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Slips & Relapses in Recovery

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

By: Abby Emmert, M.A.

When I was recovering from my eating disorder, I saw relapse and slips as the same thing, and they both meant this: failure. Well I am here to tell you that is just not true! I thought they both meant all of the progress I had made went out the window. Everything I had done so far in recovery was undone. That the cycle of my eating disorder was starting over. I thought it meant that I wasn’t going to recover. I thought it meant I was too weak to live a life without my eating disorder. I know I am not alone in this interpretation, but there are many others that ED survivors have! Some look at a slip as a one time incidence while relapse looks more like multiple slips in a row. Whatever you find yourself calling moments that you return to your old ED habits, I decided at some point there had to be something more to what I considered a relapse. So I set out to redefine it.

After a lot of thought in my own recovery, and time working with clients, I started seeing signs that relapses were in fact not weaknesses at all. Slips are moments in time on our recovery journey that we came to a challenge that we were not yet equipped to handle with the skills we have collected along the way.

A relapse, to be clear is a pattern of eating disorder behaviors repeated over time a slip is when it happens once in a while. Or in clinical terms a slip is an isolated time where you engaged in behaviors. What we know is that eating disorder behaviors are often used to deal with situations or feelings that we have no other effective coping mechanism for. As we work through recovery, we try to replace these behaviors with more effective skills or behaviors that provide a long term relief compared to the temporary relief that ED behaviors provide. So, with this all being said, we can start to look at relapses as challenges that we have yet to be prepared with coping skills to overcome! If anything, relapses are learning moments that show us which situations or challenges we still need to work through! But this absolutely does not take away from how hard you worked to get to this moment. In fact, how hard you have worked in recovery proves that you can move past slips and relapse.

Now, just reframing what a relapse means doesn't make it easier to work through at Recovered and Restored, we know that and will never minimize your struggle!

First, try to give yourself grace! Be kind with yourself that you are learning how to undue behaviors that have been your default for so long! That takes time, girl! You deserve some grace to make mistakes so you can continue to learn! And remind yourself that recovery cannot be perfect! There is no perfect way to do it, so relapses are chances to learn, and grow! Also remember using symptoms once does not mean you’ve relapsed!

Next, try to be honest with your treatment team. Assuming you have a team that you like and trust, this may be easier for some than others! If you have a team that you trust and respect, try your best to be honest with them! They are on your team for one reason: they want to help you! They can only help you with the information they have, and they can only help if the information is honest! Give them the chance to support you through this and continue on your recovery journey. Now, if you don't have a team you trust and respect, I would encourage you to ask yourself why? Are they challenging you in a way you aren't ready for? Or are they working in a way that doesnt feel like it aligns with who you are? It's always okay to address this with your team! Because they should care if something they are doing isn't working. But if it continues, it may be time to find some new team members...hi!!!!! :)

Next, try to set some small, achievable goals for the near future to work towards as you work through this relapse. Aiming for a large goal right after a relapse can feel overwhelming and may set you up to slip back again. Smaller goals will help you to get back on your feet and gain insight as to where you need to go from here. A great example of a small goal right after relapsing is to be honest with your team! Another could be taking 24 to 48 hours to avoid any known triggers! Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint! The challenges will be there regardless of when you get to them! Take your time and set yourself up for success.

Finally, right after a slip or a relapse, as in the moments after you have engaged in a behavior or behaviors, try to continue with plans that you had before the relapse occurred or coping skills you established that you didn't try yet. This may sound confusing but stick with me. For example, say your eating disorder behavior is purging and you worked with a counselor to come up with a plan to try calling a friend before you engage in the behavior. After having a triggering event, you engage in the ED behavior and then realize what you forgot to try to call a friend beforehand. I want you to still call the friend! The moments before a slip are just as vulnerable as the moments after. There is usually a lot of guilt and shame afterwards, which can result in more counterproductive behaviors. Not coping after a slip and staying stuck in the guilt and shame is often what leads to relapse. Chances are you established a plan to prevent relapse with activities or skills that you know have helped, so rather than sitting in guilt and shame after the slip, continue with the plan and try the coping skill anyway! The idea is that after time, the skills will be used before the behavior rather than after, and progress will be made! I know when i was recovering is this incredible hard but you are capable! We promise you can heal!!

For some more resources on relapses and slips in recovery, check out these links:

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Recovered and Restored is an eating disorder therapy center founded by Gabrielle Morreale. We specialize in helping teens and young women heal from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder and treat disordered eating, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. We provide eating disorder therapy in the towns of Horsham, Upper Gwynedd, Lower Gwynedd, North Wales, Lansdale, Hatfield, Blue Bell, Doylestown, and nearby towns with eating disorder therapy. Also providing virtual eating disorder therapy in New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida. Some towns served virtually but are not limited to Pittsburg, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Center City, Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Mount Laurel, Cape May, Avalon, Brick, Dover, New Castle, Bethany Beach, Marydel, and Oceanview.

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