Red-Yellow-Green Light Warning Signs

I did a thing, and that thing is “re-living” every single memory that was captured in 6+ personal journals since 2007. I always loved writing. I’ve actually always “prided” myself on this ability I have to distinctly and mentally photograph memories I want to keep. A mental click of the camera goes off in my mind, and I’m left with a vivid image of something I never want to lose. Writing has always allowed me to do this, but with even more reassurance that the experiences cannot be taken away from me. If it’s written, then it’s permanent.

So, while flipping page after page of my journals, I inevitably came across the journal that came prior to my hospitalization in high school, and also journals that scripted out memories when I began to relapse in undergraduate college.

Here are some “snip-its.” Trigger warning.

January 2, 2008 (4:19 pm)
I don’t know. I just think it’ll be amazing to make something of my life. I really don’t have any ideas or plans yet, but I’d like to live in Colorado. I just hate it here. I am down to ___ pounds. Eating is the only thing I can control.”

January 6, 2008 (6:28 pm)
____ and I are going downhill again- I just know it. Even if he doesn’t feel the same way, I just won’t get reassured that nothing is wrong.There obviously is, and he’s blind if he doesn’t see it. I just want the boyfriend from last year back who cared about me so much. I want to do fun things again. Tonight we had a family dinner and I ate in silence.

January 9, 2008 (5:55 pm)
Mom controls my life and I have no way to escape. Her and dad brought up my eating at dinner tonight, which pisses me off. They tell me I don’t eat enough… then she made me get on the scale. I’m ___ pounds. That’s fine. I eat a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She apparently doesn’t think I’m okay. My door has to be left open because she thinks I’m exercising. I now am left with no privacy. I will not eat more because I won’t surrender to food. I don’t want to gain any fucking weight.”

March 23, 2008 (who knows?)
I want flowing hair. I want a clear, tan complexion, and a toned body. I want to dress cute again, and let everyone see my free spirited, fun loving attitude. I need to stop being so god damn emotionless. I always have a blank stare. While it hurts me to say that I’ve become a statue, it hurts even more to smile with my family because 70% of the time it feels forced. I don’t want to become so angry so easily if something goes wrong or not how I expected, or if I don’t trust the situation. I blew up the other day when mom made me too many veggies (I thought about the ___ number of calories of fat they had for the next two days, making me insane, and causing me to restrict for my next two dinners so they all balanced out). I got pissed when there was a snowstorm and I couldn’t get Subway. I got frustrated when mom made my dinner too early. I HATE FAT.”

June 28, 2008 (3:09 pm)
I’m freaking out because I didn’t shake the Italian dressing bottle today before using it, and I think I had a tablespoon of pure canola oil, which has like X calories and fat calories. I’m scared I’m not gaining weight. But I’m happy the guys I was with last night view me as being half of a person and still tiny. I’m so fucking indecisive and I can’t stand it. I feel like crying. I’ve noticed that this journal had primarily eating disordered thoughts. I just want to let go.

I included some of these because while the content itself may not seem “all that significant” (trust me, many of my journals were just rambles and useless information), they shed a great deal of light on what I was actually experiencing in terms of my eating disorder worsening. By writing experiences down, current thoughts and feelings, and “in-the-moment” reactions, we’re creating concrete evidence for ourselves in terms of the progression of our eating disorder.

This evidence gives us a better image of our personal warning signs and triggers that can lead us from the “green light zone” to “yellow,” and then to “red,” where most often relapse occurs. I want to first emphasize that the phases look different for everyone. My yellow light warning sign could potentially be your red light warning sign. The important thing to remember is to build self-awareness of what YOUR triggers are, with the point being to catch them before we progress to the red zone and to relapse.

Green light warning signs

When I say green light warning signs, I’m referring to what we’re doing every single day that isn’t too much of a concern in the ED world. By reading my journals, I can distinctly point out when I was “stable” and on the right track. I was writing about experiences with friends, school, and goals I had for myself. I had a forward-thinking mindset that was not attached to ED thoughts. During this stage, it may feel like questioning our intentions is not needed. “Everything is fine here, why would I bother thinking about the eating disorder?” Ask yourself: what does this mean for me that things ARE going well? How long can it last? What will it mean about me in recovery and as a person when things don’t go according to plan one day?

Sometimes the green light zone can be just as tricky as when we’re relapsing. We are so familiar with things feeling unstable, uncomfortable, and hopeless that when things are good, we can become even more fearful. The stakes are higher when things are going well. We may become scared to lose how far we’ve come, so the way we often know how to solve this issue is to self-sabotage in order to reach a place of more familiarity. I wonder what it would feel like if we just allowed things to “be good?”

Yellow light warning signs

These usually sneak into our lives without realizing it. The ED makes it extremely easy to pick up on habits without us sometimes even realizing it! For me personally, and through these snip-its of entries, I was able to notice that my warning signs are feeling unloved (because I was in a place of not feeling good enough in general), rigidity and inflexibility, numbing out of emotions, and feeling trapped (and genuinely believing that if I changed external things in my life, such as moving locations, then all would be well again). These are the signs that do not necessarily mean I have relapsed and I’ve begun full-force engaging in behaviors, but it often leads in this direction. Yellow light warning signs often supply immediate relief. However, the red zone becomes enticing when the relief quickly wears off and we need something more.

Red light warning signs

Reaching the red light zone does not make you a failure as a human. It happens. A relapse can be redefined as a potentially normal part of recovery. When we reach the red zone area, we’re then able to look back on everything that led up to it. We’re able to look back and see where action could have taken place to keep us from reaching this point. The red zone area provides us an opportunity to step away from relapse, while recognizing how each of the phases leading up to relapse seem to have melded into one another.  When I feel myself becoming fixated on food and rigid rules (yes, even now!), I’m able to recognize that this is MY personal yellow light warning sign, and I’ve also created a “tool-box” of skills that help me reach the green light zone again. Again, I want to emphasize self-awareness. Many of these warning signs feel as though they seamlessly lead into the next, and more significant, ED behavior or thought. Pay attention to changing thoughts and the way in which these thoughts influence your behavior. The only way to prevent relapse is to actually recognize when it may be happening.



Nicole works as a life and wellness coach through Nicole Leigh Coaching ( Nicole strives to empower women with similar struggles to redefine and re-identify themselves, separate from their eating disorder. Through her work, she empowers women to use balance in every aspect of life to maintain lifelong recovery. When Nicole isn't blogging or counseling, she loves spending her time traveling, eating burgers, and surrounding herself with positive people.