Traveling with an eating disorder packs a triple whammy for the already beleaguered spirit in desperate need of true rest and relaxation. Whether you struggle with dieting, overeating, purging or a general dissatisfaction with your physical form that prevents you from settling peacefully into the moment, a vacation can be a stress-filled experience that makes you want to just stay at home instead with the covers pulled high.
In this 3-part article, I will not deal with the obvious stress of the obligatory attempts at dieting in anticipation of any vacation that requires the baring of any skin above the elbow or knee. That is a topic for another day. Instead, I will address the 3 key ways in which traveling can challenge the tenuous grip most disordered eaters have on their relationship with food and weight: limitations/abundance of choice; change in routine; and the emotional impact of traveling. As I explore each of these confounding circumstances I will provide you with some suggestions on how to approach them in the most simple and life-enhancing way so you can relax and enjoy your well-earned vacation.
First let’s explore the physical constraints of choice and their impact, depending on where you’re traveling and where you’re staying. Many vacation destinations (all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships for example) have an abundance of choice that does include, if you commit to looking for them, choices that are healthy: foods low in processed and refined flours and sugars and trans fats. But these types of resorts, for the disordered eater, are typically disasters waiting to happen. The abundance of foods and the temptation of fattening desserts and entrées will lead even the most healthy and natural of eaters (those who eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full and choose life-enhancing foods overall) to tune out to the natural rhythms of their body and overeat at most meals. The natural eater will often return home from one of these vacations with a few extra pounds but they won’t carry a lot of energy and guilt about that. They will simply return to their normal routines of eating when hungry, stopping when full, exercise in moderation, and find themselves back at their natural weight within a few weeks. No muss, no fuss.
On the other side of the equation we find the individual who has an uneasy relationship with food, doesn’t trust themselves to eat naturally, and has no confidence in their ability to return to a natural weight. They will be devastated by a few extra pounds and will become convinced they’re doomed to fall down the slippery slope back into uncontrolled weight gain again. For this person, these all-inclusive / buffet-style holidays become not about fun and play, sightseeing and rest and relaxation, but about food and what they will or won’t allow themselves to have, plus the guilt, shame and Drill Sgt.-self-loathing that follows the consumption of any “forbidden” food.
And for those of us who aren’t traveling to the all-inclusive resort but to a hotel with the average restaurant menu (pasta, steak, burgers, fries, quesadillas, salads, etc.) or to places where fast food abounds, choosing foods that feel good to our body and our palette and our mind can be a challenge. Again, in all but the most extreme of situations, if you are committed to looking for ways to eat healthily, you will find them (or at least some reasonable facsimile). But if you feel easily overwhelmed by the proximity of certain, shall we say, less honoring choices, you can find yourself ignoring or not even seeing the healthiest items on the menu and just defaulting into thoughts like “Screw it, I’m on vacation” or “There aren’t any “good” options on this menu so I’ll just have the burger and fries.” Chances are you’ll be hearing from both your body and your Drill Sgt. pretty quickly after that meal: Your body, to protest the quality of the food and perhaps the quantity as well; and your Drill Sgt. to protest the compromise of your integrity in eating something that you have judged as something you “shouldn’t” be eating.
And what about those of us who aren’t staying in a hotel, all-inclusive or otherwise? What about those of us who are, dare I say it….visiting relatives? Even if we really like these people and are looking forward to see them, it’s a challenge for anyone who uses food to cope to be a guest in someone else’s home – often in many ways (ie. emotional, psychological and space wise) – but especially so where meal times choices are concerned.
Assuming we have some degree of comfort and familiarity with these folks, we may be able to ask for certain things to be on hand in the fridge/cupboards and certain things to be served or not served. Or at least, we may be willing to just let it be okay to eat certain bits of what’s served and not feel obligated to eat other things that we aren’t comfortable with or that may trigger binging and/or the Drill Sgt.’s many criticisms. For those who use food to cope this is a wee bit of a stretch as usually we use food to cope, in large part, because we don’t know how to take care of ourselves in relationships with others and we have a hard time setting boundaries about what we need and when.
This means that we are more likely, when visiting friends or relatives, to eat what is served, when it is served and to just deal with the consequences “later” either by restricting or purging when we can or by throwing ourselves on some crash diet as soon as we return home. Either way, we feel anxious, unsettled and uncomfortable in our bodies and have a high degree of Drill Sgt. chatter going on at a time when we really deserve to just relax and enjoy our friends and family, or at least, to enjoy the fact that we’re not at home and working!
We are often reluctant to speak up and ask for certain foods and certain quantities when visiting friends or relatives because we feel we would be drawing attention to our weight and our relationship with food, an area of our lives around which we already feel quite conspicuous and self-conscious. Thus we end up eating things that trigger bad body thoughts and self-judgement, and/or eating at times when we’re not at all hungry because that is when the meal is being served and we don’t want to stand out by not eating.
Yes, honoring choices become a challenge when traveling, but it is possible to travel and feel in control of our food choices rather than the other way around.
- Make a commitment to listen to the cues of your body about when you are hungry and only eat when you are truly physically hungry.
- Eat what you are truly hungry for when you are physically hungry. Don’t second-guess and try to manipulate yourself to want something that you don’t. If you’re hungry allow yourself to have what you want.
- Stay tuned! Notice how your body feels as you eat and if you’re starting to get full, slow down. If you feel resistant to slowing down or staying present, ask yourself the following question: “Am I resisting staying tuned to my body because I don’t want to stop eating and if I listened to my body I’d realize I’m full?” If the answer is yes, reassure yourself that you can always have more later and invite yourself gently to stop now. Allow yourself to start with dessert next time if you want, as long as you’re hungry when you eat.
- Make a commitment that you will not eat simply to make other people happy or comfortable. You will only eat when you’re hungry and you will have what you want. If you only want salad, have that. If you only want dessert, have that. If you only want Oysters, have that (assuming they’re being served!)
- Either bring with you or purchase snack foods you enjoy and feel comfortable having (and that travel well!) so that you will always have something tasty and enjoyable and quick with you wherever you are. This will help a lot with situations where you’re not hungry but everyone is eating as you won’t feel as pressured to eat now because you’ll know there is something you can have when you genuinely are hungry. It will also help with situations where you’re hungry and no one else is, or there isn’t any food in site, as you will be able, through eating your snack, to take the edge off and make sure that you’re not ravenous (ie. in binge mode) when you next get around food.
It really does feel so good to take care of yourself. It feels healthy, it feels adult, it feels mature, it feels honoring, it feels authentic, caring, loving, kind, and respectful.
Print this article and carry it with you for those times when you’re away from home base for an afternoon, a day, a week, or longer. When you notice yourself starting to stress about food and choices, pull this article out, read it and remind yourself of some very simple and concrete things you can do to feel a greater sense of peace, ease and self-respect in your relationship with food.
Enjoy that vacation!
In this segment, we’re going to address one of the other key elements of traveling. It is so incredibly obvious and yet, like many obvious things, we often don’t think about it and consider its potential impact on us physically and emotionally. This “obvious” thing I’m talking about is the change that occurs in your daily routine when you’re traveling and how this affects your body and emotions. This change directly impacts your primary coping strategy: Food and Bad Body Thoughts.
When traveling, your routine is naturally different from when you’re at home; that’s part of the draw of a trip. However, if you completely lose touch with any sense of structure and you’re not yet able to hear and respond respectfully to the signals from your body about when you’re hungry or full, traveling can bring about your worst food fears. You eat things you normally wouldn’t, and in quantities your body doesn’t need. You feel heavy and overfull much of the time, which spawns negative thoughts about your body and, in frustrating irony, thoughts of using food to cope, if not the actual act of doing so.
But all is not lost. If you develop a gentle routine and challenge yourself to wait until you feel truly physically hungry, that is the best approach to combat the stress of different spaces and places when you use food to cope. Let go of your concern about what you’re eating – yes, that’s what I said – let it go. It won’t serve you now. Instead focus more on waiting until you’re hungry and then having what you really want.
When the situation is such that a meal is presented to you before your body has let you know you’re hungry, i.e. everyone else is sitting down to eat, and you feel compelled to join them, choose something small and light (a small salad, some fruit, a small bowl of ice cream) and then eat more when you get truly hungry.
If you’re staying at a place with no room service or easy access to food at all times and are concerned about being hungry but not having access to food, order something at the meal with everyone else but order it to go and have it packaged so you can eat it when you’re truly hungry. Even if it’s just half an hour later that your hunger cues kick in, you’ll feel so much better in your body, you’ll hear much less from your inner critic (the Drill Sgt.), and you’ll feel much more respectful of yourself because you took good care of yourself and trusted the signals from your body. There is absolutely no downside to waiting until you’re hungry unless you don’t plan for it and find yourself without anything to eat at all or with only poor choices around you (i.e. fast food, processed and refined carbohydrates).
Also, keep in mind that in warmer weather your metabolism slows and you naturally require less food less frequently to keep you going. Don’t worry. You will not starve if you ease up on your normal quantities.
Coming back to the principles of Natural Eating (see Part I) will help you immensely during times of change like traveling.
- Eat when you’re hungry
- Stop when you’re full
- Everything is okay in moderation
- Let go of guilt, it doesn’t help you in any way – if it actually were a motivating factor, don’t you think you’d already have achieved your goal 1000 times over?
When you’re traveling, Natural Eating is the very best way to create a sense of structure when each day truly is different.
Stay tuned for Part III of the Travelling article. In that installment we’ll be exploring the emotional impact of traveling and its impact on our body image and on our use of food to cope.
If you’d like to share your own travel story, I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment or send me an email directly to email@example.com
Have a beautiful day!
By Michelle Morand
This is Part III of an article on navigating travel and vacation time in the easiest most relaxed way when you’re still on the path to recovery from the use of food to cope (ie. overeating, restricting, purging, or that annoying diet mentality).
Part I spoke about creating a sense of peace and comfort around the variety and/or constraints of choice that vacationing can provide. In Part I, I provided you with a clear list of tools you can use to ground yourself and come back to basics regardless of what’s on the menu. I have heard from quite a few clients who have carried Part I with them on their travels this summer and have found these simple suggestions extremely helpful in remaining clear on what action to take to feel more at ease than ever before.
Part II of this article spoke about the impact of the change in your routine on your relationship with food and your ability to feel comfortable in your own skin.
Now, we get to the emotions. Yes, the aspect of travel that often throws us for a loop. We can be challenged by time zone changes, cultural differences, and our emotional reactions to the people, places and things we experience on our trip. Keep in mind, for you busy beavers who don’t allow yourself a moment of downtime lest you should fill it with food or purging or some self-judgement, that perhaps the strongest emotional reaction you will have on your vacation will be directed towards your own thoughts and feelings as you have more minutes in each day to simply be with yourself and to simply hear what it is you have to say. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
Circumstances that are bound to trigger any but the most experienced of travelers – and even them to some extent – are the natural insecurities we feel when we are in unfamiliar situations, new places and new cultures. Even Airports have the capacity to throw us for a loop with all the strip searching, wand-waving, gate-finding and delays plus limited food choices, etc. Just the increase in the number of people in our “zone” and the hustle and bustle can be extremely stressful. Same with bus and train travel of course, and even those fabulous things we call “road trips,” where you have your own vehicle, which allows you some control and “home” familiarity.
And that’s just the getting there. What about the strange places, faces and foods at our destination? What about (as we talked about in Part II of this article) the change to our routine and our sense of control of when and what we eat? Adding to the challenges are also the moods of the people you’re traveling with and how they deal with change and loss of control. It is natural to feel unsettled and insecure in new situations. It is normal. Everyone does, even if they don’t show it.
The truth is, if we just allowed ourselves to acknowledge that we’re feeling unsettled and a little insecure because of the newness and lack of familiarity we are experiencing, we’d find that we move through our distress almost immediately. If we can do that, then any other situations where we feel out of our element are met with openness and understanding towards ourselves and the people we’re traveling with rather than judgement, annoyance and condemnation (which only makes us more anxious; which only makes us want to use food to cope more and feel fatter and uglier!).
So, rather than judging yourself for feeling awkward, unsettled, anxious etc., how about you try this: reassure yourself that this is normal. Everyone feels unsettled in new situations. You can choose to focus on how unsettled you feel and judge yourself as bad or wrong for feeling that way, or you can choose to focus on the new and exciting situation that is before you and turn that feeling of trepidation into a feeling of excitement and anticipation. Unless you’re traveling in a war zone or down a dark alley at night you’re very likely safe, so turn that naturally occurring nervous energy into a sense of adventure and trust in your ability to handle whatever life brings your way.
Now, how about a little something more specific to the people you’re traveling with or traveling to visit? Depending on how your companions handle change, things between you can be more relaxed or more tension-filled than normal. Generally, if at home you or your travel companion struggle with the use of anger, isolation, withdrawal, or food, alcohol, or drugs to cope, it’s a solid indicator that there will be a strong sense of insecurity in leaving home base. If you can talk with your companion(s) about this beforehand and plan for how you’ll deal with unfamiliar, stressful or tiring situations, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to navigate them in the moment.
Just take a few minutes to consider how you or your companions typically respond to unexpected changes in plans and to unfamiliar circumstances and then consider how you’d like to see yourself/them responding. Ask for their support in either agreeing to be reminded of their desired response or in gently reminding you should you begin to head down the old path of anger, impatience, food or alcohol. And if you’re traveling on your own it’s even more important to do this and to write out your desired reactions so you’ve got them in your bag to reference should the stress mount. Don’t expect yourself or your companions to remember, in the moment of stress, the desired response. That’s too much to ask when it’s a new behaviour and a stressful situation. We’ll all default to the old way of reacting when the sh*t hits the fan. What’s important is what happens when we’re reminded or when we remind our companion(s) of the desired reaction. As long as we shift our response, then we’re good.
And now for a chat about visiting friends and family:
My book, “Food is not the Problem: Deal With What Is” has an entire section devoted to our relationships with other people so I’m clearly not going to be able to cover all the bases in a few paragraphs. However, there are a couple of key aspects I think deserve mention in relation to traveling to visit friends or family members and that will, I hope, help you to have a happier time in their presence.
First, whenever we imagine visiting someone that hasn’t seen us for a while, and we use food to cope, you can bet that we’ll be having thoughts that go something like this:
They haven’t seen me in X years. Last time I saw them I weighed X. They’re going to see that I’ve gained weight (or that I still haven’t lost it). I promised myself that I was going to look better/slimmer/hotter when I next saw them. I’ve failed! I’m such a loser! I’ll never lose weight; They are going to judge me.
And pretty soon you’re feeling a terrible “flu” coming on and beginning to question whether you’re well enough to make the journey; or, darn it all, a big project came up at work and you just can’t get away…
It may seem, from this perspective, that you’re resistance to visiting those folks is completely related to what you look like and how crappy you feel about your body right now. Sorry, but that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that you either:
- Have very limited familiarity and rapport with these people, thus causing you to feel appropriately anxious /unsettled about spending a chunk of time with them (this will naturally pass as you spend time with them – you just have to wait it out);
- Or you have some unfinished business with them that prevents you from feeling safe and comfortable and from being authentic in their presence.
Think about it. How comfy are you staying with/visiting/having forced time with people you hardly know and haven’t seen since…? Most people find that a challenge. For most people it triggers some discomfort, anxiety, insecurity, and resistance. For those who use food to cope, it triggers all that, too. But how we deal with those feelings is different from someone who uses life-enhancing coping strategies.
We deal with those feelings by turning on ourselves. Like an abusive parent, we blame and judge and criticize and don’t seek to understand or validate why we might feel as we do. We just recognize that we’re feeling anxious and do what we do best (currently): We tell ourselves we wouldn’t be feeling so anxious if we weighed less/looked better. Baloney people. Not true.
You wouldn’t be feeling so anxious if you knew these people better and/or if you didn’t have some unhealed wounds or some unfinished business that made you feel a little resentful, mistrustful, unsafe, and insecure in their presence. It’s that simple.
So, in case # 1, the solution is to remind yourself that your feelings of insecurity seeing people you don’t know so well or haven’t seen for a while are normal and they are not, I repeat: NOT, because you’re too fat or unattractive. Assure yourself that as you spend time with these people you will get to know them/get reacquainted and you’ll see yourself feeling more relaxed and more comfortable and thus feeling less judgement towards your body. You’ll see.
In case # 2, I encourage you to get very clear, before you go, on what the unfinished business is; what needs to be said or done, what do you need in order to feel completely peaceful in this person’s presence. Take the time to get clear on this. It is fundamental to you having a great trip and to you healing those old wounds. What would it take for you to feel completely peaceful around this person? And if the answer is truly, nothing, don’t go. Yes, you heard me, don’t go. It doesn’t matter if it’s your mom, dad, brother, uncle, best friend, husband’s mother, etc., etc., if you can’t think of any way you could be with them and clear the air and come to a place of peace, don’t put yourself in that situation. You’ll just feel unsafe and insecure, you’ll diminish your self-esteem and your sense of self-trust, and you’ll have a crappy vacation.
Work hard to be real with yourself about what you could do to feel peaceful and take the steps to put those pieces in place before your trip. For example, if you need to know, before visiting dad that he’s not going to make a comment about your weight, or that he’s not going to bring up his disappointment about your divorce, call him, email, write, and ask him for his assurance that he won’t do that. If he’s not willing to reassure you, it’s not safe to go. It’s that simple. Don’t give the power for your safety and your good vacation to anyone else.
And like that John Mayer song says “back to you, it always comes around, back to you…” What about those situations when you’re traveling and you’re on your own? Are you able to be still with your thoughts? For those who use food to cope this is a rare occurrence; we don’t usually allow ourselves time to just be present with ourselves. Depending on the kind of trip you’ve planned, you may find the moments of self-connection and downtime are infrequent, and border on being non-existent. But you might find you have more time to just be that you’re used to. What to do? Notice your desire to focus on the past or the future; what you’ve done or what you’re going to do. Notice your resistance to being present with how you’re feeling now. Don’t try and force yourself to stay in the moment, just notice where your mind goes to support you in avoiding being fully present. Chances are you’ll notice more clearly than ever before how hard your mind works to find something to worry about and how, more often than not, if chooses to focus on food and body image. Just stay aware of your thoughts and ask yourself: “Separate from food and body image, what was I just thinking/what just happened?”
That’s the information you want. That’s what’s really going on. The food and body focus is just the smoke and mirrors to help you tune out to the stressor that triggered you. The stressor could be a thought from the past, something you’re imagining happening in the future, or something that just happened. The key is that you come to understand that your thoughts of food and body image arise only in response to a stressor and not in and of themselves. You’ll prove it to yourself, and once you do, you’ll never waste your time focusing on coping with food. Life will become much easier and more peaceful, and you’ll finally feel that you’ve actually started to live!