Inside Look

Breaking the Binge-Purge Cycle while in Recovery

Sep 14, 2023

Understanding the Thought-Emotion-Urge-Action Chain

In order to stop the binge-purge cycle, one must understand the thought-emotion-urge-action chain. Let’s start with the beginning of the chain, thoughts. Every day our brain processes around 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, and of those thoughts, 80% are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before, according to The National Science Foundation. In order to change our thoughts, we have to become completely aware of our thought patterns-what we’re telling ourselves everyday. It’s important to understand that we are not our thoughts. Moreover, you are not your eating disorder self, or your healthy self. You are the observer of your thoughts. Meditation and breathwork can allow you to settle in your body and be present in order to understand what kind of thoughts you’re having. Meditation can help you observe and not judge. 


Repetitive negative thoughts lead to negative feelings like guilt, shame, sadness, and anger. When we ruminate on our negative thoughts and feelings, we get an urge to use an unhealthy coping skill. These urges are incredibly strong and seem impossible to control. In eating disorder recovery, we like to talk about “surfing the urge,” or finding ways to feel your feelings and not act on them. When you think about surfing the urge, picture a surfer surfing ocean waves. Waves in the ocean grow and then fade as they hit the shore. Surfers have to trust that the waves will get smaller when they seem too overwhelming. Why does this analogy work? Because urges only last minutes. That’s right-so it is highly beneficial to learn to be the surfer and ride the wave. This is why Sarah and I often recommend our clients to buy a small, inexpensive hourglass timer on Amazon or use your phone. You can begin by setting a 10 minute timer and work your way up to 30 minutes. Delay acting on the urge, and you most likely won’t act on it. 


When we don’t surf the urge, we engage in an eating disorder behavior and fuel the binge-purge cycle. Now you can see the thought, emotion, urge, action chain very clearly. And you may even have more insight as to why you engage in eating disorder behaviors. 


As humans, it’s impossible to control our thoughts and feelings. However, it is possible to surf the urge and not react. I’m going to take you through two scenarios.

The first scenario is what it looks like when we do not surf the urge. Let’s say you have a thought that your body is unattractive. You think you are too big and will never be good enough. This causes you to feel sadness and maybe guilt for what you ate that day. Your eating disorder voice tells you to binge and purge to numb the pain. Next, you go to the kitchen and then the bathroom to take action. The next morning you think about what happened and feel guilty. You’re stuck in the cycle. 


The second scenario is what can happen when we do surf the urge. We have the thought that our body is unattractive, and we don’t feel good enough. We feel the same feelings of sadness and guilt, but we decide to surf the urge of binging and purging. We set a 15-minute timer on our phone and begin to use coping skills instead. We text a friend or a coach. We go outside and get fresh air. We open an app on our phone and engage in a meditation for anxiety. That’s surfing the urge. Eventually, you will no longer have urges to binge and purge or engage in eating disorder behaviors. You will soon have the urge to use one of your healthy coping skills to deal with the big emotions. It takes time. It takes you sitting with uncomfortable feelings and not acting on them, over and over and over again. It will be painful and uncomfortable to finally feel feelings that you have been avoiding. But it will also be freeing. Because when you learn to deal with these feelings in a healthy way, you will be free of the eating disorder. 

For more information on the binge-purge cycle, check out this helpful overview from Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

 Author: Merrit E. Stahle

If you or someone you love is struggling with Bulimia, there is hope! Conquering Bulimia is a one-of-kind, private, self-paced online course led by Certified Eating Disorder Coaches who have both fully recovered from Bulimia. Use coupon code “RECOVERY” and receive 20% off now.

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Source Credit:

 Johns Hopkins Medicine.

 The National Science Foundation.