September 14, 2023

Dear Melissa: Three Whole30 tips when you just want to quit

Dear Melissa—Melissa Urban wearing a light blue jean top and darker blue jeans, cooking on a wooden table top, and smiling at the camera.

In this article, I’m helping you navigate the spur-of-the-moment temptation to self-sabotage what you know is a really good thing for you right now—your Whole30 commitment. However, if your Whole30 is actually adding more stress than it’s relieving, or if you find the program is pulling you in an unhealthy direction, please release yourself gracefully from this commitment and speak with a counselor or support partner. XO Melissa

I had a year in recovery from my drug addiction before I relapsed. I spent a few weeks using drugs again before I self-arrested and checked myself back into outpatient therapy. I learned a lot from that experience, including the incredibly valuable concept that these self-sabotaging decisions happen during a state of heightened arousal. At the moment I decided to use again, I was fully immersed in the moment, temptation was right in front of me, and my brain was screaming for instant gratification. I didn’t give logic or my higher consciousness a chance to weigh in—I just reacted based on habit, temptation, and craving. 

I’m now nearly 23 years into my recovery, but this lesson has come in handy in a variety of situations, primarily when I’m trying to groove a new habit and temptation comes calling. In your Whole30 journey, you’ll most certainly encounter this kind of situation too. So here are some of the tips I’ve employed to help you take that pause, think about Future You, and make the decision that serves your highest good—sticking with your Whole30.

Tip 1: Just breathe

When you’re staring the cupcake, pizza, or glass of wine in the face, the stress of the decision coupled with these unprecedented circumstances can shift your body into “flight or fight” mode. Dopamine (your “seeking” neurotransmitter) is high, adrenaline fills your system, your heart rate increases, and you start shallow chest-breathing in anticipation of this make-or-break Whole30 decision: “Do I, or don’t I?” 

Recognizing this experience as a heightened state of arousal, your best bet is to calm yourself down so you can make a rational (not emotional or impulsive) choice. And the fastest, easiest, most unobtrusive way to do this is to BREATHE. Simple breathwork can immediately shift you out of your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system into parasympathetic “rest and digest,” helping you calm your nerves and make a better choice. 

Your strategy: Calm a fired-up nervous system with a few breaths. The good news is, you can do this anywhere, any time, even in a business meeting, where the donuts are staring you right in the face! Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of five, allowing the air to fill your chest, then expand down into your diaphragm and belly. Hold for a beat, then breathe out gently through your nose for a count of 5, and hold. Repeat 8-10 times. Or use a strategy from Stanford Neurology: Take a double-inhale through your nose all the way down to your diaphragm, then a single exhale through the mouth in one loud sigh. Repeat 2-3 times. (Maybe do this one in private—but that big, loud exhale feels amazing.)

Tip 2: Tell on yourself

These snap decisions in favor of immediate gratification tend to happen in isolation—when we’re alone, without moral support, and can’t be witnessed by people we respect. The night I used, I was alone in a bathroom with a stranger and a line of white powder. The friends I had come with had no idea the danger I was in, and had they been with me, I never would have considered it.

So, I began a practice of telling on myself. When I was feeling cravings, anxious about my ability to make a good decision, or tempted, I immediately told someone I trusted: “I’m thinking about using.” Taking what felt secretive and shameful and dragging it out into the light, plus recruiting support in a challenging time always made a difference. The second I told on myself, I felt lighter, stronger, and more sure of my commitment, and was more willing to talk about why I was feeling like this, and turning what once felt shameful into a moment of bravery and authenticity.

Your strategy: Before you eat or drink the not-Whole30 thing, you have to tell someone. (And I don’t mean “press send on a text, then run back to your pantry.”) Tell someone at home, call a friend, or Facetime your Whole30 support buddy and say, “I’m thinking about bailing on my Whole30,” then take a deep breath and tell them WHY. Are you sad, lonely, anxious, or feeling overwhelmed? Share that too. Choose wisely—if you cop out and tell that friend who always gave you crap for your “weird diet,” it doesn’t count. Tell someone you know has your back, supports you in the promise you made to yourself, and will help you talk through your feelings and reinforce your commitment. 

Tip 3: Take a time-out

Your final trick comes straight out of habit research. It’s the one I’ve used the most when I’m in the first sixty days of a habit change (and the most likely to talk myself out of keeping it up). Recognizing I’m about to make an impulsive decision that I will in all likelihood regret, I put myself in a time-out. “I’m going to place this decision on hold for 24 hours. Today, I’ll put my habits on auto-pilot and stay the course, but tomorrow, if I still really want to abandon this effort, I will.”

This allows me the time, space, change of scenery, and low-pressure environment I need to make the decision that serves my highest good, instead of giving into impulse in the moment. The key is not making yourself so busy or numbing how you feel with other rewarding behaviors (like internet shopping or Tinder-swiping) during this 24-hour period. This time is designed to give you a calm space to sit in how you are feeling, ask yourself what you really need, and create a plan to handle future temptations or dips in motivation in a more productive way.

Your strategy: Before you crack the bottle or open the wrapper, back away from the fridge or pantry and put yourself on a 24-hour hiatus from making any changes to your Whole30 plan. (Doesn’t that feel better already?) Continue your Whole30 as you were, keeping meals simple and decisions on auto-pilot. Once you’ve eaten a hearty Whole30 meal and feel more calm, think about the circumstances that preceded the temptation (were you anxious, lonely, bored, under-fed, or under-slept?) and make an If/Then plan for what you’ll do the next time this situation or feeling comes up. 

Putting  it all together

Your strategic plan of attack: Start with Tip 1—chances are, just this brief pause will help break the sugar or booze trance and you’ll be able to think more critically about the Whole30 promise you made to yourself. If one strategy isn’t enough to help you feel your feelings and think your decision through, move on to Tip 2. If neither of those work, move onto Tip 3… and for what it’s worth, Tip 3 has never failed me. Or, just jump into what feels the most effective for you—as long as you’re taking the decision out of that highly aroused state, you’ll give yourself the best chance possible to do the right thing for you.

So there you have it; three tips you can use during your Whole30 (or any habit change) to give yourself the time to pause, think calmly, and address your feelings so you can keep the promise you made to yourself, keep racking up those #NSVs, and finish your Whole30 strong. 

I know you’ve got this!