Treatment And Recovery Options For Recovering From Bulimia Nervosa

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Eating disorders are serious conditions characterized by eating habits that can disrupt one’s daily life and lead to significant long-term effects. Bulimia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders—it is estimated that over 3 million people in the US have experienced bulimia nervosa at some point.

There are a variety of treatment options and recovery techniques that can help you manage your symptoms and improve your emotional well-being. Below, we’re covering the ins and outs of treatment for bulimia

You deserve to have a healthy relationship with food
What is bulimia?

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, bulimia nervosa is marked by the tendency to binge eat, and then compensate for the binge through methods such as purging (self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives), excessive exercise, or fasting. People who struggle with it often experience discomfort and a lack of control surrounding their food intake and then guilt over the binges, which can make them feel the need to reverse the effects of the binges. This binge-purge cycle in bulimia nervosa is different from anorexia nervosa where individuals reduce food intake or stop eating altogether. It is also different from the binge eating behaviors in binge eating disorder (BED) because those with BED typically don’t partake in purging.

While an estimated 9% of the global population has experienced an eating disorder, it may be difficult to grasp the true prevalence of conditions like bulimia nervosa because many people do not report their condition. Individuals may keep bulimia a secret for different reasons, including perceived stigma or fear of repercussions.

If you’re living with bulimia, know that you’re not alone, and you deserve support and recovery.

Potential long-term effects

As discussed above, due to stigma and societal pressures, it can be difficult to ask for help with bulimia nervosa. However, recovery can be vital to one’s mental and physical health. Along with the disruptions eating disorders can cause in one’s life in the present, long-term side effects can also arise. Long-term physical effects from bulimia include stomach ulcers, reduced bone mineral density, and electrolyte imbalances that can lead to heart failure, among other complications. 

Paradoxically, weight gain is a common symptom, partially due to the high level of calories consumed prior to expulsion. One study found that 60% of participants with bulimia experienced weight gain as a result of disordered eating. 

Early intervention is often the key to avoiding these outcomes and recovering from symptoms. Below, we’re covering several different recovery methods. 

Bulimia recovery

Recovery treatment can take many forms. The exact recovery program an individual pursues for bulimia will generally depend on a healthcare professional’s guidance and may vary based on personal circumstances, including the severity and duration of their condition, medical history, and lifestyle factors. 

Psychotherapy for bulimia

Managing bulimia symptoms is often a matter of helping the individual develop a healthy relationship with food. Because the root causes can often be traced to mental or emotional health challenges, therapy is a major component of bulimia recovery for many people. 

Often, due to the stigma surrounding eating disorders and other concerns, people keep their bulimia a secret, which may make eating disorder recovery more challenging. Beyond simply serving as someone to open up to, a counselor can help you develop recovery strategies and coping methods, in addition to connecting you with a treatment team to start your recovery journey. Therapy can also be a crucial part of eating disorder recovery for anorexia nervosa and other types of eating disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

One of the most common forms of therapy for the treatment of bulimia nervosa is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help individuals reframe negative thought processes that may lead to maladaptive emotions or behaviors related to eating. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be performed in either individual or group settings. CBT has been shown to be effective for disorders that may exist alongside it, such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. While CBT is considered the most effective treatment and recovery method, some experts suggest that therapy is most effective in conjunction with medication, which we’ll discuss later in this article. 

It’s important to note that it can be a long-lasting condition that can require ongoing counseling even after symptoms have improved. Online therapy can be a helpful option for someone who has recovered from but would still like support coping with emotional challenges and preventing a relapse. 

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Interpersonal therapy

Another recovery modality sometimes used for people living with it is interpersonal therapy (IPT). IPT focuses on an individual’s relationships, specifically how their interactions with others may impact their mental and emotional health.

IPT was originally designed in depression recovery but started being implemented as a method of bulimia nervosa treatment in the 1990s. Rather than focusing on specific behaviors and coping skills as one would with CBT, IPT focuses on relationships and dealing with conflicts.

Supporters of IPT believe that if the individual learns how to better deal with these things, it will improve their self-awareness and self-confidence. Seeing themselves in a better light can help reduce some emotions associated with this condition, such as anxiety, depression, or loneliness. It gives people power over their interpersonal skills and relationships, thus reducing the emphasis on their body image, and allowing individuals to enter into recovery.

Inpatient recovery treatment 

For people with severe or long-lasting cases, inpatient care is sometimes the most effective treatment recovery option. Given the nature of the condition and the common desire to hide symptoms, people can live with it for long periods before deciding to seek treatment. Inpatient recovery treatments often involve the same therapy methods that one would receive in an outpatient setting but with more supervised care involving a recovery team. 

Medication for bulimia recovery

Another recovery treatment sometimes used in conjunction with therapy for eating disorders is prescription medication, specifically antidepressants. Antidepressants have been shown to be useful in some people by reducing bingeing and purging urges. Research in clinical psychiatry has shown that people who struggle with bulimia have decreased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which many antidepressants work to adjust. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting or stopping any medication.

You deserve to have a healthy relationship with food

Online therapy for bulimia recovery

Studies show that online therapy can lead to improvements in the symptoms of an eating disorder like bulimia. In one study, researchers found that online therapy significantly improved disordered eating and reduced depression symptoms in participants. The study also mentions that online therapy can help eliminate common barriers to mental health care, such as geographical limitations.   

If you’re living with an eating disorder, online therapy can provide you with thorough, available mental health care. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can talk through challenges related to bulimia or other topics remotely, through video calls, voice calls, or in-app messaging. You can also schedule appointments every few weeks or when it is convenient for you.

Takeaway

Bulimia can have a significant impact on your life, potentially affecting your mental, physical, and emotional health. It can also, though, be managed with the right approach. The above care options and strategies can help you navigate challenges related to disordered eating and live the happy, healthy life you deserve. If you would like further guidance, consider talking to a qualified therapist online. With the right resources and support, you can manage bulimia and take the next productive step on your mental health journey.
Healing from eating disorders is possible
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