Relapse Prevention: Green Light Signs

My therapist back in Michigan had me create a "traffic light" list for signs of relapse. "Green light" means signs of ongoing recovery. "Yellow light" means signs that things are starting to get rough and trending towards relapse. "Red light" means signs of actual, full-blown relapse. The next four posts will consist of making these lists and learning where your particular threshold lies for returning to different ED behaviors.

Four posts, you might ask? There are only 3 colors. How can you get 4 posts out of 3 colors? Sit tight my little ducklings, because on Monday (tomorrow is Sunday and that means a Smorgasbord!) we are going to look at signs between green lights and yellow lights. Informally called a "prelapse," these are the things that can precede yellow light thoughts and behaviors but often aren't exactly green light, either. Because the "prelapse" can be the most effective time to intervene and also the hardest thing to identify, I want to spend some extra time on them.

So. Onto green light signs.

Of all of the different lights that my old therapist had me identify, finding the green light ones were the hardest. Why? I had never really experienced ongoing recovery, and the years preceding the anorexia were clouded (we're talking thunderheads here, not those fluffy cumulous clouds) by anxiety, OCD, and depression. So my frame of reference was pretty much blank. I had no idea what a normal, healthy life would look like.

I did the next best thing: I guessed.

I know what my life is like when the eating disorder isn't as strong, and I think I know what I would like my life to look like. I'm guessing that many people reading this blog will have a hard time remembering what life was like before ED, or not liking the life you were leading before ED. Instead, draw upon what you see your recovery and your life looking like. Solicit information from friends and family for all of your different light colors- I know I'm not always the best at recognizing when trouble is brewing.

Here is my Green Light list:

  • flexible about meals (quantities, portions, etc)
  • minimal anxiety eating at restaurants
  • in regular contact with friends and family
  • exercise no more than X days per week (I don't want to trigger anyone, so I edited the number)
  • not spending hours doing grocery shopping
  • not letting body dysmorphia unduly influence clothes choice
  • able to eat without knowing precise calorie counts
  • no body checking
  • experimenting in the kitchen
  • engaged in reading, other activities
  • minimal ED thoughts, no strong urges to engage in behaviors
  • tracking my food intake via my meal plan (NOT counting calories, fat grams, fiber, sugar, etc)
  • normalized consumption of sweets
I realize that there are many green light signs that are simply the absence of ED stuff, which I'm aware isn't optimal. However, often with recovery I notice that the dwindling of ED symptoms are often the most noticeable part (i.e., "I had pasta and didn't freak out one bit!") rather than noticing that I'm comfortable around food. If that makes any sense whatsoever.

Share your green light signs in the comments section!

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Cathy (UK) said...

My life was never 'normal' pre-anorexia nervosa (AN) and it isn't exactly 'normal' post-AN. My AN was so intertwined with a mild* ASD that it's difficult to distinguish the AN and the ASD.

(*N.B. Above, I state 'mild' [ASD] in the sense that socially I don't have too many problems nowadays - except for social anxiety - but in terms of rituals, routines and 'special interests' characteristic of ASD then these rule my life..).

I will never be without rituals and routines - and these include rituals and routines that have nothing to do with weight, shape or 'typical' AN. Eating will always be difficult due to my sensory sensitivities (strong dislike of the taste/smell of certain foods, inability to eat hot food, and a fear of choking/retching if I eat too fast). My appetite is a poor indicator of how much food my body needs, and without a meal plan I will tend to under-eat. A meal plan ensures I eat enough.

I think it's important that professionals are aware that some people with EDs have co-morbid ASD, and that some of what appears (to others) to be signs of an ED are actually symptoms of ASD.

Thus, on your green light list Carrie (which makes a lot of sense in terms of recovery from AN...), it would be difficult for me to be flexible around food choices and eating behaviours; not because of my history of AN, but because of a core neurological condition...

Wondering Soul said...

I just found your blog and I'm so glad I have.
My ED has only really just started (in the last 2 years) and yet, it has totally taken over.
I want out. I resent it for making things so miserable, and yet, I am terrified about getting bigger.

Green lights are what I remember well. The time when I could eat a whole plate of food... balanced food... carbs as well as protein etc.
Green lights meant that I could eat the odd ice cream without even THINKING about my body.
Green lights meant cooking really lovely things and then being able to enjoy them.
Green lights meant the buzz of being able totake advantage of really good supermarket deals on all sorts of foods I can't touch now!

Anonymous said...

This is great, my green lights are pretty much the same as yours. Recently I had a tough patch in my life and I started to slip back to counting calories. Not to lose weight and restrict but just the comfort of it. I since then have worked on stopping it because obviously counting calories is no way to live!

Dana xo

Rose said...

I'm so so looking forward to this Carrie. Because I feel like i'm heading towards the Yellow...and maybe looking at it objectively will help me figure out what it'd doing for me/how to get the hell out!?

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I found this very helpful. I'm just starting treatment/therapy again and I copied the list of green light and added some of my own (eat something and not feel GUILTY). I am 49 and have never been without an eating disorder, but I can definitely do better than I am right now.

L said...

I hate when I am asked what my life was like before the ED, because I don't REMEMBER life before ED, and it wasn't rosy anyway!

but imagining an optimal future, I can work on.

Carrie Arnold said...


Thanks for sharing- your points are well taken. The "green light" list was what my signs were. I suppose I should have been more careful to indicate that these are just mine and yours might very well be different.

I, too, have lots of routines and rituals and serve a (basically) positive function, and these are not in any way a sign of relapse or struggle.


Kim said...

What a great list! Even though I knew this stuff on some level, it's great to have it in list form. I really think I'm doing well lately because I'm more flexible about meals (times, quantities, etc). Meals used to be sacred to me, which was kind of weird. I really look forward to going out to eat now, which is new and fun. I don't freak out if I miss a planned yoga session or walk (and I don't do more than my yoga or walk). I don't get on the scale or do other body checks. And I don't count so much. I used to count every little thing. I still count calories sometimes but the number doesn't really affect what I'm eating. Sometimes I think I want to make sure I'm eating enough. I don't know. I'm working on that one.

Catherine said...

I just wanted to thank you for this post. I love reading your blogs - they are so informative and insightful. This entry in particular has struck a chord with me, as I am in the amber place right now, and trying my hardest to get back to green. For me, green is being able to eat without feeling guilty, being able to decide what to eat easily and not mulling it over in my head for hours on end, actually enjoying food rather than eating it simply because I have to, and feeling comfortable eating around others.

Cathy (UK) said...

Thanks for the response Carrie...

I actually think that your list sounds very sensible. Yes, it's your list and what applies to you, but I imagine that it will apply to many other people too.

I guess I just wanted to point out something that not everyone necessarily 'gets' (and which may be a little off topic..). This is that signs of recovery in some people may differ from those in others - and that behaviours that appear to be symptomatic of AN may actually be symptomatic of something else.

And so I think back to when I had various professionals trying to completely 'normalise' me (to which I would answer "but what, precisely, IS 'normal'?"). I had weird eating behaviours/rituals pre-AN and these persist post-AN. So, my feeling is that surely what is important is that I eat enough, irrespective of the way that I eat it, how fast I eat it and whether or not I count calories?

(Actually, I don't count calories anymore!).

Josh Folcik said...

Hi Carrie,
You seem to have a really good website and audience. My wife Denise Folcik just published and released her book "In ED's Path", about her struggles and recovery of a middle aged woman going through an eating disorder. I was hoping you would like to possibly read and post up a review on it. Please let us know and thanks for your time!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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