HA recovery diaries #12 Building positive habits

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!

Perfect-Balance

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:

  1. 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 🙂

Amy x

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HA recovery diaries #10 Liberation not limitation

A huge part of recovery from HA or any form of restrictive disorder is letting go of the rules.  It seems like it should be easy once we learn that our habits are responsible for our poor health to just stop exercising and start eating but it is very rarely so.  Often we have spent years beating ourselves into submission that it becomes almost impossible to disentangle ourselves.

So why do we place these rules on ourselves?

Almost always we begin with the best intentions in mind.  We want to get healthier, to be fitter, to look better, to create “the best version of ourselves”.  And how are we told to do this?  Eat less, move more, lose weight.  We are surrounded by these messages in society to the point that they become embedded into our psyche.  Almost everyone is living in the mindset of either trying to lose weight or not wanting to gain weight.  Dieting and exercise have become the social norms.

When we first set out on a health or weight loss journey, we do our research and arm ourselves with knowledge.  Which foods are low in calories or have the most nutrients? How many calories should we eat?  Which foods are more fattening?  How much exercise a day is needed for weight loss?  Which exercises burn the most fat?  All of this information is too much to carry around in our heads so we develop rules to follow to save hours of deliberation every time we need to eat or move our bodies.  Following a plan is so much easier as it takes the pressure of decision making away.   But this is not necessarily a good thing!

For example, take some common food rules:

I can only eat X calories a day

I shouldn’t eat chocolate

I can’t have dessert

If I go to a restaurant I have to have a salad

I am only allowed to eat X times a day

I must leave X hours between meals

Notice any similarities?

The words only, can’t, shouldn’t, must, allowed..  How do these words make you feel?  Ask most people to choose between oppression and liberation and I can almost guarantee they will choose freedom.  But living with words like this, we cannot be totally free.  For some reason we seem to enjoy creating a cage for ourselves to live in, placing restrictions and limitations on our own lives.

Why do we do this?

I don’t have the answer to that.  Maybe it is because we are scared.  So scared of our own power that we feel we have to reign ourselves in.  Scared that without the rules we will be totally out of control.  And ironically enough, rules create exactly the kind of environment for this kind of rebelling to occur.  If you are the kind of person that tends to spiral into chaos the minute you break a rule, think back to before you ever had any rules.  I am guessing that you were doing just fine.   As soon as we place restrictions on ourselves we ignite the deep desire to rebel and it becomes a viscous cycle.

In creating rules, we hand over our power to adapt and change.  Life is not constant – in fact its common to hear that the only constant thing about it is change.  And rules don’t account for this.  We are constantly evolving as humans and the world is in a state of continuous flux.  Just because something works for us today does not mean it will work tomorrow.  But often we cling to the rules we make, far beyond the point where they no longer serve us.  The habits and beliefs we have built become so deeply embedded that it is difficult to consider any other option.

This is why going “all in” works can be so challenging.  Although the fundamentals are non-negotiable there is a lot of room for individualisation.

We know that we need to exercise less but how much is too much?  Can we carry on with what we usually do but less frequently?  How about lifting weights?  Is walking ok?  If so for how long?  What about yoga?

We know we need to nourish our bodies but how much do we need?  Is 2000 calories enough?  3000?  Should we be eating junk foods or focus on nutrition?  Is eating a lot at night ok or should we be spacing things out throughout the day?

These are all questions that come up frequently and there simply is no answer.  Everybody is different and it is up to you to find what works best for your body.  And this can be scary if we are coming from a place where we had a set rule book to help us make our decisions.  We knew what was ok and not ok.  We had external guides to tell us what to do.  And now we are supposed to just let ourselves loose in the world?!

Again, most people want to live a life where they feel free.  In the western world, we are lucky to have abundance available to us every day and yet we choose to turn away from it.  Partly this is because we are made to believe that we can only have certain things if we do as we are told.  If we deprive ourselves in the short term we will receive the rewards of health, beauty and happiness in the long term.  No pain, no gain.  But this simply isn’t true.  We can have all of these things without punishing or depriving ourselves.

What we aren’t told is that there is a shortcut.  Welcoming the abundance in our lives with gratitude will bring us all of these things.  Getting in touch with our needs on both a physical and emotional level and focusing on the things that mean the most to us will bring a deep, sustainable joy which no health or fitness plan can ever promise.  You are the most powerful person in your own life and unlocking this power and using it is so rewarding.  And by power I don’t mean will-power, the ability to stick to external or self-imposed rules but the power to live your life the way you want to.  The power to go against the grain, to make mistakes, to change your mind.. what ever you need to do.

When it comes to food, give yourself the freedom to choose what, when, how much.  If you feel compelled to exercise, give yourself permission to rest.  If your body wants to move then explore that gently.  Take away all numbers, measurements, times and go with whatever feels right.  It might be scary at first but once you get to know your body and your intuition, this will become your safe place.  And when you are stuck or unsure about a decision in your healing journey, maybe try approaching it with a question.

Will this bring me closer to liberation or limitation?

 

HA recovery diaries #9 The scale, friend or foe?

A couple of weeks ago in my progress update blog, I mentioned that I had fallen back into the habit of weighing myself and that I was going to go scale-free for the next 30 days.  Since I started trying to get my period back 4 months ago, I stayed away from the scale for fear of setting myself back. But then thoughts started to creep in I wonder how much I weigh these days?  And this eventually I caved. Before long I was back into the habit of weighing myself every few days.

I wasn’t consciously trying to lose weight or change what I was eating as a result of the number and it definitely didn’t have the same power over me and my emotional state as it has in the past.  But I found myself experiencing mild disappointment if I saw the number rising and secretly was glad that my weight was finally pretty stable after my initial gain.  Even though I told myself I was ok with my new weight, I can’t deny that knowing it still brought some anxiety.  In the back of my mind I still had the thought that I was “big enough” now and I think on some level this was reflected in the choices I was making, whether I was aware of it or not.

I found myself questioning myself more often about whether I was really hungry for that snack.  Or whether I should have the fruit instead of the chocolate I was craving.  Or thinking that maybe I should go out for my usual walk even though its pissing down with rain outside.  When my third period didn’t come as I expected I had to reevaluate what I was doing.  I needed to ask myself some questions and be totally honest with myself. Where did this need for me to monitor my weight come from?  And was it really helpful in my recovery journey?

For sure it really is a tough topic with regards to recovery from restrictive eating and weight suppression.  On one hand, if you are trying to gain weight, weighing yourself can be a useful tool to monitor your progress and check you are eating enough to repair your body and get to where you need to be.  It can also be useful to have a goal to work towards i.e. the “fertile BMI range” of 22-23 where a lot of women tend need to reach in order to recover their menstrual cycles.  But for those coming from a much lower weight, this can seem like an unthinkable goal, a huge mountain that is near impossible to even imagine climbing.

And for those of us who are already close to this target weight at the start of our recovery journey, it can become more of a limit on how much we are willing to gain.  In order to fully heal, we need to surrender to the process and let go of all restrictions on our body, including the self-imposed limitations on what we should weigh.  For many women, it is necessary to go above the “healthy” BMI range for our bodies to feel safe enough to menstruate.  How can we label a BMI healthy if our body cannot perform one of its basic functions?!  BMI is such a generalised approach and is in no way suitable for all individuals but I will talk about this in more detail in another post..

Right now I want to focus on how weighing ourselves makes us feel in our bodies.  When you are trying to recover, there is always the risk of setting yourself back mentally.  For lots of us chronic dieters, weighing ourselves has been a regular ritual which we relied on to determine our self worth.  I know from personal experience that you can feel really good and confident and then step on the scale, see a number higher than you were expecting and all of a sudden your self esteem is through the floor.  Even with all of the work towards changing my attitude towards my body I still had a mini eeeeeshhhh moment in my head when I first saw how much I had gained a few months into recovery.  And bear in mind that this is when I had been trying to gain weight on purpose.

In the past I have often let the scale rule my life.  If the number was up I would try to restrict my food or exercise even more, constantly seeking that thrill of seeing a smaller number next time.  Often this restriction would lead to me over eating and feeling even worse when I stepped on the scale and saw an even higher number than before.  If the number was down it could go one of two ways.. either I would chase the high and continue restricting or I would go into self-sabotage mode and end up overeating. Total insanity.

And this time round the habit had got sneaky.  I wasn’t using the scale as a way to measure how good at dieting I had been but I was still judging myself based on what I saw.  I was assuming that if I was truly listening to my hunger and fullness cues then my weight should stay the same.  I was using my weight as an external guide of how successful I was at “intuitive eating” which of course goes against the definition of intuitive meaning that I wasn’t successful at all.  It is much better to rely on your own internal compass to determine how you feel.

SCALE-3

Our bodies provides us with all of the feedback to tell us whether they are happy or not, we just have to learn to listen to them instead of handing all of our power over to a useless piece of machinery.  Turning inwards and looking at our energy levels, our digestion, our mood and our quality of sleep provides us all of the information we need to know whether we are “on track” or not.

In my opinion, there is simply no need for anyone to keep track of their weight, regardless of whether they are in recovery or not.  It is not the weight that determines the our health but our behaviours and self-esteem.  For those who are underweight, adopting healthy behaviours and truly providing the body with the nourishment it needs will bring the body to a healthy weight.  The goal is full recovery, not just weight restoration.  We want to make sustainable changes to the way we treat our bodies, to find that inner caretaker who is going to help us look after ourselves through all of life’s twists and turns.

And to update on my progress – two weeks after my scale freedom I got my period right on time!  It has now been almost four weeks of liberation and I don’t see myself going back anytime soon.  I feel so much calmer and hadn’t even realised the underlying anxiety until it lifted.  It was as if I had been carrying around an invisible burden which was pressing down on me and suppressing my ability to relax and feel happy, without me even realising.

I hope that this post will give strength to anyone who still has that emotional attachment to the scale to just throw it out.  It is definitely not your friend. Make some new friends that will make you feel good about yourself and watch your whole attitude and outlook change.