Travel Tips for Recovery
Preparing for my vacation made me think about the spiel I’ve developed for clients who take trips while in recovery. It’s not often discussed, but going out of town while in recovery can be SUPER stressful. You’re not in control of your food, and possibly not even your schedule. It’s hard enough getting dressed in the morning, but now you’re going to the beach!? A vacation may mean confronting a swimsuit or challenge clothing sooner than you wanted to.
Trips can be such a big challenge to recovery that sometimes I tell people not to go. But most of the time it’s completely doable if you’re prepared. So below are my top tips for traveling while in recovery.
1. Pack ALL the snacks.
When traveling with other people, you’re not going to be in complete control of what and when you eat. This means your standard meal times will change, and the group might not want to eat when you need to. Plus, the available food may be a significant challenge. I’m going to Italy, the land of pasta, pizza, and cured meats. I couldn’t even tell you how to order a grilled chicken salad in Italian. Restriction will seem like an easy solution to the problem of every menu item being a challenge food. This is where snacks come in.
Work with your dietitian to craft a snack list that will help fill the gaps in your meal plan. I recommend bringing food that meets exchanges for protein, carbs, and fats. Keep snacks with you at all times and in every bag. Have plane snacks for traveling, purse snacks for sightseeing, and suitcase snacks for when you’re in your hotel. That way, regardless of the eating challenges you encounter, you can supplement with your own food.
2. Bring clothes that both scare and comfort you
Warm weather means tank tops, shorts, swimsuits, and dresses. Cold weather means leggings and puffy jackets. Regardless of the weather, the chances are high you will probably face at least one clothing exposure when on vacation. You should pack clothes you feel safe in. But I encourage you to also bring the clothes that scare you. I like options!
Many clients have expressed gratitude for making them pack that swimsuit or pair of shorts. Our anticipatory anxiety (the anxiety we feel thinking about something that hasn’t happened yet) is often so much worse than actually doing it. You might find your desire to be comfortable completely outweighs your fear of looking bad in shorts. Packing appropriate clothing also reduces opportunities for isolation. If you don’t even bring your swimsuit, you’ll end up in your hotel room by yourself while your friends and family hangout at the pool. If you bring your swimsuit and a cute coverup, however, you can lounge by the water and be social.
3. Reserve time for self-care
After all these food and clothing exposures, you will need some time to yourself. Find time every day to decompress on your own and recenter your mind on recovery. Let your travel companions know in advance when you plan to take a siesta and use that time for self-care. I suggest making a self-care packing list that includes all the items you may need. Here’s an example:
- Workbooks for keeping therapy topics top of mind
- Journal for processing your feelings
- A notecard with your 5 favorite coping skills
- Entertainment (ie. a good book or device loaded with TV, music & movies)
Don’t underestimate how stressful traveling can be when in recovery. Sometimes people feel guilty for not enjoying their trips or are surprised by how many ED challenges arise when on vacation. It’s OK. You’re allowed to struggle. Please show yourself compassion - enjoy what you can, and give yourself permission to feel your feelings.
4. Go with someone who understands
Make sure at least one person on your trip is an ally to your recovery. If you’re new to recovery, it will probably be hard to speak up about feeling triggered or needing to stop for a snack. An ally can back you up by suggesting the group eats dinner sooner rather than later, or change the subject when someone starts talking about the great new diet they’re on. A trusted friend can offer support and help you sort out your ED thoughts from your healthy self.
If it’s not possible to travel with an ally, I urge you to utilize the phone-a-friend option. Let someone know you’ll need regular text and phone support while on your trip. Everyone fears their need for support will burden their loved ones, but I’ve never heard someone actually report that they feel burdened. It brings your loved ones comfort knowing they are able to help. So do your mom a favor and call her while on your trip. It will be good for both of you.
Bonus Tip: You could also use online support groups to get an instant encouragement boost.
5. Embrace 1 challenge per day
The above tips are all about mediating challenges and avoiding feeling overwhelmed. This last tip, however, may be the most helpful. When we approach situations with fear, we are likely to be afraid. When we approach situations with curiosity, we are likely to experience something new. Promise yourself that you will practice curiosity by taking on one challenge per day. Maybe it’s a cup of gelato, or asserting your need for a break. Whatever it is, step into your anxiety and do something that scares you. You'll feel empowered, capable, and less afraid of the next challenge.
Recovery success while traveling is all about preparing for what you can and embracing what you can’t. Work with your therapist and dietitian to come up with an appropriate plan. And remember to show yourself compassion if things don’t go exactly your way.
What are your travel tips for recovery? Let me know in the comments!