Recovery from an eating disorder is typically a long process. Many people may even relapse during this time. Relapse is often due to stressful situations.

Anorexia nervosa describes an eating disorder in which a person develops obsessive behaviors around food and weight loss. Typically, someone with anorexia may follow extremely strict diets, avoid food altogether, exercise excessively, and lose more weight than is healthy for their age and height.

Recovery from anorexia can be a long process. It may take a person months or years to relearn healthy eating habits and ways to cope. They may relapse along the way, particularly in times of stress.

This article discusses how common it is to relapse with anorexia, some of the signs, what can cause a relapse, and more.

Help is available

Eating disorders can severely affect the quality of life of people living with these conditions and those close to them. Early intervention and treatment greatly improve the likelihood of recovery.

Anyone who suspects they or a loved one may have an eating disorder can contact the National Alliance for Eating Disorders, which offers a daytime helpline staffed by licensed therapists and an online search tool for treatment options.

For general mental health support at any time, people can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24 hours a day at 1-800-662-4357 (or 1-800-487-4889 for TTY).

Many other resources are also available, including:

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Relapsing when in recovery from anorexia is common. A 2018 study suggests that 31% of people relapsed after they had finished treatment.

Relapse occurs when a person returns to negative behaviors relating to anorexia. This is common during times of stress.

The first year after finishing treatment is the most likely time that someone with anorexia will relapse.

Learn more about anorexia.

Relapse may appear different for each person.

However, there are several warning signs of a relapse of anorexia, including:

  • avoiding special occasions that involve eating
  • returning to repeatedly obsessing over and monitoring appearance and weight
  • resuming obsessions over food
  • feeling guilty and shameful after eating
  • feeling extremely anxious, irritable, depressed, and stressed
  • avoiding eating with others
  • isolating from friends and family

Learn about the signs of an eating disorder.

Recovery from anorexia can be a long and difficult process. It involves unlearning unhealthy eating behaviors that a person may have used as a coping mechanism.

Someone may have the desire to return to those behaviors during times of change, stress, or uncertainty, such as:

  • moving to a new area
  • starting a new job
  • getting married or divorced
  • losing a loved one
  • going through bodily changes, such as the menopause
  • receiving a diagnosis of an illness
  • facing financial hardship
  • struggling to get pregnant or discovering infertility
  • having a baby

If a person experiences a relapse of anorexia, there are several coping mechanisms they can implement, including:

  • Having a support system: Having a trusted network of people who can support and encourage a person with their recovery is very important.
  • Speaking with a professional: This can include a healthcare professional, mental health care professional, teacher, social worker, or helpline.
  • Understanding triggers: This can help a person work through their triggers and put healthier coping mechanisms into place.
  • Following a balanced meal plan: This can give a person structure and help make sure they are getting enough nutrition.
  • Being creative: Creativity can play an important role in the well-being of people and can give a person something positive to focus on during a relapse of anorexia. This may involve listening to music, playing an instrument, drawing, painting, writing, or dancing.
  • Having fun: Isolating from friends and family can make it easier for someone to fall back into unhealthy eating behaviors. Spending time with loved ones or doing things that an individual enjoys can help them get through their relapse of anorexia.
  • Finding a support group: Attending meetings and support groups with people in a similar situation can remind a person that they are not alone in their recovery from anorexia.

To help prevent a relapse of anorexia, it is important a person identifies what triggers their eating disorder symptoms.

Once they have identified their triggers, they can put coping strategies into place, such as:

  • Listing healthy ways to cope with triggers, such as calling a friend, speaking with a professional, journaling, or doing something physically active.
  • Following a meal plan and schedule with regular meals and snacks.
  • Making time to do something every day that makes a person feel good.
  • Avoiding negative influences such as certain social media posts and people who spend excess time thinking about their weight and image.
  • Listing qualities that a person likes about themselves.
  • Creating a support system.

If someone starts reexperiencing thoughts relating to anorexia, has difficulty with their recovery meal plan, or starts spending excess time thinking about food and their weight, they may be experiencing an anorexia relapse. They need to contact a healthcare or mental health care professional immediately.

If a person notices physical symptoms of anorexia, such as stomach cramps or fainting, they also need to contact a healthcare professional.

If an individual is in distress or thinking about hurting themselves, they need to seek help right away.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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The following are some questions people frequently ask about anorexia.

How does a person deal with triggers in anorexia recovery?

The first thing someone can do is be aware of what triggers anorexia behaviors for them. A person may want to write a list of their triggers as they occur and how it makes them feel.

They can then write down some helpful thoughts to read when these triggers occur. If a trigger occurs, the individual can distract themselves by doing something they enjoy, such as taking a long bath, watching a funny movie, calling a friend, or reading a book.

What is anorexia addiction?

Anorexia is a mental health condition that can cause dangerous eating behaviors such as obsessing over food and weight gain, severely limiting the amount of food a person eats, and extreme exercising. These behaviors are typically compulsive, meaning they are often difficult to stop and may become an addiction.

Recovery from anorexia is generally a long journey that may be difficult. It is common for people to experience a relapse along the way, particularly in times of stress.

A person can cope with a relapse of anorexia by putting various mechanisms into place, such as having a support network around them, following a meal plan, and practicing self-care.

An individual may be able to prevent a relapse of anorexia by recognizing their triggers and putting various coping strategies into place.

If someone thinks they may be experiencing a relapse of anorexia, it is important they contact a healthcare or mental health professional.