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November 14, 2023

Post-Treatment: Maintaining Progress and Preventing Relapse in Eating Disorders

Discharging from treatment is a significant milestone—a testament to your eating disorder patient’s hard work and progress in recovery. While this is often a cause for celebration, there is still more healing to do. Providers like you play a key part in guiding these patients toward long-lasting freedom and stability.

As your patient continues their journey toward recovery, they will undoubtedly face a variety of triggers, both new and old. In fact, transitions themselves are a risk factor for eating disorders, and the transition from treatment to “normal life” is no exception. Stepping back into everyday life can also bring forth a set of challenging situations, including inappropriate comments from others and diet culture pressures.

Read on for strategies and insights that will empower you to guide your patients in facing these challenges head-on.

4 Ways to Help Prevent Relapse in Your Patient

1. Identify triggers and make a plan

It’s inevitable that your patients will encounter eating disorder triggers after treatment. Helping them to identify their specific triggers (e.g., food-centered events and social settings, the presence of former “fear foods,” changes in routine, diet culture messaging, etc.), is an important first step in relapse prevention. 

Once you and your patient have identified the events or thoughts that trigger their eating disorder behaviors, it’s time to develop a plan. For example, if your patient is most worried about receiving comments about their weight, you can focus on preparing for such situations. Perhaps you can collaborate on a few responses that the patient feels comfortable saying—such as, “I am not taking feedback on my body right now,” or “I am focusing on my well-being and not what my body looks like. Can we talk about something else?” 

2. Apply skills learned in treatment 

Your patient learned numerous coping and nutrition skills in treatment, but putting them into practice can present challenges. Your support is essential in empowering your patients to build and practice skills such as emotion regulation, interpersonal relationships, mindfulness, and self-compassion

Putting these skills into practice may involve a patient noticing a change in their clothing size, and instead of engaging in disordered behaviors, they employ a healthy coping strategy. Coping strategies may include journaling about triggers, reading a recovery story, meditating, going for a walk, or discussing their feelings with you or a loved one. 

3. Pay attention to any behavior changes

No matter how well you and your patient have prepared for triggers, disordered behaviors may still resurface. A non-linear healing process is common given the complexity and aggressiveness of these illnesses. Take note of any changes in your patient’s behaviors around food, eating, or exercise. If you notice the reemergence of unhealthy behaviors, approach your patient with kindness and patience. 

Here are some examples of signs that your patient may be headed toward relapse:

  • Perfectionistic thinking returns or strengthens
  • Dishonesty
  • Changes in mood, attitude, and energy level
  • Isolation
  • Other mental health issues worsen
  • Changes in eating patterns or exercise

4. Identify and engage supportive loved ones

In addition to professionals, support people play a critical role in your patient’s successful recovery. Helping your patient identify people in their life who would be supportive in their recovery is an important first step. After you’ve determined who the patient feels comfortable leaning on, assist them in involving their loved ones in their recovery. 

Involving support people in recovery may involve the patient asking them to be available during triggering events, to join them in eating an especially challenging food, or to join them in removing diet culture language from their vocabulary (e.g., “I’m so ‘bad’ for eating this,” “I’ll have to ‘make up’ for this food tomorrow with my workout,” “Thank goodness this brownie is the ‘guilt-free’ version,” etc.).

Your Patient Has Relapsed. Now What?

Similar to eating disorders themselves, relapse is complex. However you or your patient may define it, relapse is common. It does not mean your patient has “failed” recovery, nor does it mean that your patient cannot regain a path toward healing.

Your patients’ journey to recovery may not follow a straight line, but with your support, recovery remains within reach. If you feel your patient needs support beyond what you can provide, please do not hesitate to refer them to an eating disorder treatment center like Veritas Collaborative. 

If one of your patients is showing signs of an eating disorder relapse and needs more support, Veritas Collaborative is here to help. Refer your patient to us today by calling 612-402-3061 or by submitting an online form.