CBT-E Guidance for the Holiday Season

CBT-E Guidance for the Holiday Season


This guide provides general advice for people with eating difficulties, and their friends and family, on how to cope over the holiday period. It is informed by the principles of CBT-E and associated self-help programmes (Overcoming Binge Eating and Digital CBTe).

Many people with eating difficulties find this time stressful for multiple reasons. While we hope this advice may be useful, please note that some generic advice might not apply to your individual circumstances. If you are under the care of a service or therapist, they may be able to give you more personalised advice.

1. Food related events

Buffets, meals out, festive foods, and big feasts can be anxiety provoking. On the other hand, they can present excellent opportunities to allow yourself to eat more flexibly! They are also occasions where food can be a social and enjoyable event. If you feel ready to join in, this may be a way of trying out eating with others rather than on your own. You may also feel able to plan to allow yourself to eat a wider range of foods and eat at more flexible times. Try to be compassionate to yourself even if you end up eating foods outside of your usual comfort zone. It may be difficult but remind yourself that you don’t need to compensate for eating differently or punish yourself.

Given the additional stress sometimes associated with this time of the year, you may decide that it is more helpful for you to stick to your usual routine of eating. If you are having a meal out, you may be able to look over the menu in advance to help you to feel more in control.  You can prepare in advance for ways to say “no” to social invitations that involve eating, or offers of food, if you choose to limit the number of occasions you want to commit to at this stage. Try to give yourself permission to put your own needs first and decline such invitations in whatever way is most supportive for you.

If you have an excess of food and it is stressful to be around it, then you might be able to freeze it, give it away or even throw some leftovers away. It may be worth remembering that drinking alcohol can often be unhelpful for a variety of reasons (e.g., negative effects on mood or inability to helpfully control eating at the time or the next day).

Give yourself permission not to feel obliged to buy food-related gifts for people over the holiday season, if you think this would add to your stress over this time.

2. Shape and weight related concerns

You may feel under extra pressure to be a certain weight or shape over the holiday period or the New Year and this could trigger increased body checking and comparison. Making a special effort to refocus your attention on other aspects of the holiday period which are unrelated to eating, shape and weight may be helpful. This might include deliberately planning activities related to hobbies or interests (either current ones or ones that have been recently neglected).

Try not to get caught up in New Year dieting pressure. Consider taking a social media break at the start of the New Year or making a commitment to yourself to only view and engage with non-shape and weight related material.

3. Coping with difficult events and feelings

The holiday season can bring up a variety of emotions. Intense emotions can make it harder to stick to eating in a way that is consistent with your plan for recovery or staying well. While experiencing these strong feelings can be distressing, this can also be a time to practice some of the more helpful ways of addressing or coping with difficult events and feelings e.g., proactive problem solving or ways of addressing difficult feelings that do not involve overeating or restricting eating (e.g., meditation, writing down your feelings, speaking to friends and family, listening to music, going for a walk etc.).

4. Labelling setbacks appropriately

Setbacks to progress are especially common at this time of the year. If you experience a “slip”, keep in mind all your hard work and progress so far. Remember that a slip does not mean you are back to square one. Rather than feel down about the setback, try to use this as a helpful opportunity to learn more about what to do differently to stay well in the future. Try to identify any triggers and put some of your tried and tested strategies back in place.


Supporting a loved one

Try to spend some time in advance of any celebrations talking with your friends or family members with concerns about eating.  Assk them about any worries they might have. Common fears include worries about the types of food and amount of food available, comments from other people (about eating or weight) and eating with other people. It may be possible to problem solve ways around this and adjust usual plans accordingly.

If conversations about eating and weight are needed and serious (e.g., you have concerns) it is better to have these conversations outside of mealtimes or family events. However well-intentioned, it is almost always unhelpful to make any comments about food, weight, or shape – even if not directed at the person with an eating disorder at all.

Comments about eating, weight or shape may also come from other friends or family members who may not know about the eating problem or how to help. Again, these may be well intentioned but can be interpreted negatively by someone with an eating problem. If you are supporting someone in their recovery, they may already have been coached in how to handle these comments, but you can also be there to provide extra support if needed.

Where possible, it is good to focus as much as possible on aspects of this season that are unconnected with eating and shape/weight (appearance). Having said this, if the person you are supporting would like to be involved in cooking or baking this can be a way of coming together and involving them.

If you are unsure whether a particular food-related activity would be helpful or unhelpful, it is often useful to have open communication with the person with an eating problem so that you can decide together what would be the best course of action. Doing this in advance can help you both to feel prepared.


Sources of help
(for people with eating problems or for friends and family)

If you are struggling with your eating, your GP is a potential source of help if needed or your therapist (if you have one).

Charities can also provide useful support for people experiencing eating problems or their family and friends e.g., Beat.


This guidance has been produced by members of the CBT-E Training Group &
Our CREDO Contributors https://www.cbte.co/about-us/cbte-training-group/