Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Is Over. Now What?

During their time at an eating disorder recovery center, people learn how to overcome disordered eating behaviors and learn coping tools. With these tools, they can withstand the stresses of daily life that previously caused eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or bulimia nervosa. However, these skills alone can’t completely eliminate the chances of relapse. Graduates of eating disorder treatment programs need to be ready for self-maintenance.

Although eating disorder therapists aim to prepare clients for graduation through every step of treatment, they start to prepare them with additional resources as graduation day approaches. This means prep-planning an aftercare program. With this extra level of support, clients can address their challenges and identify ways to remain recovered as they handle real-life situations.

So, when graduation finally comes, what can a person do to get ready for a recovered life? This short guide can give you some guidance on what to expect.

What Is Aftercare?

An effective aftercare plan acts as a roadmap to remaining recovered while maintaining the lessons learned in treatment. Depending on the specifics of the person’s recovery, medical, and emotional needs after residential treatment, a specialized plan is drafted in the last weeks of treatment. This provides people with comfort and support as they navigate the demands of their daily lives and handle the stressors that arise.

Many challenges face people re-entering their “normal” lives, from re-establishing relationships to facing stressors like meals and restaurants. A good aftercare plan prepares for these by describing the potential pitfalls and support systems available after treatment. Aftercare plans should clearly spell out how to access support resources and best make use of them in remaining recovered. This often includes the treatment center’s alumni program, but less formal avenues are often also useful.

Depending on each client’s needs, other areas the aftercare plan may address includes:

  • Housing
  • Employment
  • Finances
  • Social network stability
  • Family dynamics
  • Parenting
  • Eating disorder triggers
  • Stress management

Family support and that of close friends is central to any aftercare program. The way people eat is intimate and often private; as much as a formal outline of aftercare policies is useful, family support is even more important. Pre-discharge family therapy sessions can help them prepare to avoid triggering language, engage in open communication, plan nutritious meals, maintain food schedules, and many more techniques.

Pre-Discharge Education

While creating the aftercare plan, much discussion will surround the upcoming challenges after leaving the eating disorder recovery center. These stressors can range from something as small as feeling unhappy about one’s body image to the trauma of losing a loved one. Identifying these challenges and linking them with helpful coping skills make maintaining recovery much easier in the long run.

Although people with eating disorders share many challenges, they may have their own unique difficulties to conquer as well. Alumni coordinators in an eating disorder center can alter the aftercare plan to match these specific difficulties.

Challenges identified during this stage may include:

  • Managing strong emotions
  • Facing food fears
  • Managing high stress levels
  • Self-control and knowing when to reach out for help
  • Remaining flexible in daily life
  • Staying accountable through mindfulness
  • Balancing recovery and work
  • Reaching out to build and strengthen social bonds
  • Keeping lines of communication open

Clients are usually able to outline their fears about going home with the counseling team before they discharge. These challenges can then be incorporated into the aftercare plan – after all, it’s easier to face a challenge if you’re aware of it.

What Kind of Skills Help Someone in Aftercare?

When we talk about “coping skills,” we’re talking about how a person responds to stress and emotional distress. Before going to treatment, people with an eating disorder “cope” by engaging in a disordered eating behavior like binging and purging. Treatment teaches new skills and exercises to replace these disordered behaviors with constructive coping skills. These skills aid in preparing clients to handle their affairs on their own after leaving treatment. Some commonly introduced skills include:

  • Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness, or the act of being present in the moment and aware, is a central aspect of almost every eating disorder treatment program. Meditation is a way to achieve this state, whether through traditional meditation, yoga, or a more evidence-based modern form of meditation. Normally these techniques are begun in treatment but can be continued for the rest of the client’s life.

  • Journaling

Through regular journaling, graduates from eating disorder recovery centers can keep track of their emotions and their successful coping techniques. By compiling this information, they create a personal guide detailing their eating disorder triggers, reactions to stressful situations, and the ability to rely on healthy coping skills.

  • Self-Care

Eating disorders and the behaviors that come with them often inspire a sense of guilt and shame in the person experiencing them. People in recovery need to counteract these feelings with regular sessions of self-care. Self-care looks different to every person, so it is important to identify the practices that apply best. This can range from something as simple as a long bath to an expensive spa day – it really depends on the person’s individual tastes

As people move through recovery and experience shifts in their mindsets, the coping skills that help most may change. With this reassessment, clients can determine what will work best as they head home to remain recovered on their own. To make sure they are not truly heading into this process alone, treatment center professionals focus on the social support system next.

Setting Up a Valid Support System

No one is an island – social support networks can greatly help someone maintain their recovery through shared experiences and personal commitment to each other. Coming together in this manner ensures that people have the support they need to move forward in their daily lives. This safety net gives the recovered person a sense of confidence that when things get tough, there are people there who love them and are there to help.

People in the clients’ lives who have been educated about eating disorders can also look for their symptoms and help their loved ones seek help as needed. They can encourage their loved ones to check back in with the alumni group if they stopped going, or to otherwise find the resources that will help them stay on track in recovery.

If the treatment center offers the option, the people in the support system should attend family therapy sessions and coordinate with the counseling team before residential treatment ends. But it doesn’t have to be family only; the people in the social networks of each client may include friends, family members, neighbors, and their peers in treatment. This ensures that people have an extensive network of individuals to rely on in their day to day lives.

Throughout recovery, treatment centers help foster these relationships through family programming, group therapy sessions, and outings with friends and family. This helps ensure a strong social network exists well before people start to prepare to graduate from eating disorder recovery centers.

Stepdown Care Following Residential Eating Disorder Treatment

In many cases, residential treatment isn’t the be-all, end-all of recovery. Although alumni groups can provide a lot of support, as can family, in many cases the individual still needs considerable professional support and therapy. In these cases, especially where medical care is still necessary to repair the ravages of disordered eating behaviors, individuals should contemplate going to a “stepdown” program. This might be a Partial Hospitalization Program or Intensive Outpatient Program, or more often regular therapy sessions called day treatment.

Day treatment provides a bridge between intensive residential treatment and complete independence in recovery – and it is the best way for someone recovering from a severe eating disorder to avoid relapse in the early going. Check with your eating disorder counselors for your options, and make sure a stepdown program is available as part of your aftercare plans.

What can Alumni Groups Provide?

If a day treatment program isn’t necessary, graduates from eating disorder treatment centers can still rely on alumnae services for support as well. Eating disorder therapists usually help their clients learn more about these services as they prepare for graduation.

By accessing the alumni support services as needed in recovery, people can remain connected to the people and information they enjoyed at residential treatment. These onsite groups and online seminars renew motivations to remain recovered as challenges arise. Other support services offered to alumnae include:

  • Educational blogs
  • Articles and newsletters
  • Supportive online community groups

Also, keep an eye out for info available to support systems and families of the client. There is usually a wealth of information for them, all of which can help them better support their loved one in recovery. There may also be family support groups to help them bond with others in a similar situation.

Eating Disorder Treatment Centers Provide Resources; Make Sure You Use Them

Eating disorder treatment centers are always available to help their graduates navigate life after leaving inpatient or outpatient care programs. Their clients can contact them if they are struggling to maintain or have relapsed. The eating disorder treatment center staff will use their knowledge to assist clients in pushing past those issues using adaptive coping skills.

All it takes is a single call to the admissions specialists to discuss the client’s needs and find the right level of care. They may suggest using alumnae resources to overcome the challenges or have the care team collaborate to find other options. Clients can trust that they will always receive the guidance and support needed to remain recovered while contacting their care team.

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.