Relapse Warning Signs

On the journey to recovery, most sufferers will experience good days and bad days. Recovery takes a lot of time and hard work. It’s important that the “warning signs” of a relapse are recognized. If you are a sufferer and you are able to recognize the signs that a relapse is happening, it is important that you share this with your parents/ treatment team or those helping you. If you are a parent or caregiver for someone who is a sufferer then it is also important that you understand the signs of a relapse so that you can intervene.

Many people experience periods of relapse during recovery. It is during this time that sufferers understand that they can rely on support systems to help. Below is a list of warning signs that may indicate that a person recovering from an eating disorder is experiencing a relapse.

  • Divergence from the established recovery eating schedule, such as skipping meals. Initially, this could occur due to the person recovering from the eating disorder becoming complacent with their eating schedule. However, this can work its way into a longer term relapse if not identified.
  • Undertaking or embarking on a particular type of restrictive diet. This is particularly tricky as with the emergence of fad diets in the media which can easily be disguised as healthy eating. For a person who is in recovery from an eating disorder any form of restrictive diet has the potential to cause that person to relapse. It is very important that both recovering sufferers of eating disorders and caregivers understand that it is very risky for recovering sufferers to undertake any form of restrictive dietary practices such as veganism, fruitarianism, low fat, low carbohydrate, etc.
  • Withdrawal or depression. The are many reasons why a person may experience depression. In someone that is recovering from or has a history of eating disorders it can often be the case that depression can be caused by a reduction in the supply of nutrients. When our bodies do not have enough fuel they often begin to feel tired as resources are being diverted and energy stores are being depleted.
  • Avoidance of a specific food, for no particular reason. Eating disorders are tricky, and often they will find ways to express themselves when a person who is suffering begins to widen the range of food that they are eating. If an item of food that was once eaten suddenly becomes an apparent fear food, this should be addressed as a potential area for relapse.
  • Emergence, or reemergence of rigid eating patterns such as only eating at specific times of the day or particular locations, decreased variety in foods consumed, only using particular pieces of cutlery or measuring food quantities. These are examples of eating disorder behaviors which can re-emerge after a prolonged recovery period. Initially the adoption of rigid eating patterns can re-emerge due to complacency, however, these could progress into a relapse if they are not identified and dealt with accordingly.
  • Reemergence of bingeing or purging behaviors
  • Excessive exercising or choosing exercise over social activities
  • Daily weighing or other “checking” behaviors like measuring or pinching fat
  • Looking in the mirror often
  • Being dishonest with those helping you
  • Wanting to be in control all the time
  • Increase in obsessive thinking about food and weight
  • Wanting to isolate
  • Perfectionistic attitudes
  • Wearing only loose fitting clothes
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself after eating
  • Believing you will be happy and successful if thin
  • Feeling of being “too fat,” even though people say otherwise
  • Significant change in weight in either direction

The particular relapse behaviors will of course differ from person to person. Generally, relapse behaviors will be those that are most relevant to a particular individual. Often these can be behaviors which have a tendency to creep their way back into the lives of sufferers even long after they are considered to be recovered.

In a society which is obsessed with dieting and thinness, it is very difficult for people that are in recovery from an eating disorder not to be faced with dietary advice from unsolicited sources on a daily basis. Facebook news feeds, Twitter and Instagram can look like a barrage of food related opinions and advice which is often not scientifically based and can potentially be a detriment to recovery. Unless a person recovering from an eating disorder chooses to not participate in social media, never watch television and never look at magazines, he or she cannot remove themselves from the media influence. However, sufferers can make the choice to ignore all dietary advice which does not come from his or her treatment team and this approach is highly advisable in order to minimize the risk of relapse. They can also choose instead to follow only recovery-oriented social media sites.


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Additional Reading:

Relapse Prevention Plan – How to make your own detailed relapse prevention plan.
Relapse Prevention – Suggestions and tips to help you prevent a relapse, or deal with one after it happens
Coping with Dieting Family and Friends During Recovery
Dangers of the Wedding Diet


Updated by Tabitha Farrar – 2014
Written by Colleen Thompson – 1997