If you plan properly and implement good coping strategies ahead of time, you can take steps to keep your symptoms under control and still enjoy traveling.
Traveling can be an amazing way to see new places, experience different things and make lasting memories with family and friends. But as anyone who has traveled before knows, it takes a lot of planning and preparation, and there are almost always bumps along the way. Whether it’s lost luggage with an airline, exhaustion from the long days of sightseeing or a bout of food poisoning, anything is possible when you travel.
These bumps in the road can be even more challenging if you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unfamiliar places, unpredictable schedules, loud noises and crowded spaces can trigger PTSD symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and fatigue.
If you have PTSD, traveling can be difficult, but it doesn’t mean you have to stay at home. If you plan properly and implement good coping strategies ahead of time, you can take steps to keep your symptoms under control and still enjoy traveling.
How Can I Manage My PTSD While Traveling?
If you have PTSD, just the thought of traveling may seem overwhelming. You may wonder if you’ll be able to handle a large crowd at the airport. You may worry that your symptoms will be triggered by a loud noise or a certain smell. You may be scared to step out of your comfort zone. These are all normal feelings when you’re thinking about traveling to a new place.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a lot of tips on managing your PTSD and developing personal coping skills. Check out the tips below to learn ways to manage your PTSD that you can apply during your next trip:
- Figure out what your triggers are. According to VA, trauma reminders or triggers are places, people, sounds or situations that can trigger a memory of your trauma and cause symptoms such as flashbacks, anger or anxiety. When you’re traveling, it’s difficult to know exactly what situations might trigger you. It’s important to put a plan in place to manage what you do know. For example, if you’re triggered by loud noises, carry headphones with you. If you fear large groups of people, consider traveling during off-peak travel times when it’s less crowded.
- Plan ahead. The more you can plan, the less stressed out you will be about the unknown. For example, if you don’t like eating in loud places, consider lodging that offers a kitchen to cook your own meals. If you’re worried about taking transportation that’s crowded, research what other options there are for travel. Can you rent a bike or a car on your own?
- Take care of things at home. Before you leave, consider what you have to get done to make things run smoothly while you’re gone. Think about bills that will be due, plants that need watering or anything else that needs to get done while you’re away.
- Find ways to limit potentially stressful situations. Traveling almost always comes with some stress, but planning for it can help. For example, arrive early at the airport to avoid long lines. You can ask to board a plane or bus early if you need time to relax once you’re seated. If you’re worried about the unfamiliar places, you can view videos of the hotel or use Google Street View or another resource to look up some of the places you’ll be going.
- Do some small test runs. Don’t make your first trip a week-long family vacation overseas. Instead, try a couple of smaller trips close to home. Maybe a day trip or an overnight stay somewhere close by to see how it goes. Expose yourself to a restaurant or put yourself in a crowd to see how you respond. These small trips can help you build up your confidence for traveling.
- Keep up with your treatment plan. If you’re in therapy or on medication, make sure to determine ahead of time how you can keep up with your treatment plan. Can you do video calls with your health care provider? Do you have a number to call if you need to reach someone immediately? Do you have enough medication to get you through the entire trip, or if weather or another emergency extends the trip by a day or two?
- Determine what coping techniques work best for you. It’s important to establish a few coping techniques you can use while traveling. Maybe it’s putting on a pair of headphones and listening to a calming playlist to help you relax. Maybe it’s writing in a journal to keep track of your emotions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests trying the 5-5-5 technique to help you stay present and remain grounded if you’re triggered into a flashback. For this technique, you name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
- Prioritize your well-being. What do you need to make the trip successful? For example, if you need time alone, make sure you don’t feel pressured to join every group outing. If you need eight hours or more of sleep to function at your best, make sleep a priority. If exercise helps you calm down at home, book a hotel with a gym or walk when you can if you’re sightseeing.
- Let others know how to help. If you’re traveling with friends or family, talk to them beforehand about the best ways they can help you deal with your PTSD if something arises. If you get anxious in a public place, they can help locate a quiet place to help you gain control of your emotions. If you start to experience severe symptoms, they can contact your mental health care provider.
- Get the support you deserve. If your PTSD symptoms continue to interfere with your life at home or your ability to travel for business or pleasure, consider seeking additional help. VA offers details about PTSD treatment programs, including types of therapy, different medications and more. Work with someone who specializes in PTSD to get the treatment that’s right for you.
- VA offers several mobile apps that may be helpful to download and use while traveling. Check out apps like the PTSD Coach, Mindfulness Coach, Insomnia Coach and more.
- VA also offers self-help and coping tools that you may find useful. Learn more about peer support groups, mindfulness practice, healthy coping strategies and more.
- AboutFace provides facts about PTSD, information about treatment options and personal stories from Veterans, family members and VA clinicians about coping with PTSD.
- NAMI has several resources related to PTSD, including Tips to Stay Mentally Healthy While Traveling.
If you’re dealing with PTSD, you don’t have to give up traveling. Try the tips above and get the support you deserve to start planning your next trip.