How CBT Helps to Heal Disordered Eating

One of the most frequently used techniques in mental health treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. Since the 1960s, the founder of CBT Dr. Aaron Beck began applying the tools and techniques with positive results. It is used to treat a variety of problematic behaviors and disorders.

CBT is a form of talk therapy that addresses how our thoughts impact our emotional state. By becoming more aware of our thoughts, we can more clearly see what is directing our behaviors.

CBT Techniques

There are several tools that CBT recommends to help bring about positive change. Two examples include:

  • Relaxation and stress reduction techniques: Clients are taught progressive relaxation techniques which help them to feel more grounded.
    • It uses tools like positive imagery and deep breathing. These practices aid one in connecting to their body and into the present moment.
    • This can help one shift their perspective and get unstuck from negative, problematic thoughts.
    • When thoughts are changed, one can break out of behavior patterns that are triggered by anxiety or phobias.
  • Role-playing: The therapist will encourage the client to play out triggering situations.
    • The client and therapist act out times where the client becomes overwhelmed or struggles to communicate in the way they desire.
    • This can be helpful for someone who struggles with self-confidence or anxiety.

Who CBT Can Help

  • A person struggling with depression can find relief in reframing their patterns of thinking. When they are able to do this, they can access the motivation to take behavioral steps that can gradually lessen their depressive state.
  • For someone suffering from anxiety, they could apply the CBT techniques to address the ways in which certain things trigger a spiral of anxious thoughts and learn ways in which to break these patterns. They can also apply relaxation techniques in order to practice being more present and grounded.
  • When healing an eating disorder, the structure of CBT can help to help break down the negative, all-consuming thoughts around food and body image.
    • For example, a fear of eating ice cream with the thought that “I’ll gain 5 lbs if I eat this”, leads one to binge on the ice cream due to the shame of having any of it at all. When focusing on the power of the thoughts and the capacity to change them, the negative behavior can be avoided.

Virtual Therapy

Given the greater access to virtual therapy, it is also a benefit that CBT can very easily translate to meeting via phone or video.

The technique can be taught in session, and then the client is encouraged to apply the tools outside of the session. In follow up sessions, they report back progress and/or challenges.

CBT can also be intended as a short-term treatment. The clinician can gear it towards focusing on current problems versus processing the past. This approach is concrete and can easily be communicated in virtual sessions.

Homework Assignments

A common tool therapists will recommend is to use a thought journal. A journal is used to track how a certain thought impacted their emotional state and thus created a negative behavior. A client is encouraged to track throughout the day, reflecting on certain interactions and what led to them and why.

Writing in a journal allows for greater insight around each piece of the puzzle that falls into place before a behavior occurs. By doing so, one is able to slow down their thinking and make changes to their behavioral responses.

Length of Treatment

Typically 20 sessions are recommended for CBT. Sometimes less will be sufficient to understand and practice the techniques. Treatment timelines for healing disordered eating vary, but progress in decreasing behaviors should be made within the 20 sessions.

Hopefully, this blog has provided some helpful information regarding how CBT aids in the recovery process. If you would like to learn more about how CBT is used in eating disorder recovery, check out our book! We also welcome you to connect with us for an informational call or intake. Just one step can lead to the support and healing you deserve.


If you would like to get started with an Evolve clinician, reach out today!