In the field of recovery there is a lot of mention of relapse prevention. At Cielo House we have a unique take on what relapse prevention means. Relapse is a term that comes out of the addiction field, whereby someone who has achieved abstinence from substance use suddenly reverts to using a substance again. This model doesn’t exactly fit Eating Disorder recovery, because Eating Disorder recovery doesn’t operate under an abstinence model. For example, you cannot avoid food, we need it to survive. The goal in ED recovery is not abstaining from food or from negative behaviors, those behaviors are sometimes difficult to identify and are not always black and white. What is more important in preventing relapse is understanding how to slip without falling.
In terms of Eating Disorder recovery, a slip is NOT a relapse. For example, you may think you relapsed because you ate more than you thought you should have, but it is not necessarily an ED behavior. Similarly, you may have unintentionally under-eaten on a given day, but that doesn’t mean you have fallen back into restricting. The key to preventing a relapse from occurring is knowing the difference between a slip and a relapse. When you do have a slip, as most people in recovery are likely to, there are a few things you can do to keep the slip out of the realm of full relapse.
1. Accept your slip
When you do experience a slip, don’t ignore it. Sometimes we think that recovery has to be “perfect”, but applying a perfectionistic mindset to recovery will not help. If you slip, acknowledge it, learn from it, don’t beat yourself up over it, and know that it doesn’t mean your recovery is out the window. If you ignore the slip because it doesn’t fit in to your vision of a “perfect” recovery, it will hinder you more than help you. Slips are opportunities for learning and for growth.
2. Do the next best thing
Once you have acknowledged a slip, see if you can do the next best thing to get back on track. You can’t reverse time, and so it’s important to just try to do the next best thing. If you got off track with your nutrition on one day, see if you can get back on track the next day, or try to do something else that is helpful or caring for yourself. Another reason why it’s not useful to kick yourself over perceived mistakes is that sometimes it takes a good deal of energy to get yourself back on track, and if you expend all your energy being upset at yourself, you won’t have the mental energy it takes to do the next best thing you can.
3. Track your triggers
Sometimes a slip can happen at random, but most often there is some kind of trigger proceeding the slip. Keep track of the circumstances surrounding a slip, and it will be much easier to make adjustments in your environment to reduce the likelihood of slips. For example, if you tend to have slip on the weekend, knowing that will be helpful so you can plan ahead for the weekend.
4. Ask for help early
When you have a slip, reach out to someone. By having people in your life who you can talk to about your recovery, it is more likely you will utilize them for guidance and support. Those supportive individuals can also help keep things in perspective, they can remind you that a slip is not a fall and give you that extra bit of encouragement to get yourself back on track.
Having supportive people throughout your recovery process is crucial. At Cielo House we have free alumni groups for clients to ensure they have a supportive environment throughout their recovery. Relapse can be preventable, and one of the most important elements is being realistic with yourself and supportive when you have the expected ups and downs. Remember, a slip is not a fall.
Written by Matt Keck, MFT. Matt is the CEO and Clinical Director of Cielo House.