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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Eating Disorders

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an active type of counseling. Sessions usually are held once a week for as long as you need to master new skills. Individual sessions last 1 hour, and group sessions may be longer.

During cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders, you learn:

  • About your illness, its symptoms, and how to predict when symptoms will most likely recur.
  • To keep a diary of eating episodes, binge eating, purging, and the events that may have triggered these episodes.
  • To eat more regularly, with meals or snacks spaced no more than 3 or 4 hours apart.
  • How to change the way you think about your symptoms. This reduces the power the symptoms have over you.
  • How to change self-defeating thought patterns into patterns that are more helpful. This improves mood and your sense of mastery over your life. This helps you avoid future episodes.
  • Ways to handle daily problems differently.

What To Expect After Treatment

You can use your cognitive-behavioral skills throughout your life. You may find that additional "tune-up" sessions help you stay on track with your new skills.

Why It Is Done

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is used to treat the mental and emotional elements of an eating disorder. This type of therapy is done to change how you think and feel about food, eating, and body image. It is also done to help correct poor eating habits and prevent relapse.

How Well It Works

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is considered effective for the treatment of eating disorders.1 But because eating disorder behaviors can endure for a long period of time, ongoing psychological treatment is usually needed.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be more effective for treating bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder rather than anorexia nervosa.2

Risks

There are no known risks associated with cognitive-behavioral therapy.

What To Think About

For cognitive-behavioral therapy to be most effective, be sure to work together with your counselor toward common goals. If you think you are not working well with your counselor, discuss your concerns with him or her or your primary doctor.

If you have a mental health condition along with an eating disorder, your doctor may suggest medicine. Treating a problem such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder may help you recover from an eating disorder.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

Citations

  1. Hay PPJ, et al. (2009). Psychological treatments for bulimia nervosa and binging. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4).

  2. Anderson AE, Yager J (2009). Eating disorders. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 1, pp. 2128–2149. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer W. Stewart Agras, MD - Psychiatry
Last Revised August 25, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 25, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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