One of my personal anxiety “warning signs” is the urge to eat. Often, before the simmering pressure of building anxiety even makes itself known, I’ll be overcome by the overwhelming urge to snack — sometimes on healthy things, sometimes on junk food, sometimes on both. It manifests in many forms: a couple of chocolates here, an extra roll of bread there, sometimes a full-on 2000+ calorie trainwreck; when I start slipping up on my food intake, that’s usually when I realize, oh, I’m getting terribly anxious about something.

Lately that “something” has been my undergraduate thesis. I’m a semester and three thesis chapters away from graduation, and the pressure has been killing me. It takes a lot of mental energy to maintain a healthy lifestyle, at least in the first few months, and the anxiety has made it difficult to put as much effort into my health as I used to. When you have to pour your internal resources into a monumental task like an honors thesis, sometimes you just end up too exhausted to care about maintaining your health.

It’s a short-sighted trade-off to make, of course. In the long run, neglecting your health will only make thesis work (or any other endeavor, for that matter) much more difficult. However, it’s not easy to keep this in mind when you’re in the thick of things.

This is where established habits are key. Obviously mine haven’t been built up enough to weather the academic pressure I’ve been living with lately, but the point remains: established habits act as safety nets. When you’re prone to getting too exhausted to do anything but the default, then it’s best to make sure that your default is a state that’s still beneficial for your body and mind.

That’s why I’m working on finding a truly sustainable routine, one that I won’t be tempted to give up after a few months or in a time of excessive stress. I loved Muay Thai and thought that it could be a staple of my fitness routine, but the fact remains that my time with the gym is limited (only up to May or June, unless other factors allow otherwise), and it’ll be difficult to find a replacement. Running, on the other hand, is something I genuinely enjoy, and something I can do regardless of where I end up in the next few months. The same goes for bodyweight training — and so I’m working on switching fully to those two activities for my regular exercise.

This doesn’t address my “snacky” problem, though. All things considered, I’ve made considerable progress in terms of my overall eating habits: I no longer consume fast food or soda at all, and I do prefer “whole” foods to processed most of the time. So the main issue is binge eating in times of stress or anxiety.

To fix this, I’m working on establishing the following safety nets:

First, taking a walk or drinking hot water when I’m feeling anxious. Both activities settle my nerves and ease the urge to chew (or gorge, as the case may be) on something, so now I’ll work on training myself to engage in those activities instead of eating when I’m feeling anxious.

Second, fixing my approach to food and eating in general. In my past few months of tinkering with my health/fitness regimen, I’ve found that I do love/enjoy eating mostly whole, low-carb food, with a focus on fish, vegetables, fruits, and dairy. However, I do still have a fondness for (good, rustic) bread and sandwiches, and I’ve found that believing I can “never have those again” only makes me crave them more. So I’m thinking of allowing myself those things in moderation — every other week or so, probably.

What I’ve realized, too, is that I don’t love or miss meat, and I’d be perfectly happy subsisting on fish and/or tofu and other meatless proteins. I’ve also weaned myself of sweets, crisps, and so on before, so I know that I can live without those and not miss them; in fact, even in my recent binges, I’ve been eating such things but without any real enjoyment. I guess I just don’t like chocolate/sugar as much as I sometimes believe I do or should. The goal now is to get back to that state of just not having those things, and to stay there.

Third, forgiving myself for the binges of today and the past few weeks. These mistakes are in the past, and the only thing I can do now is learn from them. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to get to the point where I can say and do this with conviction, but that tells me that — these recent setbacks aside — I have made progress, not only in terms of fitness but also in terms of my anxiety management and overall mental health. More importantly, it tells me that I can still continue to progress, despite these slip-ups. It’s a long journey ahead, and it’s possible to get back on course and figure out ways to ensure that I stay there.