How to help someone with bulimia

If someone close to you is struggling with bulimia, we've put together advice on the ways you can be a good source of support.

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When someone you care about is struggling with bulimia, it can be difficult to know what to do for the best.

Within this blog, we have put together advice and information on how to help someone with bulimia. We have also included details of the support and treatment available at Priory that can help a person with an eating disorder get their life back on track.

Ways to help someone struggling with bulimia

Keep communicating

When eating disorders aren’t addressed, they can get worse and become more difficult to overcome. If someone close to you is struggling, conversations need to happen in order to stop the bulimia from continuing and causing more damage.

When you first approach the subject with the person, let them know that you’ve noticed some things that have been worrying you. Remain non-judgemental, ask questions about how they’ve been feeling lately and give them space to talk. Remind them that you're here to help.

Avoid having these conversations at meal times, as the person will already feel stressed. Also, don’t focus on their body or eating habits as this can cause them to feel uncomfortable and under scrutiny, which may result in them shutting the discussion down.

Remember, they may become defensive or deny there's a problem. This can happen because they feel guilty and ashamed. They may also feel scared, and view your support as a way of them having to relinquish or lose control. If this happens, don’t give up. Let them know that you're here for them, and are available to talk.

When the lines of communication are open, work to keep them this way so the person can turn to you when they’re ready. Spend time together, ask them how they’re getting on and be prepared to listen.

Show care and compassion

We understand that at times, you may feel frustrated by the bulimia. It can feel so obvious that the person should stop because of the harm they're causing to themselves.

Be mindful not to show anger or frustration in front of the person. It's natural to feel like this - you're having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation - but communicate these feelings to other family and friends.

Try to remember that eating disorders are intense illnesses that can be incredibly difficult to overcome without the right help and support. The person with bulimia will be going through a difficult time, and it's likely that they're struggling with painful emotions, so treat them with care and compassion.

Set boundaries

When someone is battling bulimia, we know that being tough and firm with them may be challenging. But sometimes it’s necessary. There need to be boundaries in place so that you aren’t unintentionally enabling their behaviours.

  • Don’t ignore the issue or brush it under the carpet. This is actually an enabling behaviour that can allow the bulimia to continue and even worsen
  • While you may usually clean up after a binge or purge, avoid doing this in the future
  • Don’t cook them 'safe' meals, or meals that are different from everyone else’s

We understand that avoiding enabling behaviours can make you feel like a bad person. But by allowing the person to start to see the effects of their eating disorder and the negative consequences, it can help them to start recognising that things need to change.

Support them in getting better

Recovering from bulimia can be difficult. When a person agrees to get professional treatment, having a strong support network is so important. Some ways in which you can help someone with bulimia as they go through professional treatment include:

  • Remind them that you believe in them and their ability to recover. Also, let them know that you're proud of them. Acknowledging the challenge they're going through and the effort they're putting in can help the person to feel motivated and encourage them to continue pushing forward
  • Spend time together and give the person the opportunity to talk. Eating disorder recovery is tough, so lend a listening ear and give the person a chance to talk about how they’re doing at that moment in time
  • Organise activities that give them a chance to enjoy themselves. Bulimia and other eating disorders thrive in isolation, so motivate the person to spend time with you and others, even virtually, as and when they can. These activities can be a real mood booster and a reminder of what life can be like when they're free from the constraints of an eating disorder
  • Help the person to relax. Recovery can be exhausting, so help the person to rest and recharge their batteries. Some people who are recovering from eating disorders find this difficult to do, but gently tell the person that rest is valuable to their health and wellbeing
  • Be careful of the compliments you give. While any compliments will be given with good intentions, comments that reference their body or their appearance – even if you think they’re positive – could be misconstrued, as the person will be battling with the idea of their body changing

Treatment for bulimia

When someone has bulimia, support from outside the home is recommended. Eating disorders are incredibly complex, so professional treatment is needed to help a person deal with the physical and psychological effects of the illness.

Treatment for eating disorders can include residential programmes, day care support or outpatient therapy.

Family therapy can also be used to support people with eating disorders, and is often included within a treatment programme. It allows the person suffering with bulimia, as well as those who are closest to them, to better communicate, understand themselves and others, and put strategies in place for life going forward.

If you'd like to find out more about the treatment options available at Priory, please visit our eating disorder treatment page or get in contact using the details below.

Blog reviewed by Dr Sonu Sharma (BSc (Hons), MBCHB, MRcPsych), Lead Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Cheadle Royal

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