What Is Bulimia?
Bulimia nervosa, which is typically shortened to bulimia, is included in the “Feeding and Eating Disorders” section of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The criteria for a person to be diagnosed with bulimia includes:
- Defining their self-worth by their body shape, size, and weight
- Engaging in eating binges, which involve consuming an exorbitant amount of food in a brief period of time
- Being unable to stop or otherwise control themselves once an episode of binge eating begins
- Using unhealthy compensatory behaviors to offset the eating binge and prevent weight gain
Here are a few examples of the compensatory behaviors that people with bulimia use to control their weight in the aftermath of an eating binge:
- Forcing themselves to vomit
- Taking laxatives, diuretics, or similar medications
- Exercising excessively
- Fasting for extended periods of time
People who have bulimia often experience shame and guilt about their behaviors. As a result, they often go to great lengths to hide evidence of what they have been doing from family members and friends.
If you suspect that someone in your life may have developed bulimia, keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
- They are hesitant or unwilling to eat in the presence of other people.
- When they do share a meal with others, they often excuse themselves immediately after they have finished eating.
- They possess laxatives or diuretics without having a legitimate medical need for these drugs.
- They frequently make derogatory comments about themselves or others based solely on physical attributes such as weight, shape, and/or size
- They often wear baggy or otherwise shapeless clothing
- They have begun to isolate themselves from family and friends
- They exhibit dramatic changes in mood and energy
- They often feel weak, exhausted, and/or lethargic
- They have dental problems such as yellowing or decaying teeth
Someone who exhibits these types of signs may have bulimia, and they could be in grave danger. Ideally, they should be assessed by a qualified professional who can provide an accurate diagnosis and (if necessary) recommend appropriate treatment options.
Is Bulimia an Addiction?
Now that we have addressed what bulimia can feel like and look like, let’s talk about what it is (and what it’s not).
In other words, it’s time to answer the question that we posed at the top of this page. Is bulimia an addiction?
No, bulimia is not an addiction, but it does share some similarities with addictions. For example:
- Bulimia and substance use disorders (addictions) both involve a loss of control.
- Bulimia and addictions both cause overwhelming urges and compulsions.
- Bulimia and addictions are both behavioral health disorders.
- Bulimia and addictions can be sources of both physical harm and psychological distress.
Since we noted that the answer to the question, “Is bulimia an addiction?” is no, we should also establish some key differences between these two disorders:
- Though people with bulimia have moments when they feel they have lost control, one of the defining aspects of this disease (engaging in compensatory behaviors) allows them to feel like they are exerting great control over their body and – by extension – their life. Addictions rarely if ever offer people a similar sense of control.
- Bulimia is not associated with the disorienting highs or altered perceptions that are central to compulsive substance abuse.
- People who regularly drink to excess or abuse other substances are rarely praised for their behaviors. But some attributes of bulimia (such as thinness, dedication to weight maintenance, and frequent exercise) are often held up as laudable and even exemplary.
- Most people who struggle with addictions understand that their substance abuse is harmful. Many people who have bulimia truly believe that their compensatory behaviors will have a beneficial effect.
Can Bulimia Be Treated?
One similarity between bulimia and addiction that we did not mention in the previous section is that both of these conditions are treatable.
Depending on how a person has been affected by their struggles with bulimia, the ideal course of treatment may require inpatient, residential, and/or outpatient care.
Within these levels, treatment typically involves therapy and education. These services can help patients accomplish goals such as:
- Identifying their triggers, or the events or circumstances that can prompt a binge eating episode.
- Learning to manage stress and respond to triggers in a more productive manner, without resorting to unhealthy eating habits and compensatory behaviors.
- Establishing a better relationship with food and with their own body.
- Improving their self-confidence and self-esteem.
- Addressing untreated trauma or other mental health concerns that may have contributed to their development of bulimia.
- Replacing self-defeating thought patterns and maladaptive behaviors with healthier ways of thinking and acting.
There is no single perfect approach to bulimia treatment. If you are seeking help for yourself or someone that you care about, focus on finding the programming that aligns most closely with your needs and goals (or with those of your loved one).
Begin Bulimia Treatment in Atlanta, GA
Atlanta Integrative Psychiatry offers personalized outpatient mental health treatment in Atlanta, Georgia, area who have been impacted by bulimia, other eating disorders, and a wide range of additional behavioral health concerns. Our dedicated treatment professionals work diligently to ensure that every person who chooses our center receives personalized service and compassionate support within a safe and welcoming environment.To learn more about our programming, or to schedule a free assessment for yourself or a loved one, please visit our appointment page or call our center today.