How to stop bulimia

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Bulimia nervosa is a complex eating disorder that often comes with feelings of shame and guilt, so individuals often avoid seeking help. Eating disorders won’t go away on their own. But a full recovery from bulimia is possible when effective treatment is provided. In fact, almost 75% of people with bulimia who seek treatment fully recover. (1)

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The biopsychosocial approach

The biopsychosocial approach addresses the whole person, instead of focusing only on disordered eating behaviors. Treatment with the biopsychosocial model provides a person with a support system of therapists, medical staff, and loved ones to help tackle the underlying causes of bulimia, as well as the symptoms.

The biopsychosocial model 

 This model explores all biological, psychological, and social factors to understand a person’s medical condition: (2)

  • Biological: Parts, functions, or aspects of the body, such as genetic predisposition.
  • Psychological: Thoughts, emotions, and behavior, such as coping methods and emotional regulation.
  • Social: Cultural, socio-economical, and socio-environmental factors, such as bullying, beauty standards, and family circumstances.

The biopsychosocial model is the most promising for treating bulimia, as this eating disorder primarily affects young people with predispositions to being of higher weight and depression, who are vulnerable to the social pressure for thinness. (3)

How to stop bulimia

First things first, people can’t simply stop having bulimia, or any eating disorder for that matter. Bulimia is not a choice. It has nothing to do with willpower. It’s a serious illness that can impact every part of a person’s life and requires treatment. 

Find treatment that works for you

When you reach out for help, your treatment team will perform a comprehensive evaluation and determine what therapies and interventions are likely to work best for you. 

If you need more support and structure during your recovery, you may benefit from residential or intensive outpatient treatment, where you will receive a variety of therapies, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help you overcome the triggers of your bulimia, as well as improve body dissatisfaction, a drive for thinness, disordered eating behaviors, and anxiety. (4)
  • Group therapy: The support of group therapy can help you feel less isolated in your recovery from bulimia. Forming social connections with those in a similar situation can be incredibly healing.
  • Family therapy: This form of therapy teaches your family and loved ones about bulimia and how they can best support you during recovery. Family therapy also offers a safe space for you to address unresolved conflicts at home without any judgment.

How to stop the cycle

It’s easy to feel trapped in the binge-purge cycle of bulimia, fearing that you will never be able to break free from it. However, there are things you can do to stop the cycle. While these ideas don’t replace the advice and care from your treatment team, they can help you to build positive coping skills to complement your recovery. (5)

Try to avoid triggers

Talk therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help you identify what triggers, or prompts, your binge-purge episodes. For example, some people are triggered by images on social media. If so, they may benefit from deactivating their social media accounts.

Emotions, like boredom, stress, and sadness, can also trigger the urge to binge or purge. Although you can’t always control your emotions, you can learn to accept them and cope with them without binging or purging.

Use distractions

After meals or exposure to one of your triggers, intrusive thoughts, and urges about binging and purging can sneak into your mind. Distraction techniques can help you to redirect your thoughts to something more positive until the urge to binge has passed.

Distractions can take many forms, and you may need to try a number of techniques to see what works for you. It may be calling a family member, going for a walk, reading, playing a game, or watching your favorite show.

Learn from the past

While they can be distressing, relapses do happen during recovery. But they aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as you can learn from them. Don’t pretend these relapses didn’t happen. Instead, analyze what happened and see what you could do next time something similar occurs.

As you learn more about your triggers during treatment and what coping strategies work best for you, you’ll get better at stopping yourself from acting on your urges. So be kind to yourself. Recovery is a journey, and there will be ups and downs. But your treatment team will be there to support you if you ask for help.

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Develop a support system

Don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones for support, too. They can be incredibly valuable in helping you to avoid binging and purging. Tell your loved ones you value them as a “support person.” Then, when you’re struggling with urges, go to them. 

You don’t have to talk about what you’re feeling. You could go for a walk, play a game, or eat with them to distract you from your post-meal urges. 

Plan ahead

Lots of people in eating disorder recovery find planning to be a helpful exercise. Planning meals and grocery lists ahead of time can reduce the stress of a food shop and prevent you from gravitating towards binge foods.

A registered dietician will be able to help you with meal plans, ensuring your diet includes all the nutrients you need to nourish yourself and feel good. (6) Furthermore, a nutrition counselor can also help you heal your relationship with food by teaching you about the nutritional value of food.

Take care of yourself

Although we know people with bulimia often feel ashamed of their actions and don’t like themselves too much, Learning how to take care of yourself is an important skill to learn in recovery. 

Self-care can include meeting with a friend to go for a walk or watch a movie, reading a good book, meditating, journaling, getting enough sleep, seeing a therapist regularly, and doing physical activities or moving your body in ways that feel good to you. 

Finally, make time to reintroduce the things you used to enjoy before your eating disorder became such a preoccupation in your life.

Final thoughts

The key to stopping bulimia is intervening as early as possible, but it’s never too late to get help for an eating disorder. Research the best type of treatment for your specific needs, and make sure the program includes medical as well as psychological support to address any underlying causes of the disorder. At Within Health, we offer a multidisciplinary approach that includes nurses, dietitians, and therapists, attuned to your specific needs. Call our admissions team today to learn more about the first steps.

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. Hudson, J. I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H. G., & Kessler, R. C. (2007). The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.
  2. Biopsychosocial Model. Physiopedia. (n.d.). 
  3. Kirkley B. G. (1986). Bulimia: clinical characteristics, development, and etiology. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 86(4), 468–475.
  4. Ariail A, Carpenter E, Smith T, Sacco B. (2018) Effective Treatment of Pediatric Eating Disorders. Pediatr Ann. 47(6): e250-e253. 
  5. Susan Cowden, M. S. (2020, July 16). 6 steps to stopping a cycle of binging and purging. Verywell Mind.
  6. Avargues-Navarro ML, Borda-Mas M, Asuero-Fernández R, et al. Purging behaviors and therapeutic prognosis of women with eating disorders treated in a healthcare context. Int J Clin Health Psychol. 2017;17(2):120-127.

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