One thing that has been on my mind lately is how to navigate the world of food and exercise now that my period has returned (number 5 and still celebrating!). Going “all in” for recovery was not easy by any means but at least it was clear what to do. No exercise means no exercise. Food means FOOD. The slightest hunger or craving and I would eat. I didn’t want to deprive my body in any way. Looking back I can see that in a way it was still within the safety of my black and white thinking.
Now I am 5 months into recovery, I am starting to build some healthy habits back into my life. I have recently starting working out again and I am being more conscious of my food choices. But this time around it is coming from such a different place. I am making choices to look after my body, not to punish it. I am doing exercise that I love and I am not pushing myself too hard. I am trying to nourish my body as best I can but I am still enjoying treats when I want them. But I do still worry about where the line is. Finding balance is a constant challenge!
Looking back at my journey with food and exercise, it is hard to see the exact point where things started to go wrong. I am pretty sure that most of us started off this journey with the best intentions. Maybe we wanted to get healthier, feel fitter or look better. Maybe we started out by making a few tweaks to what we are eating, cutting out a few snacks here and there, eating less takeaways or “junk foods” and starting to move our bodies more often. At one time these were probably good habits.
Habit – an acquired, automatic behaviour developed through repetition
Habits can be either positive or negative and voluntary or involuntary. By that I mean they can be actions that we do subconsciously, for example nail biting. Or it can be a behaviour we choose to adopt because of the perceived benefits to us, such as drinking more water. Either way, the mechanism is the same – we repeat the behaviour and eventually the pathways in our brain become so established that we continue to do it without awareness. But there is a point when habits become compulsions and this is when we enter the danger zone.
Compulsion – an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way
I know after a while my healthy food choices became strict diet rules. There were allowed and not-allowed foods, set times and amounts to eat, workouts that had to be done no matter what. I became so rigid in my thinking that any slight deviation from my routine would send me into a tailspin of anxiety. For me, this was definitely a gradual change which happened so slowly that I hardly noticed my free will disappearing and my life becoming smaller and smaller.
Even now the tendency to create rules is there. I think it is only human to want to put things into boxes, set things into order and follow a routine. It makes it easier on our brains to not have to make decisions and to operate on autopilot. Intuitive eating involves tuning into our bodies signals at any given moment and believe me they are constantly changing! It definitely gets easier but in the beginning it takes a lot of thought to tune in to what you actually want when there are no rules to follow.
When it comes to recovery, there are three key challenges relating to habits:
- Undoing old, unhelpful habits and compulsions
The first one definitely takes a radical change in the way you think. There is a quote by Einstein that I think is so relevant here:
“We can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking that got us here.”
For most of us, we accidentally ended up in this mess by taking a detour from rational thinking. Somewhere along the line, something happened in our life which set us off down the path of believing that we are not good enough as we are. The thing is, we were doing what we believed to be the right thing. And it was, with the information we had available to us at the time. The difficult part is learning to let go of old habits and beliefs now that we have new information that proves otherwise.
It took me a few months of hardcore brain reprogramming to undo beliefs that I had held for years. Doing a social media revamp definitely helps – unfollowing fitspo and clean eating accounts filling your feed with body positive and anti-diet messages instead. Also, listening to podcasts (I found Meret Boxler’s Life Unrestricted soooo helpful) and connecting with other healing women online will help to change your thinking.
2. Setting up new, positive habits
The second challenge is deciding what you want to do, now that you know what you don’t want to do. Or more likely who you want to be, now that you know who you don’t want to be. Once the unhelpful thoughts about weight loss are fading, you have a lot of mental space freed up. If you want to be successful you have to find something new to fill that space with, otherwise your life will start to feel empty without dieting and working out to focus on and you might be tempted to go back.
Journalling is a really helpful tool for this. Allowing your true values come to the surface then taking action to prioritise them in your life. Maybe its spending more time with friends and family, getting back into old hobbies or dedicating yourself to a cause. Whatever it is, find something meaningful to focus on instead of focusing on what is missing. I definitely made healing my focus in the beginning and this can be helpful in the reprogramming stage but after a while I think it can be too stressful and we end up going round in circles wondering what we are doing wrong, when maybe all our bodies need is time.
In the early stages of recovery, I definitely recommend that exercise and thoughts about nutrition take a back seat. Later on , you might start to feel like adding some healthier habits back into your life. When it comes to food and exercise, figure out what you actually like. Eat your favourite foods and some healthy foods too (maybe you will find some things fall into both categories! Ahem, sweet potatoes…) and exercise in whatever way is fun for you. Tune into your bodies’ needs instead of intellectualising your choices. Hint – if your mind is saying yes and your body is saying no then it is probably not right for you in that moment.
3. Maintaining habits with them becoming compulsive
Once you have set up some positive habits that help you to feel great, the challenge is to maintain balance and avoid becoming obsessed. We all want to look after ourselves but in reality, stress is one of the most damaging things for our bodies so if our “healthy habits” become stressful or we feel deprived, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice. It is much better to have some key foundational habits and from there remain flexible and have fun.
One thing that definitely helps is to keep mixing things up. Trying to keep experimenting with food instead of eating the same thing every day. Working out at different times on different days and trying new things. Yoga was my rock during recovery and I am keeping that up but I have recently got into Zumba and I am loving it! During HA I did a lot of endurance exercise like running and cycling as well as weight lifting. I have been out on my bike a few times this summer and I do miss lifting but I think for now I need to be careful. I am so happy that my body is functioning again and I don’t want to jeopardise that!
Also, if I ever have a thought that comes up that I shouldn’t do something, I make sure to do the opposite right away. If I have a craving for chocolate and my mind tells me I have snacked too much already today or that I should wait till after dinner then I go and get myself some chocolate ASAP. If my mind is planning a workout and my body tells me it is tired and needs to rest, I listen to it and give myself at least an hour of true relaxation time and maybe workout later if I feel like it. Doing this shows our bodies that things are different now and their needs will get met.
So those are my tips to create healthier habits in recovery. I hope this is helpful, where ever you are in your journey. I would love to hear from you as I have no idea who reads my posts at the moment! If you want to connect please comment below with where you are in your journey and a positive habit you are adopting 🙂