The binge-purge cycle is a cycle of behaviors, thoughts and emotions experienced by many people who suffer from bulimia nervosa. It is repetitive and can seem impossible to stop, but understanding the pattern of behavior is one way to figure out how to stop it and get on the road to recovery.
Triggering Event or Emotion
Everyone has something that triggers the beginning of a cycle. But this isn't the cause of an eating disorder, as each time a person experiences the binge-purge cycle, there may be a different triggering event or emotion. Many people identify specific, typically difficult emotions as triggers, such as: sadness, loneliness, guilt, or feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. These emotions may be experienced throughout the course of a day or days, or may be caused by a specific event/s, such as an argument with a loved one, criticism at work, or self-criticism. Dieting, or restricting how much one eats, is another way that many binges are triggered.
Regardless of the specific emotion or event, identifying your own triggers is one way to recognize 'red flags' that mean you need to do something different.
Binge Eating Episode
As you might imagine, binge eating is one of the main behaviors in the binge-purge cycle. It may begin with eating comfort foods to soothe the negative emotions related to the triggering event, and then continues into a full binge. It can also be the body's way of getting nourishment when someone hasn't been eating enough food.
Binge eating is defined as eating more in a single setting than most people would. Although this definition is very subjective, binges are much larger than a regular meal, and can contain several thousand calories. Many people describe binges in terms of feeling "out of control" or not really even knowing how much they are eating. I've heard some clients describe the experience as being 'zoned out,' and then looking down to find empty boxes/containers.
Physical & Emotional Results
After a binge, most people feel uncomfortably, or even painfully, full. I often tell friends and family members of sufferers that this goes beyond the 'Thanksgiving full' feeling one might have after a huge holiday gathering: it's simply a result of eating so much. And along with these physical pains comes emotional pain, possibly including feelings of embarrassment, shame, disgust and/or self criticism.
For many sufferers, the time span between binging and purging is very short. Purging becomes a way to relieve oneself of the negative feelings (physical and emotional) of the binge. Most people think of purging as self-induced vomiting, but it can also include laxative and/or diuretic use. Sometimes people use other behaviors, such as exercise, to compensate for the additional calories consumed in a binge.
Some people will have one binge and purge episode and then go into a period of calm. Others may binge and purge multiple times before stopping.
After a binge and purge episode, there may be a period of calm. At this point, a person may resolve to never binge or purge again. He may even decide to begin restricting his food intake, which research shows will simply lead to binge eating again. There are also people who acknowledge that they will likely binge and purge again, feeling hopeless to stop the cycle.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC: Author.
Tribole, E. & Resch, E.(2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin.