In recovery from an eating disorder, relapses are to be expected, as they are a normal part of the recovery process. Re-learning normal eating habits and healthy coping skills take time and practice and often requires returning to eating disorder treatment to get support from professionals, friends, and family.
What’s important is that in spite of slips or backslides, there’s a general progression toward recovery, however slow it might be. [1, 4]
To clarify, a “relapse” is the reoccurrence of eating disorder behaviors after a period of their absence. Relapses often occur during times of high stress and emotional distress as these are times when new coping skills are difficult to recall.
While those in recovery often feel shame, helplessness, hopelessness, sadness, or frustration when a relapse occurs, it doesn’t mean that they have failed at recovery. 
Hold compassion and understanding. Recovery from an eating disorder is a hard, tumultuous process. Remember, relapse in eating disorder recovery tends to be the rule, rather than the exception.
It is important to acknowledge and express compassion and understanding of the emotions and experience surrounding the relapse. Recognizing and acknowledging the challenges of recovery can go a long way.
Relapse is a learning opportunity, not a failure. Relapsing and then returning to recovery is an indicator that one is learning how to make long-lasting changes, and thus they are strengthening their recovery.
Reframing relapse in this way can help diffuse any harsh judgments the person in recovery is having about themselves and the relapse.
It’s likely that these types of harsh judgments will only make the relapse worse.
Recognize the “slippery slope.” Identify what factors contributed to the relapse and what coping skills can be used in similar triggering situations in the future. Pulling out and dusting off techniques and coping strategies used previously in recovery may be helpful.
Get support. If the relapse occurs for two weeks or longer, increased support is likely needed. This could include a return to treatment (a visit to their therapist or dietitian) for one or two booster sessions and/or entering into a recovery program.
Typically, treatment following a relapse is briefer than the original treatment and can be extremely helpful in staying the course of recovery.
Full recovery is possible. While recovery from an eating disorder is a challenge, it is possible. Getting support and treatment is the key to recovery.
For example, one study showed that those who received treatment within the first 5 years of struggling with bulimia had a recovery rate of 80%. While those who waited more than 15 years after their symptoms began to get treatment, experienced recovery rates closer to 20%. 
For most people struggling with an eating disorder, recovery goes through several stages and is characterized by steps forward and steps back. It is important to stay the course, to get support, and to remember that full recovery is possible. [1, 4]
1. National Eating Disorder Association. Recovery and relapse. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/general-information/recovery on Sept 14, 2019.
2. Grilo, C. M., Pagano, M. E., Stout, R. L., Markowitz, J. C., Ansell, E. B., Pinto, A., … Skodol, A. E. (2012). Stressful life events predict eating disorder relapse following remission: six-year prospective outcomes. The International journal of eating disorders, 45(2), 185–192. doi:10.1002/eat.20909
3. Reas, D. L., Williamson, D. A., Martin, C. K. and Zucker, N. L. (2000), Duration of illness predicts outcome for bulimia nervosa: A long‐term follow‐up study. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 27: 428-434. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-108X(200005)27:4<428::AID-EAT7>3.0.CO;2-Y
4. National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). (2014). Eating Disorders: Core Interventions in the Treatment and Management of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders. NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK49318/.
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.
She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on September 30, 2019, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 30, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC