inquisitive about the many facets of this journey. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about eating disorder relapses and recovery:

Q1: Is relapse a failure in recovery?

No. Slips, lapses, and relapses are not failures in recovery. Relapse is a part of the recovery process. Take these moments to identify the triggers, take stock of your skills, reach out for support, and learn from the experience. Every moment is an opportunity for growth.

Q2: How can loved one’s support someone going through a relapse?

Support looks different for everyone and depends on the unique emotional, medical, and practical needs of your loved one. Approaching loved ones with a non-judgmental lens and validating their emotions can promote honest and open communication. Let your loved one know you want to support them. Ask what would be most helpful and be open to learning what has not been helpful in the past. Offer to join a therapy session or provide practical support in other ways. Taking time to educate yourself on eating disorders can also be a way to understand your loved one’s struggle. Consider joining a support group for caretakers, parents, friends, or family members of people with eating disorders to normalize and process the experiences that come with supporting a loved one through recovery. Self-care and a support system are crucial when supporting others.

Q3: When do I know if my loved one needs more support than what I can offer?

If you notice your loved one is struggling with eating or body image, approach them with curiosity and ask what is happening for them– connecting with your primary care provider (PCP) is an important first step if you are concerned. PCPs can provide more detailed information on your loved one’s health, and sometimes eating disorders require more support in a higher level of care. Medical providers can assist with setting up a comprehensive eating disorder assessment to see if your loved one’s needs are better suited for a treatment center that can provide more support.


Relapses are sometimes a part of recovery. It’s crucial to approach them non-judgmentally with curiosity and lots of self-compassion. Relapses can be valuable opportunities to learn more about yourself, re-engage with supports, re-discover old coping skills, and practice new adaptive strategies. Communicating openly and honestly with your support system and utilizing mindful awareness tools can help you identify when eating disorder urges, thoughts or symptoms seem to be increasing. Reflecting on your core values and long-term goals can boost motivation to create a plan, seek out the support you deserve, and get back on track with your recovery.

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