What Does Eating Disorder Recovery Look Like?

May 29, 2024

By Joan Zhang

Clinically Reviewed by Sehrish Ali, PhD, LPC, CEDS

Eating disorder recovery doesn’t “look like” any one thing. The same way it doesn’t feel the same for everyone.

It’s true that you’ll find many articles and pictures that guide you, stage-by-stage, to the ultimate goal which is recovery. But hear us out: those stages don’t progress in a linear fashion. They’re just presented that way because progress is different for every single one of us – and portraying that can be challenging.

Some days may feel like progress is slow or even nonexistent, while others may bring breakthroughs and moments of clarity. And in the thick of the journey, there's one thing we want you to know: recovery is possible. 

Yes, you read that right. Even if you're feeling skeptical or doubtful, we're here to tell you that there is hope. We've seen it firsthand in our own lives and in the lives of countless others who have walked this path before you.

What matters is that you're taking steps, no matter how small, towards healing and reclaiming your life. 

What Are the Stages of Recovery?

Stage 1: Pre-Contemplation

In the pre-contemplation stage, you're not even thinking about recovery. You might not even realize there's a problem yet. You might be feeling off about your eating habits and body image, but it hasn't clicked for you that it might be more than just a passing phase. You’re not quite ready to consider change, but that's okay. 

Stage 2: Contemplation

Now, you’re starting to think about the way you’ve been acting or feeling lately. You could be pondering the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around food and your body. You could be recognizing that maybe there's something deeper going on, and so you decide to dig a little bit. 

Stage 3: Preparation

At this stage, you’re gearing up for change. You’re doing your research, reaching out for resources and professionals, and maybe even dipping your toes into trying out some new coping strategies. This is often the stage where you might be looking for stories from people who have gone through the exact same thing as you, or tried to reach out to a trusted friend or family member about your challenges. 

Stage 4: The Action Stage

This is the stage where you’ll be actively engaging in change, whether it's attending therapy sessions, practicing new self-care routines, or challenging ingrained thought patterns. You’ll be following the care routine that works for you, regardless of what may or may not have worked for someone else. 

Stage 5: Maintenance

As you progress in your recovery, you’ll be finding your stride, incorporating recovery habits into your daily life, and learning to cope with triggers and setbacks. But it's important to remember that recovery isn't always smooth sailing. You may come across setbacks along the way, at any of the above stages, and that's okay. You can always get back on track.

Common Physical Stages of Eating Disorder Recovery

Body Size May Stabilize

One of the most noticeable changes during the recovery process is the stabilization of body size. Your body finds its rhythm again, settling into a more consistent size. To any of us who have been through the ups and downs, it's a sign that your body is finding balance and healing from the inside out.

Nutritional Deficiencies May Correct

During the most challenging days of an eating disorder, nutritional deficiencies can wreak havoc on your body. Common deficiencies, such as vitamin D, iron, B vitamins, and calcium, can lead to a bunch of symptoms like fatigue, weakened immune system, brittle bones, and cognitive difficulties. 

But as you journey towards recovery and prioritize nourishment, these deficiencies start to fade away. This might mean focusing on nourishing your body with nutrient-dense foods (preferably those you really like) to support your overall well-being.

From replenishing depleted vitamins and minerals to taking back energy levels, the process of fixing these deficiencies is a vital step towards reclaiming your health.

Hormones May Stabilize

Another sign of physical recovery is hormonal stabilization. When your body is undernourished, that can throw your hormone levels off balance, leading to a range of issues from irregular periods to mood swings. But as you focus on nourishment and self-care, your hormones start to find their balance again. 

Now that looks like something. It might mean experiencing more regular menstrual cycles, improved mood stability, and a greater sense of emotional well-being. It’s your body taking its own time to heal.

Common Emotional and Physiological Stages of Eating Disorder Recovery

A Desire to Re-engage with Things You Used to Enjoy

One of the most significant milestones in eating disorder recovery is the rekindling of interest in specific activities and things you love to do. When you're grappling with an eating disorder, it can feel like you've lost touch with yourself and the things that once made life meaningful. 

It's a heavy thought to bear, wondering if you'll ever regain that sense of joy and connection to life. But as you progress through recovery, you'll gradually rediscover moments of joy and enthusiasm for the things you enjoy. 

Reduced Preoccupation with Food, Eating, and Body

It’s extremely normal for thoughts of food, eating, and body image to consume your every waking moment. And it’s also one of the worst parts of dealing with an eating disorder. 

You may find yourself wondering if this constant thinking will ever fade, if you'll ever be free again, and when. But you'll gradually experience moments of respite – glimmers of clarity where the noise quiets down, and you can focus on other aspects of life. It's a gradual shift, of course. 

Improved Mental Clarity and Mood

Nutritional deficiencies can stir up chaos on your mental clarity and mood, as well. They can leave you feeling foggy, irritable, and emotionally empty – among other things.

But as you get nourishment back on track, you'll start to notice improvements in your mental clarity and mood, allowing you to think more clearly, feel more grounded, and experience a greater sense of emotional balance. 

How Do People Typically Move Through Stages?

Stages May Vary Based on Diagnosis and the Person

Each person's journey is as unique as their fingerprint. Factors like diagnosis, personal experiences, and support systems can all influence how someone moves through the stages of recovery. While some may whoosh through certain stages, others may bump into detours or roadblocks that take a bit more time and effort to go through. 

But no matter the path, comparing yourself to someone else’s is unfair, at the very least. Progress is progress, and every step forward is a win worth celebrating.

Setbacks May Happen at Any Time, But You Can and Should Keep Moving Forward

They’re part of the recovery process and there couldn’t be anything more natural. It's like taking two steps forward and one step back – sometimes two, three, four steps back. 

But here's the thing: a setback doesn't define your progress, and it certainly doesn't mean you've failed. Rather, it’s a nudge, reminding you to step up and re-engage in treatment if needed. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's a sign of strength and resilience to recognize when you need a little extra support. 

Our Co-founder Joan Zhang’s Story 

For me, there was a phase of recovery where I felt like on paper I was ‘recovered,’ but I still felt so much shame and fear around the eating disorder and it felt like I had to be perfect in recovery otherwise I would shatter. 

So, even though I wasn't engaging in behaviors, I still felt really trapped by the eating disorder and could easily crumble if someone made a triggering comment.

It was only when I found community in others who understood the experience of eating disorders who I could trust to share when I was struggling and I knew they would listen with compassion and without judgment, it allowed me to truly find a completely new phase of true healing where I felt like I could exist with less fear. 

I could stand up for myself when someone made a triggering comment, because I'd been inspired by a friend in my community who reminded me that I was worthy. I could go to the doctor's office and advocate to not be weighed when it wasn't necessary because I knew I would want to do the same for others who might feel triggered by the scale. 

I could get back to my life and feel rooted enough in myself, no matter what phase my body was in.

What Are the First Steps to Take Towards Recovery?

The first step? You've already taken it: you got to understand a little bit more about the stages of recovery. You’re somewhere in the contemplation stage. Even though it may not feel like it, you've already started your journey. 

You can stay for as long as you’d like. You can come back later. But whenever you feel ready to take another step.

Starting your membership with Arise

It takes just a few minutes to join us and set up your Arise account where you can schedule appointments and meet your care team. 

Next, You’ll Get an Initial Assessment from a Qualified Mental Health Professional

After reaching out, the next step is to have an initial assessment with a qualified mental health professional. You’ll be meeting a caring guide who wants to understand your unique story, challenges, and aspirations for recovery – so they can craft a treatment plan that works for you, and you only. 

Our care team consists of providers who bring their unique identities, experiences, and backgrounds to this purpose. Who you are, where you come from, and your unique story matter to us, and we can’t wait to meet you!

Next, We’ll Work Together on a Treatment Plan

If Arise is the right fit for your current needs and goals, we'll start your personalized care plan right away. Your treatment plan includes:

  • A Care Advocate of your choice (whoever you feel resonates the most with you)
  • Therapy tailored to your specific needs. Because that’s the only way therapy should ever work 
  • Nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian, where we’ll fit realistic meal plans that work for your life. We’ll make sure foods you like and those that are important in your culture or community are included.
  • Support from our Community Group, so that you can connect and chat with others who get what you're going through
  • Access to a psychiatrist and primary care doctor as needed

​​​​​​​We accept insurance. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna, Cigna, Alliance Health, Superior HealthPlan and more. We also offer accessible self-pay options. Our goal is to make effective eating disorder care accessible to as many people as we can. 

Together, we’ll embrace the messy, imperfect, and beautifully human process of healing. And we’re here for you at Arise, whenever you’re ready.