How to recover from bulimia

Aimee Aveyard
Author: Aimee Aveyard Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Overcoming bulimia nervosa can take time and isn’t easy, but it is possible. Recovery can mean different things to different people, and it may be that you never have a completely normal relationship with food and exercise. The goal might be to stop harmful behaviors, minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about food and exercise, and reach a point where bulimia has as small an effect on your quality of life as possible.

Self-help techniques for overcoming bulimia

It is strongly suggested that anyone suffering from bulimia seek professional help. However, there are also things you can do to help yourself, as well.

Talk to someone

One of the most powerful things you can do to start on the road to recovery is to open up about your illness to someone you trust.

Bulimia can be a secretive illness as binge eating and purging behaviors are often done in private [1]. Also, because people with bulimia don’t always lose significant amounts of body weight, it might not be obvious to friends and family that there is a problem.

Talking about mental disorders isn’t always easy, but it can help to lessen the shame and stigma you might be feeling. Talking with someone will help make sure you have a support network for your recovery. Here are some tips on opening up:[2]

  • Think about who you want to open up to. Who do you trust to be understanding and supportive?
  • Give some thought to the time and place for the conversation you want to have, and practice what you want to say. You might decide it’s easier to write a letter, or you may prefer a face-to-face conversation. Figure out what will work for you.
  • Don’t expect a perfect response. Often people don’t know what to say, they may be too quick to share their own experiences, or they may offer unhelpful advice. Remember, this conversation is just the first step. Don’t be put off trying again or trying to talk to someone else.
  • Let them know how they can help you. Tell them what you need (or don’t need!) and ask if they are able to support you.

Find support groups on or offline

Peer support groups bring together people with similar experiences to support each other, which can be effective for people experiencing mental health disorders.[3] Finding people who know what you are going through may help you on your road to recovery. Sharing advice about what has helped along the way or just having a safe space to vent frustration and share success away from friends and family can be a lifeline for many.

Change how you eat

Bulimia follows a binge-purge pattern, where episodes of binge eating are followed by purging behaviors, such as vomiting or excessive exercise. Between binges, people with bulimia usually follow a low-calorie diet [1]. Restricting food intake in this way can make bingeing more likely to happen, so adopting a healthier, less strict approach to eating can help to break the binge-purge cycle.

Making a healthy plan for what you will eat during the day can help you manage your eating and prevent you from becoming hungry, which in turn can lessen urge to binge eat.[4]

Learn about your triggers

Many things can trigger episodes of binge eating and triggers vary from person to person. Triggers can include:[5]

  • Particular times of the day – most people binge eat in the afternoon or evening
  • Being hungry
  • Being around the kinds of food you tend to binge on
  • Being stressed, anxious, or annoyed
  • Feeling tired, down, or sad
  • Experiencing flashbacks of a traumatic event

Understanding your triggers can help you spot them and deal with them more effectively. For example, making sure you plan your meals so you don’t become hungry might help break the bing/purge cycle. You might also decide to change your routine for later in the day and do something that will lessen the opportunity to binge. If your triggers are emotional, try finding other ways to soothe and manage difficult feelings, such as mindfulness or breathing exercises.

Improve your general wellbeing

Improving your wellbeing can give you a solid foundation for recovery. Binge eating often arises from a need to cope with difficult emotions [1]. People might binge as a way to relieve feelings of sadness or anxiety. Finding other ways to manage those emotions, such as mindfulness and breathing exercises, can help prevent them from triggering a bingeing episode.

Change your routines

Having bulimia may have created daily or weekly routines that revolve around avoiding food, bingeing, purging, and exercising. For example, if you have been prone to overexercising this will have taken up a significant amount of time that you need to find a new way to occupy.

Shaking up your routine can help distract you from your usual behaviors and spend your time in new ways. Take up a new hobby. Perhaps you can try something creative that is unrelated to food or your body to keep your brain occupied.[6]

Prepare for holidays and celebrations

Most celebrations, from national holidays like Thanksgiving to our own individual birthdays, revolve around food. This make celebrations difficult to navigate if you are recovering from an eating disorder. You can take steps to cope better with these situations.

Being open about how you are feeling with someone who will be at a meal or event can help you feel less alone. Think ahead to the event and make a list of things you can do to make it easier, such as stepping out for little breaks of fresh air. If it all feels too much for your early stages of recovery, consider making alternative plans for a while.[6]

Find ways to cope with negative perception of weight

Not everyone with bulimia will put on weight as part of recovery, but if you do it can be difficult to cope with. Taking a few practical steps, such as getting rid of clothes that no longer fit and replacing them with outfits that feel comfortable can help.

Also, avoid weighing yourself, spending too long looking in the mirror, or looking at triggering content online or in magazines.

Be kind

Recovery is hard. If you relapse, try to be kind to yourself. Reflect on what led to the relapse and use what you learn to help you in future.

When to seek professional help

Most people will need help to recover from bulimia.[9] In addition to support for bulimia itself, help can be sought for underlying mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder, which are common with bulimia.[1]

The main treatment option for bulimia is therapy. Suitable therapies include:[7][8]

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which explores how we think and act and can help us find ways to cope with difficult emotions.
  • Other therapies such as Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), which can help you address any poor relationships that might be causing or triggering bulimia.
  • Family therapy sessions, which can help you and your family understand your condition and how best they can support you.

There is no medication specifically for eating disorders, but you may be prescribed medication to treat an underlying or associated mental health condition.

Can your body heal after bulimia recovery?

There are several complications associated with bulimia that can occur if it is not treated. These include injuries from overexercising, tiredness, dehydration, and problems with menstruation. The body can recover once harmful behaviors have stopped. Other problems such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and heart problems may be permanent but following a healthy lifestyle can lessen long-term effects. [1][8]

Resources
  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013, May 27). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm
  2. Seeking help for a mental health problem. (2017). Mind. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/seeking-help-for-a-mental-health-problem/talking-to-friends-family/
  3. Fortuna, Karen L et al. (2020, April 3). Digital Peer Support Mental Health Interventions for People With a Lived Experience of a Serious Mental Illness: Systematic Review. JMIR Mental Health. Toronto, ON, Canada. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from: https://mental.jmir.org/2020/4/e16460
  4. Treatment – Bulimia. (November 10, 2020). National Health Service. United Kingdom. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/bulimia/treatment/
  5. Rigaud D et al. (2014, September). L’Encephale. Paris, France. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24091068/
  6. Eating problems. (2021). Mind. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/eating-problems/recovery-self-care/
  7. Treatment for Bulimia. (2017). Beat Eating Disorders. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/get-information-and-support/about-eating-disorders/types/bulimia/treatment/
  8. Eating problems. (2021). Mind. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/eating-problems/treatment-support/
  9. What Happens to the Body After Recovering From Bulimia? (2022). The Bulimia Project.  https://bulimia.com/bulimia-health-risks/body-healing-recovery/
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Aimee Aveyard
Author Aimee Aveyard Writer

Aimee Aveyard is a valuable member of our Editorial Team, with over 20 years of experience in communications, primarily focused on health-related causes, including mental health.

Published: Jun 21st 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Meet Morgan Blair, our accomplished medical reviewer. Morgan is a licensed therapist with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jun 21st 2023