Bulimia and Impulsive Behavior

Article Contributed By: David Greenspan is a content writer at Lighthouse Recovery Institute.

393650532_6a8fb1d6be_zEating disorders are often said to be both compulsive and impulsive. Compulsive means to act repeatedly on an irresistible urge. Impulsive means to act without thought, to act on a whim.

So, eating disorders are repeated behavior, often taken without thought. Now, I’m no doctor, but that sounds right to me. What about the link between specific manifestations of an eating disorder and impulsivity, though? How does bulimia intersect with impulsive behavior? Let’s find out.

Bulimia Nervosa: The Basics

Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a large intake of food and a desperate attempt to get rid of that food before any weight is gained. This is commonly called binging and purging.

There are two major kinds of bulimia, purging type and non-purging type. Purging Type Bulimia Nervosa is when someone consumes a large amount of food and then purges it, usually through vomiting or the use of laxatives. Non-Purging Type Bulimia Nervosa is when someone consumes a large amount of food and then exercises or fasts excessively.

It’s thought that as many as 1% of women suffer from bulimia [i]. It’s also estimated that after a period of ten years, half of those suffering from bulimia will have recovered, a third will have partially recovered, and ten to twenty percent will still be active in their illness [ii].

Impulsive Behavior

640px-Sexy-Red-Lips_Happy-GirlImpulsive behavior is exactly what it sounds like – acting quickly or acting without fully examining the consequences.

Impulsive behavior takes both forms. It can be ordering that one extra beer, without thinking about how you’ll drive home. It can be an email criticizing your boss, written out of anger, which is sent to the entire staff. In both cases, you’d be behaving impulsively. You’d be acting quickly, without thinking about the effects of your actions.

It’s worth noting that impulsive behavior often occurs while upset or in some form of emotional distress. While angry (or anxious, sad, etc.), it’s much easier to act on a whim. Raise your hand if you’ve ever said something you didn’t mean when upset. I know I have.

The Intersection of Impulsive Behavior & Bulimia

There’s a direct link between impulsive behavior and bulimia. In fact, impulsive behavior and bulimia are two sides of the same coin. They’re both characterized by spontaneous and rash action.

While acting out on bulimia, an individual consumes a large amount of food. Why? The answer to that question is different for everyone, but generally speaking, it’s to quell emotional unrest.

The individual suffering from bulimia feels uncomfortable emotions and turns to food in an attempt to self-medicate, to feel better. That’s understandable. After all, who doesn’t feel better after eating a good meal?

Uncontrollable Intake

girl-66767_640However, for bulimics, this intake of food is uncontrollable. They eat, feel better for a moment, and eat more. They eat quickly, without regard for the consequences of their actions. That’s nothing if not impulsive.

After they’ve finished eating, their thoughts are dominated by an obsession to be rid of the calories they just took in. So, they turn to purging or excessive exercise.

If they purge, they’re doing so to avoid gaining weight. They’re vomiting or taking laxatives without any thought of the harmful effects these have on their body.

If they exercise excessively, or fast, they’re doing so without thought to the strain and damage these activities place on their body. In both cases, they’re acting without examining the consequences of their actions.

Treating Bulimia Also Treats Impulsive Behavior

Bulimia treatment is similar to addiction treatment. That is, it consists of intensive therapy, both group and individual. Both treatments employ similar therapeutic techniques, including: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), Life Skills Training, and many more.

These therapies are key to recovery from an eating disorder. They also teach a level of mindfulness, which helps bring about change from impulsive behavior.

One of the central elements to eating disorder treatment, addiction treatment, and really any sort of compulsive disorder treatment, is being present in the very moment that’s occurring. This challenges impulsive behavior because it requires a level of awareness, which simply doesn’t allow for spontaneous or rash action.


  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3275326/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3275326/

About the Author

David Greenspan is a content writer at Lighthouse Recovery Institute. He received a B.A. in Communications and Sociology from Florida Atlantic University. David’s a lifelong writer and has been published in numerous literary journals, including: Anti-, Berfrois, Gigantic, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and West Branch.