So You’ve Had a Bulimia Relapse…Now What?

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For those who struggle bulimia – or any other addiction – experiencing a relapse can be frustrating and hard to process. But you have to keep things in perspective. You’ve experienced a setback, but that does not mean you’re a failure and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s time to give up.

Relapses happen. In fact, they’re considered a “normal” part of the recovery process. And if you play your cards right, what feels like a devastating blow today can actually provide an opportunity to learn, grow and strengthen your resolve to get healthy.

What Qualifies as a Relapse?

Bulimia is an eating disorder classified by periods of binging, followed by use of laxatives, vomiting, exercise or other methods intended to purge the body of calories. A person in recovery has maintained abstinence from these behaviors over a period of time.

A lapse or “slip” is characterized as a minor symptom of binging and/or purging, whereas a “relapse” occurs when someone reverts to frequent binge eating or purging.

Relapse rates for bulimia are fairly high. According to statistics, approximately 31 to 44 percent of all bulimics experience a relapse during the first two years of recovery.

What Causes a Relapse?

While excessive calorie counting or body image issues can certainly trigger a relapse, eating disorders expert Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D. says she most often sees patients relapse after a major life-changing event, such as going to college or ending a relationship. A study conducted in 2012 found that negative, stressful events – especially those relating to work or relationships – significantly increased the likelihood of a bulimia relapse.

It can be helpful for your recovery to identify and keep an eye on these factors, says Mulheim. One tool she recommends is the social readjustment rating scale, a checklist of 43 stressful life events that have been identified as frequent precursors to a psychiatric illness, including ranging from negative events, like job loss or death of a family member, to events considered positive, like pregnancy or marriage. Each event has been assigned a Life Change Unit (LCU) score that can be added up for an estimated overall score, helping you assess your own stress levels.

If you have a higher LCU score, you may want to check in with your therapist or eating disorders specialist. Together, you can work to prevent a possible relapse in the future.

What if You’ve Already Slipped?

Believe it or not, the way you respond to a relapse is actually more important than the fact that the relapse occurred, says Mulheim. The faster you address the problem, the higher your likelihood of stopping the relapse before it gets more severe.

If you’ve had a bulimia relapse, keep the following tips in mind as you’re working to get back on track:

  • Be honest: Acknowledge that the lapse or relapse occurred.
  • Be kind: Practice kindness and compassion towards yourself; don’t beat yourself up.
  • Be committed: Resolve to get back on track with your recovery.
  • Be open: Reach out for – and accept – help from a support group, therapist and/or eating disorders specialist.
  • Be reflective: Try to identify what factors may have triggered the relapse and plan how to avoid similar triggers in the future.
  • Be ready: Identify tools and coping strategies that helped you in the past in your recovery, like completing food records or making a meal plan. Reintegrate these tools into your life.
  • Be willing: Consider going back to inpatient or outpatient treatment for at least one session to jumpstart this new stage of your recovery.

If you get help now, you’ll be well on your way back to health and back on track to recovery. And always remember: Just because you had a slip does not mean you should give up!

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