12 tips for traveling during eating disorder recovery

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With the world opening back up, for some people that means traveling, whether that be to another country, city, or beach. Others may opt for camping or RV trips to state and national parks. Traveling while recovering from an eating disorder may be difficult and intimidating due to the uncertainties of eating on the road, from finding restaurants and packing road trip snacks to buying groceries for your rental and packing a cooler for the beach.

Last updated on 
September 1, 2022
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Preparation strategies: What to do before you go

There are many things you can do before you go on your trip to set you up for success. Thinking ahead and preparing yourself for food– and exercise-related challenges can help reduce anxiety while traveling.

1. Pack clothes you feel comfortable and confident wearing

Make sure you pack clothes you feel comfortable in or are familiar with. If wearing new clothes is a potential trigger for you, bring familiar clothes to minimize situations which might bring about old eating disorder behaviors. While you’re at it, leave any other triggering items at home

2. Plan your meals ahead of time

Traveling can be unpredictable, but one thing you can do to mitigate anxiety and stress is to plan your meals and snacks ahead of time, especially if you anticipate long days.

Before you leave for your vacation, write down a meal and snack schedule, but leave room for flexibility as long as you are still meeting your meal plan and fluid intake. If you know you’ll have a busier schedule one day, plan to have snacks and drinks like gatorade with you, in case a meal will be later than you predicted. If you are having trouble creating a meal plan that works with your schedule, contact your dietician for assistance.

3. Browse local restaurants and menus

Whether you’ll be staying in one place or traveling between various cities and towns, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with local restaurants, grocery options, and menus.

You can even plan out restaurants you’d like to dine at while you’re traveling, also thinking about what meals the restaurants have. Remind yourself that recovery for some people can mean being flexible and not planning everything out, as long as you are meeting your recovery intake goals. 

4. Travel with a trusted loved one, if possible

Traveling with another person may be unavoidable at times, such as in the event of a work trip or traveling to see a sick relative; however, if it’s possible and a support in your recovery, take a travel buddy with you, this can help curb anxiety and help you stay on track with your eating disorder recovery.

This doesn’t mean that you should travel with just anyone—make sure you choose someone you trust, someone who knows that you’re in recovery from an eating disorder and is able to support you through emotional challenges. You don’t have to disclose anything you aren’t comfortable sharing, but having a nonjudgmental and compassionate person along can do wonders for your experience.

5. Create a list of coping skills for on the road

If the trip is planned far enough ahead, consider writing down any potential difficulties you may have while traveling as well as any disordered thought patterns or behaviors that may arise. 

List effective coping skills you can use to manage your emotions and triggers while traveling. Some of these coping skills may include a distraction so make sure you pack preferred distractions, such as a coloring book or headphones for music. 

You can also list other ways you may deal with these challenges, such as asking your travel buddy for support or calling a support person from home like a therapist or friend from treatment.

Traveling strategies: Tips to follow during your trip

Now that you’ve adequately prepared to travel while recovering from an eating disorder, there are some things you can do when the big day, week, or month comes. Of course, nothing is ever perfect and there may be road bumps along the way but having a plan can mitigate stress and anxiety and keep disordered behaviors or thoughts from escalating or snowballing. 

1. Plan out your day

While free time on vacation can be an excellent chance to explore new things, it’s important to acknowledge how a lack of structure can sometimes be triggering for some individuals in recovery. This doesn’t mean that you can’t allow yourself to be spontaneous but it does mean you should start your day with a loose plan so you can know what to expect.

This plan may include scheduled breakfast, either at your hotel or Airbnb or at a local spot you’ve already scoped out, as well as any healthy habits you typically engage in at home. For example, if you tend to start your day with a 15-minute meditation, continue that practice while traveling. It will create a sense of normalcy and structure. Then you will want to schedule snacks and other meals around whatever your activities will be. 

If you know that you have a history of skipping dinner, then make a reservation at a restaurant with your friend so they can hold you accountable. The point is, no one knows you better than you do, so adapt your plan based on what your certain struggles or challenges may be.

2. Carry water and snacks with you

If you are going on an excursion or all-day adventure, it’s extremely important to carry extra snacks and water on you so you can stay hydrated and satiated. Being away from accessible food or water isn’t an excuse to restrict your calories, but you may find yourself slipping into that behavior without packing what you need. It may also be helpful to choose snacks that you really enjoy and that are familiar to you so that you are more likely to eat them on the go.

3. Listen to your hunger and satiety cues

At home it may be easier to eat regularly, especially once you’ve established structure and a routine. However, traveling can prove a bit tricky, especially when it comes to changing time zones and jet lag. Traveling can take a toll on our bodies, our circadian rhythm, and our hunger and satiety cues. You may feel hungry at “weird” times such as in the middle of the night. It’s important that you eat when you feel hungry, regardless of what time the clock says. After all, there are no normal and abnormal times to eat—it’s best to eat when your body is telling you it needs food.

To help you adjust to a new time zone, it may be helpful to create a schedule in which you eat within one or two hours of waking and then every three or four hours after that, alternating between snacks and meals. Use your internal cues to guide whether you choose a light snack or a larger meal.

4. Do regular check-ins with yourself

If you are the type who is always on the go during vacation, you need to take the time to slow down and check in with yourself. If you are traveling with a loved one, ask them if they’ll do a check-in with you. You can talk about whatever you think will help, including your feelings, challenges, successes, and how to stay on track. 

5. Avoid gyms and opportunities for working out

While you’re on vacation, resist the urge to seek out individual opportunities to exercise, especially if compulsive exercise is one of your eating disorder behaviors. If you struggle with compulsive exercise, this may be a difficult tip to follow but it’s important not to fall back into old patterns when you’re in a new environment. Plus, many trips may naturally involve additional physical activity, whether you walk on the beach, enjoy swimming in the ocean, or hike to see the beauty of a national park. Avoiding intentional exercise is a healthy way to challenge your eating disorder and get the most out of your vacation.

6. Use your coping strategies in times of stress

The point of writing down your coping skills in preparation for your trip is so you can utilize them during stressful or upsetting times. Make sure to dip into your toolbox if you’re experiencing urges related to disordered eating. It can also be helpful to talk about how you’re feeling to take the power away from the urges or desires.

7. Forgive yourself if you slip up

Remember, the nature of eating disorder recovery doesn’t change just because you’re on the road—recovery is still a lifelong process, with some f ups and downs expected. If you have a “slip up” while traveling, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It means that you need to be compassionate toward yourself but keep yourself on the path to recovery. Reject a perfectionist attitude in favor of forgiveness and care.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

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