Traveling with an Eating Disorder, Part 3 of 3

Hello! And welcome! 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!).

Traveling with an Eating Disorder

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:
  1. 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);
  2. 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! Happy trails. Love Michelle

Posted in: CEDRIC Centre, Relationship with Others, Relationship with Self

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