Relapses may be triggered by an obvious event like revisiting an old memory or a friend making a comment about our bodies, or sometimes they can even feel like they come completely out of the blue.
Arguably the scariest part of relapses is how terrifyingly close to ‘square one’ they can feel – in a matter of hours, we can be doubting ourselves, our healing and our recovery progress, feeling like we’re right back to where we started from and doomed to be stuck with our disorders forever.
But, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
And whilst relapses can feel like the end of the world, it’s crucial not to give up on ourselves during those difficult times because those are the times that we need to be showing ourselves the most love, compassion and support.
The truth about eating disorders is that relapses can occur at any time – if you’re an anorexia sufferer, for instance, you may even have a relapse long after you’ve been recovered – this is because, like many mental illnesses, eating disorders like anorexia are hardwired into our brains and when we’ve recovered – although we’ve moved past the bulk of our illness – the tendencies and triggers still lie within us. This just means that we need to be extra careful to nourish ourselves to ensure that we stay mentally and physically healthy.
As much as I’d love to sit here and tell you that relapses aren’t dangerous… I’d be lying, and whilst relapses certainly don’t define you or invalidate your victories, it is super important that you learn to effectively manage any relapses you may have to avoid them snowballing and leading you back down the harmful path that you fought so fiercely to walk away from.
Having studied the psychology of relapses extensively, and being recovered myself for 6 years now, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to successfully overcome a relapse.
The number one biggest lesson that I’ve learned?
The quicker you catch a relapse, the easier it is to overcome.
And catching relapses just as they’re starting (or before they’re starting, even!) is key to taking effective steps to counteract those disordered thoughts. To catch my own relapses before they start to happen, I adopt a “Safety Zone” scale with three levels of disordered behavior:
Safety Zone Behaviors
- Sticking to a healthy and unrestricted eating plan
- Being okay with trying new foods, exercises and hobbies, even if they’re a little scary
- Not categorizing foods as bad/evil/fear foods
- Not skipping meals in order to compensate for larger meals, as punishment for making a mistake, or as reward for doing something well
- Not spending your time consumed with thoughts of food/exercise/your disorder
Caution Zone Behaviors
- Feeling slightly anxious around all or some foods
- Finding yourself obsessing over your weight, calories or exercise
- Feeling urges to restrict/binge/purge
- Weighing yourself more and more frequently and feeling unable to stop yourself from doing so
- Starting to check nutrition labels of food
- Measuring or weighing your food and feelings of guilt if you eat more than you feel that you should
Danger Zone Behaviors
- Finding yourself rationalizing using old disordered behaviors “just one more time”
- Telling yourself that you don’t need to eat healthy/eat anything
- Lying about your food/body image behaviors if questioned by a friend or family member
- Completely avoiding foods that give you anxiety and sticking only to your “safe” foods
- Frequent restricting/bingeing/purging
The Safety Zone is where you want to be, the Caution Zone is where your behavior starts to warn you that you might be headed down a harmful path again, and the danger zone is where you know that you need to turn around and seek help!
Remember: relapses happen, and they don’t mean that you’re doomed to fail!
It can feel embarrassing to relapse and you might be overwhelmed with feelings that your family and friends will be disappointed if they know that you’re struggling again, but I promise you, that’s not true!
It takes strength and courage to admit that you’re struggling, and everyone around you will be so proud of you for taking positive steps to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy.
The sooner you catch a relapse, the easier it is to move past those disordered thoughts and get on with leading the happy, healthy and amazing life that you deserve to live… your life.