Recovery Stoplight: a Tool for Relapse Prevention

Every human has four endowments: self-awareness, conscience, independent will, and creative imagination; these give us the ultimate human freedom…the power to choose, to respond, and to change– Stephen R. Covey

I think it is amazing on just how quickly someone struggling with an eating disorder can find themselves in the middle of a relapse without knowing exactly how they got there. Eating disorders are tricky; they do a pretty sufficient job at making sure you believe you are okay and have the upper hand—when in fact—they have totally taken the reigns. After my relapse earlier this year, I wanted to find a way to better track my behaviors and organize them in such a way so that if I was observing those behaviors or thoughts, I would know where I was and where I was headed if I continued my actions. It led to create what I call a ‘recovery stoplight’


Green: Under the green category, I listed all the behaviors that I would be engaging in and observing in myself if I was participating in progressing in my recovery. Some of the behaviors I listed were:

  • Using coping skills instead of eating-disorder behaviors to manage emotions
  • Reaching out to and communicating with the people in my support network
  • Facing challenges
  • Being completely honest consistently about anything pertaining to recovery
  • Consistently following a meal plan
  • Attending all appointments and listening to professional guidance and suggestions
  • Labeling my feelings and processing them (through journaling or other means) instead of pushing them away with restriction or other unhealthy behaviors

Yellow: For yellow, I jotted behaviors and thoughts that may not be perceived as problematic but usually snowball into unhealthy behaviors and relapse. The yellow area is, ideally, the place where you want to be able to catch yourself because it is going to be easier to get back from yellow to green than from red to green. Typically the behaviors in the yellow are the behaviors we don’t pay any mind to and due to that inattention, we slide into relapse. Some behaviors I listed are as below:

  • Feeling competitive with peers regarding appearance and academic standing
  • A large increase in negative affirmations and negative self talk.
  • Beginning to rationalize ‘just one restriction’ or ‘just one [ insert whatever ED behavior]’
  • An increase in obsessive and intrusive thoughts pertaining to food and weight
  • Thinking—but maybe not necessarily acting—on possible ways to restrict, etc.
  • Small deviances in the meal plan

Red: these are the behaviors that clearly indicate that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Behaviors that others might usually bring to your attention and of which make you realize you are—again—in the hole and not in recovery. Finding yourself in the red can be very discouraging—especially if you are working hard to defeat you’re eating disorder and to regain your life back. However, the first step is realizing where exactly you are in your journey. You cannot get back to the green if you don’t know you are in the yellow or red. Here are some of my red behaviors:

  • Lying to my treatment team and my supports
  • Failing to follow meal plan
  • Not communicating with supports
  • Lying about having eating
  • Engaging in restrictive and purging (exercise) behaviors
  • Skipping meals

Now granted, my stoplight may not even be close to what a stoplight of someone else’s might look like. An eating disorder presents itself uniquely in each individual which is why it is a good idea to try and make your own. The useful thing about the stoplight is that you can add behaviors as you realize new ones. Since I have created mine, I have stumbled upon several more that I was not aware of when I first made the list. The purpose of making a list like this is to bring more awareness to your behaviors and how to better prevent yourself from falling into another relapse as best as you can.

Also, with each relapse you catch, try to analyze what was different. How did your eating disorder fool you this time? When you think you have an idea of how it might of happened, write it somewhere on the list. If a comment from a friend triggered you to have an increase in obsessive thoughts, or encouraged you to restrict at your next meal, place that event in the yellow (possibly) and devise a plan to cope with that trigger if it happens again. And just like that, you realized yourself experiencing ‘yellow/risky’ behaviors and managed to pinpoint them and pull yourself back into the green. That, is ultimately, what this list should help you do.



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