Relapse in eating disorder recovery, with Orri’s Lead Psychological Therapist

Experiencing a relapse can knock your confidence in eating disorder recovery, but it doesn’t have to undo any of the hard work you’ve already done and the progress you’ve made.

Recovery isn’t always about recognising the ‘wins’ and the days where you show up for yourself. Recovery is also very much about acknowledging that there are and will be difficult days. There will be the days that feel like you are going backwards, especially if you experience a relapse (or rather, a lapse).

Reflecting on April’s theme being about relapse in eating disorder recovery, we spoke with Dr Joanna Silver, Orri’s Lead Psychological Therapist, to hear her thoughts:

What is a relapse and what does it look like in eating disorder recovery?

“A relapse is when somebody goes back to their previously dysfunctional behaviours,” says Dr Joanna. These behaviours in eating disorders could present as restricting, bingeing or purging.

Mentally, somebody who is experiencing a relapse will have louder cognitive thoughts – this will mean that the brain will be more preoccupied with thoughts about food, shape and weight.

It’s important to remember that “sometimes in a relapse, someone will look totally healthy or the same but internally, they can be going back to old behaviours”.

What advice would you give to someone experiencing a relapse?

Recovery isn’t a linear process; there will be ups and downs as normal life challenges arise and we take steps to overcome and build resilience against them for the future. If you are or know somebody in an eating disorder relapse, try to consider the experience as a “lapse”, rather than a “relapse” – or as Dr Joanna refers to it, as “a blip”. 

She reminds us that it is so important to show compassion during these moments. You are not back at square one, nor are you a failure! You are human and stumbling is normal.

“A much more constructive way to look at a lapse is to think that these things do happen.”

Lapses in eating disorder recovery can be good opportunities for growth. Dr Joanna advises to firstly seek support (it from a trusted one or a healthcare professional). Then, ask yourself, “why has this happened?” Really take a moment to consider your thoughts and behaviours built around the relapse to make sense of why you are going through it.

How can people support themselves during an eating disorder relapse?

Dr Joanna explores how a relapse in recovery is normal and can be part of your recovery journey.

“The first thing people can do to support themselves during a relapse is to be kind and compassionate to themselves. To not beat themselves up but to accept that they may have gone a little bit backwards but that doesn’t mean that they can’t go forwards.”

What about those caring for someone with an eating disorder during a relapse?

It can be incredibly hard to see a loved one engage in behaviours that were once behind them. Keep in mind that eating disorders are often a symptom of underlying emotional causes (often, emotional distress) so a relapse is simply a means of communicating that something is not ok.

Just as you’ve done before, keep the communication up, stay engaged with their treatment teams, separate your loved one from the eating disorder, and maintain your own boundaries to keep up your own self-care. 

It can be incredibly challenging to see a loved one struggling, so it’s vital that you have your own support whilst supporting them, and also hold onto hope that recovery is possible. They’ve made progress before, they can do it again.

And finally…

Everyone is on their own, unique journey and has done their best to cope with overwhelming feelings and situations. Take a moment to forgive yourself for the ups and downs of your process and know that each step (backwards or forwards) is an opportunity for growth.

Posts you might be interested in.

Hear from our team and clients.