How to help someone with bulimia

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It can be incredibly difficult when someone you love is struggling with bulimia nervosa (BN). You may feel hopeless, like you’re stuck on the sidelines, watching as your loved one continues to battle their disorder.

Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case. It is possible to proactively help and support someone struggling with bulimia on their journey toward recovery. Here are a few tips on how to help someone with bulimia nervosa.

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Educate yourself

They say that knowledge is power, and it can be an especially formidable tool when it comes to dealing with something as complex as an eating disorder, like bulimia.

The benefits of educating yourself on the eating disorder are twofold: It can help you better understand what the person is going through and the type of help or support they may need.

Eating disorders are among some of the most widely misunderstood conditions in modern society. People often think they’re a choice, a vain play for attention, or just a phase. Many people think they can tell who has an eating disorder just by looking at them. 

In fact, none of these is true.

Bulimia does have some common signs and symptoms, and learning about these can be a helpful way to stay informed about your loved one’s health while they’re in recovery. 

For many people, the disorder arises as or morphs into a coping mechanism, however damaging, to deal with deeper issues, including depression, anxiety, and unresolved trauma. Looking further into this connection can help encourage empathy, an especially important tool when dealing with such a challenging and misunderstood psychological disorder. Patience and understanding are helpful skills for those traveling a road to recovery with a loved one that may be long and winding.

Talk to them

Learning more about how bulimia affects an individual and what it may take to recover from the disorder is a wonderful way to prepare for talking to your loved one about their situation.

If they haven’t yet sought treatment, talking to them can be an especially valuable step. This can act as the outside push they need to seek out healing or provide validation. It can also be helpful for a person who may be in denial to let them know that their actions are, in fact, noticed.

The way you approach the conversation is exceptionally important. Even if you’re feeling frightened or angry about the situation, try to gently describe your observations and concerns. Stick to sharing observations about food behaviors, things they have said, or changes in personality, and avoid commenting on their body and weight. Let the person know you are coming from a place of love. It is important to have these conversations outside of a mealtime or when the person is eating.

It may be helpful to write down what you want to say first, or at least make a list of major points you want to touch on. Practicing what you want to say out loud can also help you find the right tone of voice.

If your loved one is already in recovery, it’s still important to keep lines of communication open. Your role in this case should be primarily focused on offering support, rather than solutions. If your loved one is seeking professional help, they’ll likely be getting plenty of advice already – and may need for you to simply listen in an empathetic way. 

Try not to pass judgment or blame when talking with your loved one. Keep in mind everything you’ve learned about what they’re going through and the journey they’re on.

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Seek acceptance

In trying to understand their point of view, you must also try to learn that what you have to say to the person may be received in any number of different ways. 

The person might be in denial and refuse to admit there’s a problem. They might feel embarrassed and shut down communication. They might lash out with some less-than-nice things to say.

Bulimia is often deeply rooted in emotional trauma and complications, and bringing up the topic has the potential to bring these painful and powerful feelings to the surface. It’s important to realize these potentially negative reactions don’t have to do with you, and not take them personally.

Equally as important, but much more difficult, is to cultivate a sense of acceptance about the situation. You can learn about the common symptoms and potential triggers with their bulimia , gently raise your concerns, and offer your support. But ultimately, it must be your loved one who initiates—and follows through on—the journey toward recovery.

That process can be a complicated one, and progress, more often than not, is far from linear. 

In these difficult times, it’s important to be compassionate with yourself, even as you may struggle with feeling ashamed, or like you’ve failed. Even the act of reaching out can show the person they’re not alone, they’re loved, and they’re supported.

And while it’s important to seek acceptance of whatever the situation may bring, it’s equally important to not give up hope. Recovery from bulimia is very possible, especially when someone has a caring person in their life who’s willing to help, in addition to a professional trained to treat eating disorders and co-occurring disorders.

Within Health is here to help treat people with eating disorders in a clinically-superior virtual setting. Reach out to our team to learn more about the first steps in treatment for bulimia nervosa.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Anorexia and bulimia - how friends and family can help. Center for Change. (2021, September 27). Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://centerforchange.com/anorexia-and-bulimia-how-friends-and-family-can-help/ 
  2. NHS. (n.d.). NHS choices. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/advice-for-life-situations-and-events/how-to-help-someone-with-eating-disorder/

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