Inside Look

Breaking the Binge-Purge Cycle: A Guide for Bulimia

bulimia recovery May 08, 2024

Feeling stuck in your eating disorder is common. The burst of endorphins and relief at discovering the “secret” to eating what you want while supposedly controlling your weight can quickly give way to a mandatory routine that feels mentally and physically exhausting to keep up. So many people with bulimia feel trapped in this routine, unable to break out of a binge-purge cycle once their eating disorder becomes their new normal.

The uncontrollable bingeing urges and subsequent purging to “fix” overeating doesn’t have to consume your life, however. Examining the root causes of your bulimia behaviors and addressing them can start to shift the tide toward recovery and away from succumbing to the binge-purge cycle.

If you too feel helpless in your disordered eating habits and are ready to face bulimia and the effects of bingeing and purging, look no further. Starting this journey is challenging, but absolutely doable. When you get to a good place one day in recovery, you’ll be able to look back and see how hard you worked not just to survive your eating disorder, but to thrive in a life worth living.


First, What is the Binge-Purge Cycle?


The binge-purge cycle in bulimia is a relentless and self-reinforcing pattern. The first of the two actions, binge eating, describes a sustained effort to eat a large amount of food past the point of feeling full. This bingeing of food is usually a response to triggers, stressful events, emotional unfulfillment, and other negative occurrences where food becomes the coping supplement. Psychological factors are often major contributors to the binge-purge cycle as well. Low self-esteem, body image problems, and fears of weight gain all combine as tinder to fuel the cycle further. 


Oftentimes, the bingeing part of the cycle is described as uncontrollable, but that is not always the case. Some individuals with bulimia plan ahead for their bingeing sessions, preparing the food necessary to sustain a large binge episode. More often than not, however, these episodes still spiral out of control with a person feeling powerless in how much food they eat or how to end the binge. 


Regardless of whether you feel in control or not, the bingeing can quickly become affixed to your eating routine, leaving you unable to stop the cycle over time.


The Binge-Purge Cycle Continued


The second part of the cycle, purging, is typically a compensatory response to binge overeating. Purging can be seen as “undoing” the bingeing. Many individuals with bulimia will self-induce vomiting as their purging method, but other forms like laxatives, enemas, and overexercise can be used as well. Binge episodes often leave a person uncomfortably full and ashamed, so purging can be used to quell these uncomfortable feelings by physically expelling them. 


These two actions are quintessential to bulimia. One action influences the other, and over time bingeing and purging become a toxic pattern that is not only detrimental to your physical health but your mental health as well. 


Breaking up with bulimia can be difficult at first, but it is always possible. If you take the time to turn inward and analyze, the answers to your problems can be found. Once you begin to examine how your eating disorder impacts your normal functioning, you can start to understand why this cycle has become so ingrained in your behaviors.


The Psychology Behind the Binge-Purge Cycle


Though the binge-purge cycle seems to be just the two main actions, at the core there are actually three interconnected components: restriction, bingeing, and purging. 


Part One: The Restriction

Restriction, often stemming from the desire to control weight or shape, sets the stage for subsequent binge episodes. People with bulimia may live with strict food rules and extreme calorie counting, causing a sense of deprivation and heightened obsession with food. 


Resisting and restricting forever is an impossible goal. When the instinctive urge to eat becomes too much to bear, failure to adhere to these guidelines is inevitable. Cravings that are a natural result of this restrictive environment can become overwhelming and incessant, triggering the urge to binge.


Part Two: The Binge

Binge eating comes out of both relief and desperation, serving as a coping mechanism against restrictive eating patterns. The act of bingeing can provide temporary relief from emotional distress, but often the comfort is short-lived. The mental cushion that bingeing creates wears down until the original self-soothing purpose is gone; now only the mandatory routine remains. 


The same feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing that drove the binge-purge cycle in the first place are now simply transferred and intensified by the backing of your eating disorder. 


Though you may have started binge eating with the belief that it was an occasional release of stress, over time you come to realize you can’t stop; bulimia has taken hold. 


Part Three: The Purge

Purging is used as a means of alleviating the “consequences” of binge eating, regaining a sense of control that was lost in the binge episode. 


Despite the harmful impacts on both body and mind, people struggling with bulimia often find themselves caught in a cycle of purging to alleviate overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame stemming from bingeing episodes.


This action-and-response loop only strengthens the idea that bingeing is unacceptable and has to be undone every time through purging, perpetuating the binge-purge cycle. Over time, this pattern becomes deeply ingrained, making the cycle incredibly hard to break. 


Despite many people recognizing their bulimia no longer serves them in the way they once hoped, they feel it’s too late to quit. The desire to break the binge-purge cycle is there, but the mental strength and motivation to change isn’t. 


Often, this is because those with bulimia may feel locked into their compulsions. They’ve been convinced that this routine is the only way to cope with their emotions and maintain a semblance of self-worth.


How to Get Out of the Binge-Purge Cycle


Now that we’ve identified the three major components of the binge-purge cycle, let’s talk about how to find freedom from them.


To target the cycle, we first have to start with restriction. As previously mentioned, the binge-purge cycle cannot be addressed just by eliminating bingeing/purging alone. There is often a deeper root of the binge-purge cycle, and many times it starts with an obsession with calorie counting or a deprivation of food. 


Restriction is the fuel that facilitates the cycle, the prerequisite that sets up the beginning of a binge when relief from self-imposed dietary restrictions is needed. Attempting to restrict food from one’s diet can lead to increased “preoccupation with food, heightened emotional reactivity, and a tendency toward binge eating once restrictions are no longer in place” according to the National Institutes of Health.


Full recovery from bulimia without stepping away from restrictive food habits is out of the question. Otherwise, food temptation and obsession will constantly overpower you, making reliance on the binge-purge cycle mandatory and normal eating patterns impossible.


Focus on Achieving Balance and Food Freedom

Resuming a regular eating schedule that fosters a rhythm to natural hunger is a must. In the process of the restriction part of the binge-purge cycle, major macronutrients and food groups are displaced or eliminated. When we’re not getting those critical components to our meals, our hunger drive is at a constant alert, preoccupied by thoughts of eating or bingeing food. 

To satiate and quiet the voice within that’s always wanting to eat more and more, we have to move away from avoiding or restricting the food that tempts us. We are human beings, and it is impossible to maintain full restriction forever with no slipups or mistakes. Allowing a healthy meal balance under the guidance of a dietitian should put you on your way to repairing your eating habits and finding food freedom.


Addressing the Bingeing/Purging Side


The next target of focus should be the binge-purge episodes themselves. These behaviors are used as avoidance and distraction mechanisms in place of real coping skills. Eating is used to find pleasure away from painful experiences, providing relief and solace momentarily in difficult times. However, avoiding this pain initially only lends itself to compounding it down the road. The discomfort or stress you were trying to avoid comes back tenfold in the form of shame, guilt, and self-loathing in bulimia.

Focus on Coping Skills for Stress


The biggest thing you can do for your own recovery success is to address your stress and learn how to cope with it. You may feel stuck in the path of least resistance right now, but you have the ability to change. Finding and maintaining healthy coping skills, even if it’s just zeroing in on one or two like meditating, journaling, hiking, talking to others, etc. can make the difference in negating the desire to binge eat to escape stress.


If you still find the urge to binge too strong, know that these coping practices and distancing skills take time. Be gentle with yourself and try your best to test your limits when attempting to stop the binge-purge cycle. It may be frustrating and relapse can make it feel like the recovery journey is over, but breaking any ingrained habit requires dedication and effort. Putting in the time and work will get you there if you are ready to try.

More Tips to Break the Binge-Purge Cycle


Furthermore, when the urge to binge strikes, there are a few different ways to manage and delay it from overpowering you. Work on developing a plan to navigate those moments when the urge to binge or purge arises. Even though it might feel like all you can think about is bingeing or purging when those impulses hit, there are ways to redirect the pressure into other channels. 


Brainstorm a list of 5-10 comforting or enjoyable activities you’d rather do than give in to the cycle. Having this list handy can help regain your attention as a reminder to choose a healthier path when those challenging moments arise.


Additionally, take a pause before giving in to binge eating or purging urges. When the feelings arise, they can be intense and seem like they won’t go away until you give in. But even just delaying the behavior for five minutes can help us regain control and lessen the power the binge-purge cycle has. 


Once you’ve made it through those five minutes, try another five minutes if you can. Eventually, you may be able to delay the urge by 20, then 30. The longer the time, the further you’re able to defend disordered habits and reach bulimia recovery. The important thing is that by creating this space, you give yourself a chance to make a different choice instead of acting purely on impulse.


Final Thoughts


This list is certainly not exhaustive in all the ways you can approach bulimia recovery and break the binge-purge cycle. However, I hope this guide can become a way for you to start testing your ability to change your eating habits. If you’re tired of bulimia consuming you and are looking for help, there are resources out there for you. 


Reach out to family, friends, therapists, dietitians, or an eating disorder coach. There are so many people out there ready and willing to accept your story and help you move to your future, free. The biggest hurdle to overcome in the eating disorder recovery journey is wanting to change and getting help. If you’re reading this, you’ve already begun that journey.


With Peace,

Whitney Chase

Whitney Chase is the Writer and Content Manager for Sarah Lee of Sarah Lee Recovery. She holds her degree in Psychology from Georgia State and has a strong passion for the mental health field, writing, and advocacy work.

Posted on May 8th, 2024.

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