How to Use CBT Techniques to Manage Stressful Holiday Gatherings

For anyone in recovery from an eating disorder, the holidays can take on a whole new level of stress. Triggers can come in many different forms, especially at holiday gatherings. This might include:

  • An overabundance of foods you don’t feel comfortable eating
  • Relatives that you may not have seen in a long time
  • Encountering people with whom you have a stressful relationship
  • Conversations centered around dieting, food, and body image
  • People who comment on your body or appearance

If you are in eating disorder recovery, a holiday gathering can feel like a perfect storm, as many of these scenarios can combine in one setting, making for a stressful situation. You may find it hard to enjoy the holiday season or even feel heightened urges to engage in past eating disorder behaviors.

Having awareness of these potential issues ahead of time can help you arm yourself with the positive coping strategies needed to successfully overcome these triggers. Holiday gatherings may inevitably be stressful and anxiety-provoking, but they don’t need to take you out or cause you to feel like you’re taking steps backward in your recovery.

How CBT Techniques Can Help Manage Stressful Situations

Helpful techniques that you can use to manage stressful situations may come from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. If you have been in eating disorder treatment, you have likely been exposed to this form of therapy, as it is a helpful treatment for achieving cognitive and behavioral changes. CBT techniques can help a person better understand the connection between their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings while creating strategies to change rigid thoughts and behaviors to improve mood and functioning [1].

For example, if you have been healing from an eating disorder, you probably understand the struggle of having highly critical thoughts about yourself, your body, and food. These negative thoughts can trigger a vicious cycle of shame, guilt, or anxiety, and these feelings can then create urges to engage in the eating disorder.

CBT is a therapeutic framework that can help change these problematic thinking patterns that often perpetuate the eating disorder. CBT in eating disorder recovery is also helpful for:

  • Emotional regulation
  • Developing new ideas about yourself and your body
  • Reducing stressors and triggers
  • Preventing relapse
  • Eliminating symptoms

While CBT is a structured treatment that typically occurs through phases under the guidance of a therapist, many of the principles are adapted and applied for real-life scenarios. The ultimate goal of CBT is to help transform the core beliefs that influence how you might interpret your environment.

Applying CBT Techniques to a Holiday Gathering

In the case of a stressful holiday gathering, you could use CBT techniques to help you change the way you might be approaching these types of events. What if it wasn’t the holiday gathering that actually caused you to feel stressed but more so the way you thought about it?

For example, if you’re at a holiday gathering and dwelling on negative thoughts during your time there, this can trigger anxiety and amplified stress response. On the other hand, if you approach this type of event with a restructured focus on more positive outcomes, this can help create stress relief. Anticipating problematic thinking patterns can help you better navigate these situations successfully. Let’s look at some specific scenarios:

  • If you think: “I can’t possibly deal with the overwhelming amount of food that will be at this event”, you can restructure this thought to, “This is a chance for me to try foods I don’t usually get the chance to eat. All foods are safe for my body, and I deserve to nourish my body and enjoy eating.”
  • If you think: “I’m worried about what everyone might think about how I look.”, you can restructure this thought to, “My self-worth doesn’t depend on my size and shape. I am loved for more than just my looks”
  • If you think: “I have nothing good to share about myself with others; I’m a failure”, you can restructure this thought to, “I am not finished growing, changing, and evolving. I am enough exactly as I am”

Many of these negative thoughts may occur instantly, simply by anticipating a situation that might provoke anxiety. By focusing on the core foundations that support your recovery, you can directly challenge the negative thoughts that could come up in any stressful situation. Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that can negatively impact your experiences, and working through CBT techniques can help you change the automatic negative thoughts that trigger eating disorder behaviors.

Practicing CBT for Eating Disorder Recovery

It is important to understand that CBT is a long-term repetition that should be practiced under the guidance of a treatment specialist. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please connect with our team at The Meadows Ranch. We understand that the holiday season can be an especially difficult time, and we want you to know that you don’t have to go through this alone. Connect with our compassionate team to learn more about the comprehensive treatment we offer for a lifelong eating disorder recovery.


[1]: Very Well Mind, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorders”, Accessed 1 December 2018