Getting past bulimia nervosa: How to help your loved one recover

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by binge eating followed by purging.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by binge eating followed by purging.
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What you need to know:

  • Bulimia nervosa is a type of mental illness that results in a skewed relationship with food.
  • People with bulimia are at risk of developing depression, personality disorders and even suicidal ideations.
  • Negative self-esteem and a distorted body image can be huge causative factors.

Bulimia nervosa is a severe mental illness that can cause a lot of damage both physically and emotionally. It is important to understand what bulimia is and how you can best support your loved one in their recovery.

What is bulimia nervosa?

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by binge eating followed by purging. Binge eating refers to consuming copious amounts of food in a short time, and purging refers to getting rid of the food through vomiting or using laxatives. 

Some people may use laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to purge after bingeing, but the most common form of purging is self-induced vomiting. They may also abuse weight loss supplements, fasting, or extreme exercise.

People with bulimia nervosa often have a distorted body image and are preoccupied with their weight and appearance.

What are the symptoms of bulimia nervosa?

The most common symptom of bulimia nervosa is self-induced vomiting. Other symptoms may include:

Behavioural symptoms may also be present, such as:

  • Purging after every meal
  • Excessive exercise
  • Skipping meals or fasting
  • Eating in secret
  • Feeling out of control around food

What are the risk factors for bulimia nervosa?

Diverse risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing bulimia nervosa, including:

What causes bulimia nervosa?

The exact cause of bulimia nervosa is unknown, but a number of factors may contribute to the development of the disorder. These include biological, psychological, and social aspects.

  • Biological factors: There may be a genetic predisposition to developing bulimia nervosa.
  • Psychological factors: People with bulimia nervosa often have low self-esteem and are perfectionists. They may also be more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.
  • Social factors: Social pressure to be thin (such as from the media) may contribute to the development of bulimia nervosa.

What is the diagnosis for bulimia nervosa?

A physical examination and psychological evaluation are usually necessary to diagnose bulimia nervosa. The diagnosis is based on the presence of certain symptoms, including self-induced vomiting, binge eating, and purging. 

What are the treatments for bulimia nervosa?

The most common treatment for bulimia nervosa is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is a therapy that helps individuals change their thinking and behaviours around food. Other types of treatment may include medication, nutritional counselling, and hospitalisation.

The effects of bulimia nervosa

People with bulimia nervosa often suffer from low self-esteem and may have difficulty functioning in relationships and social situations. Bulimia can also cause several physical complications, including dehydration, tooth decay, heart problems, gum disease, digestive problems, and absent or irregular periods in females.

Additionally, people with bulimia nervosa are at increased risk for developing anxiety, depression, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations.

If you suspect someone you know has bulimia nervosa, you must talk to them about your concerns. You can also encourage them to see a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, many helplines and support groups are available for people with eating disorders. 

How to cope as a bulimia nervosa patient

1. Seek professional help. Get assistance from a therapist or counsellor who specialises in treating eating disorders. They can provide guidance and support throughout the recovery process. 

2. Join a support group. Many online and offline support groups are available for people recovering from bulimia nervosa. These groups provide a safe and supportive space to share experiences and to learn from others going through similar challenges. 

3. Change your relationship with food. For many people with bulimia, mealtimes can be stressful and fraught with anxiety. It is important to learn to see food as fuel for the body, not as an enemy to be avoided or controlled. This may require collaborating with a registered dietitian to develop a healthy relationship with food. 

4. Develop coping skills for managing stress and emotions. Bulimia nervosa is often triggered by negative emotions. Learning healthy coping skills for dealing with these emotions can be an important part of recovery. Some helpful coping skills include journaling, exercise, and deep breathing exercises. 

How to help a loved one with bulimia

Helping a loved one with bulimia nervosa can be difficult. It is important to remember that they are not deliberately choosing to engage in these behaviours and need professional help to recover.

Avoid making comments about their weight or appearance, which can further contribute to their low self-esteem.

Instead, focus on supporting them through their treatment and recovery. Encourage them to see a mental health professional and offer to go with them to appointments, if possible. Help them to find a support group or online community.

Additionally, make sure to take care of yourself during this time. It can be difficult to watch someone you love suffer from an eating disorder, so it is important to seek professional help if you are struggling to cope.