Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that can wreak havoc on your body, relationships and life. Getting help for bulimia can save your life. And once you’ve learned how to recover from bulimia, life can shift dramatically — in unexpected and sometimes challenging ways.
Recovery from bulimia is an ongoing process that doesn’t end when you’re discharged from inpatient treatment or even months or years after your last purge. The answer to the question “how to recover from bulimia” is highly individual and complex but these tips will help you overcome your challenges with food and body image as you embark on your recovery journey.
How to Recover from Bulimia: Step One
The first step in recovering from bulimia is getting help. Tell a trusted family member or friend or reach out to a professional. Since recovering from bulimia is a difficult process, with many bumps in the road, guidance from a professional who specializes in eating disorder recovery will help you navigate the twists and turns of recovery. Many people are not able to recover on their own. Reaching out for help can be essential to recovery.
Once you’ve identified your support system, and ideally with help from a professional, you can then start to follow these steps to let go of bulimia once and for all.
1. Stop the Binge-Purge Cycle
One of the key symptoms of bulimia is a pattern of bingeing on food and then purging, either through inducing vomiting, restricting/dieting, exercising or using substances to try to offset (or compensate) for the food eaten. And this painful pattern can often feel impossible to break. Learning the causes of this pattern can help you break free from it with help from your treatment team.
Stop Restricting Your Food
A common trigger for a binge is deprivation. Restricting your food intake, whether it’s denying a craving or not meeting your body’s basic nutritional needs, can trigger a natural response to your body perceiving “starvation” …and this can lead to a binge. So, even if it sounds counterintuitive, eating regularly is the biggest factor for preventing the urge to binge. Eat regularly, tend to your hunger and make sure you’re giving your body the food it needs.
Learn Your Triggers
Many people who experience bulimia can point to experiences that trigger bingeing and purging. Something as simple as being in a particular place, or a specific time of day, can be a trigger. Stress and feelings of sadness, loneliness, and anxiety can also be triggers. And some people might be triggered by certain foods early in recovery. To stop the binge-purge cycle, you will need to examine what triggers this behavior for you, and develop strategies for managing those triggers.
Make a Plan to Overcome Bulimia
What do you do when you want to binge and purge? Often, breaking this cycle is a matter of just getting through a difficult moment. Come up with a plan that will help you tolerate these moments. Knowing what to do when the feeling hits you can help you get through it. Things you may want to include on your plan are calling a friend or family member, distracting yourself with a task or going to a safe location where you don’t have the means or access to binge or purge.
2. Start Healing Your Relationship with Food
People who suffer from bulimia can lose touch with the cues their body sends them about hunger and fullness. Intuitive Eating can help you get back in touch with those signals so you can make peace with food. It’s an anti-diet plan. Instead of telling you what to eat, or how much to eat, Intuitive Eating is all about helping you trust yourself with food again and getting the nutrition your body needs!.
Explore Intuitive Eating in Recovery
For someone in recovery from bulimia, it can be helpful to work closely with your treatment team as you explore Intuitive Eating. In the early stages, food plans and guidelines developed with your team can help you find your footing as you reconnect with hunger and fullness signals. The Intuitive Eating Workbook by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch is also an excellent resource to learn how to apply Intuitive Eating principles in your life.
3. Manage Your Anxiety
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) notes that “more than half of bulimia patients have comorbid anxiety disorders.” Anxiety is at the heart of the behavior for many people with bulimia. So, conversely, managing anxiety is an essential piece of how to recover from bulimia.
Find Bulimia Treatment That Works for You
Work with your team to address your anxiety. Talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can all be effective treatments for anxiety. Medication is also an option to treat anxiety. Not all techniques work for all people, so it may take some trial-and-error to find what works for you.
Distract Yourself From Your Anxiety
Distraction can be a powerful weapon in combating anxiety. Find ways to self-soothe so you can get past a moment of anxiety. For some people, a repetitive task like knitting or coloring in an adult coloring book can be soothing and distracting enough that momentary anxiety melts away. And some people may need to physically take themselves out of an anxious moment or situation by going for a walk or hopping in their car for a drive with the radio on.
4. Start Healing Your Relationship with Your Body
Bulimia is destructive to your relationship with your body in so many ways. It can cause physical damage, such as esophageal and dental problems, but the damage goes well beyond that. Bulimia can turn you into a combatant against your body, waging a war against your own flesh. And an essential piece of recovering is healing that relationship and reconnecting with your body as a friend, not a foe.
Embrace Health at Every Size™
Health at Every Size (HAES) is a holistic approach to health and wellness. It is the opposite of a weight-centric approach, advancing health as a spectrum, not an end-point or moral imperative. Learning about HAES means learning a new approach to caring for your body, finding pleasure in eating and joy in movement, and letting go of rules about “health” that is focused on body size.
Break Up With Your Scale
The bathroom scale is a centerpiece of daily life for many people with eating disorders. The number on that scale can feel like the determining factor on a good day or a bad day. And that’s precisely why getting rid of your scale can be a game-changer in recovery. Whether you trash it or symbolically smash it with a hammer, getting rid of your scale means those numbers no longer have the power to determine your actions or emotions. (Safety tip for those who choose the hammer: wear goggles!) Breaking up with your bathroom scale also allows you to focus on how your body feels instead of how much it weighs.
5. Develop a Support System
Most people who recover from bulimia don’t do it alone. They have a network of support that helps them along the way. And so, building your network of support is a crucial step of how to recover from bulimia. Your network can include close friends, trusted family members, your treatment team, support groups, and even online groups for people in recovery. These people can help you through bad moments, cheer on victories and milestones in recovery, and be there to support you as you recover.
Linda Gerhardt is writer and content creator who works in nonprofit technology by day and runs a fat activism & Health at Every Size-focused blog called Fluffy Kitten Party by night. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and rescue pets.