The diagram to the right shows the three nervous system states. Rest & Digest (a response of the parasympathetic system, also known as a ventral vagal state) presents as slow, deep breathing; a relaxed heart rate and a calm mind. The Fight and Flight response is our survival strategy (a response from the sympathetic nervous system), which presents as fast, shallow breathing; a racing heart, and a mind that is focused on survival. When we are in a sympathetic state, we are in a state of elevated stress and responsiveness, which also inhibits safe social engagement, openness, and compassion. The Freeze state (our dorsal vagal state) presents as a complete shutdown of the body’s systems, dissociation and the onset of emotions such as hopelessness and lack of interest. As humans, we have and will continue to experience all of these states and naturally shift through them. Unfortunately for those who have suffered from trauma they can spend too much time in the fight/flight or shut-down/freeze states, which has a negative impact physically, emotionally and mentally.
Understanding how trauma impacts on the brain, body and emotions allows you to consider how to take care of yourself if you are triggered while travelling. For example, engaging with a grounding exercise to bring you to the present moment and to shift you into the ventral vagal state would result in a sense of calmness. One grounding exercise you may find useful is the 5-4-3-2-1. To do this you need to actively scan your environment and to name 5 things that you see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Another way to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system is through breathing techniques. When you feel stressed or anxious, your breath naturally becomes shorter and more rapid, which reduces feelings of grounding and centering. Deep breathing exercises can be helpful in achieving a greater sense of grounding and relaxation.
How could travel benefit someone after trauma?
There is emerging evidence that suggests that travel has a positive impact on mental health (Fritz & Sonnentag 2006; 2007; Zirgy et al. 2011; Chen, Chun-Chu & Petrick, James, 2013). These studies have shown that travel can reduce stress through time away from work and other responsibilities. Travel allows you time to rest and digest and therefore to return to daily life refreshed and with more energy. Obviously, travel cannot eliminate difficulties associated with trauma but can offer you the space needed to relax and ground yourself. Avoidance is common following trauma because it can be difficult to sit with painful feelings, thoughts and memories. However, it is important to wilfully expose yourself to things outside your comfort zone, to teach the brain that places, people and situations it has associated with danger aren’t threatening. Although avoidance may help prevent you from becoming distressed in the short term, it is one of the main factors which keeps the problem going over a long time and can restrict your life, making you feel worse. Travel could be one way to work on reducing avoidance and to reconnect with something that really matters to you.
One thing that you may have noticed since experiencing trauma is that you don’t have the same level of joy doing things that you normally enjoyed. Trauma can cause changes in the reward pathways, which can mean that survivors anticipate less pleasure from different activities and may appear less motivated. However, travel can uncover new sights, sounds, and experiences that create new links between neurons in the brain (Eichenbaum et al. 1999). Therefore, a new environment and new experiences could activate the thinking systems that keep your brain healthy.
Are you ready to go?
One thing you want to be mindful of is your mental state before you go on a trip. If you experienced trauma recently then you may want to reach out to mental health services or a therapist for support. In therapy, you can work through your pain and learn some strategies to make you feel more in control of what is happening in your brain and body. Travelling to avoid dealing with your trauma could be the same experience or worse, so it is worth learning some tools to help you before embarking on a trip.
You may also want to consider where you are on your therapeutic journey when deciding to take a trip, as you don’t want to do too much too soon. It is important to get the balance between reducing avoidance and feeling safe. Perhaps a graded exposure approach would be of benefit i.e. a weekend away near home, a solo camping trip or a week away with friends and then work towards a longer trip or a trip further away from home.
If you feel now is the right time, then you may want to be mindful of what could happen when you are away. For example, you may notice a surge of uncomfortable emotions when you relax, because you are no longer distracted by day to day responsibilities. It can be a time when memories easily resurface. I wouldn’t see this as a negative, in fact it is an opportunity to process rather than avoid difficult feelings, thoughts or images. Being away from home may allow you the space and environment needed to begin to feel comfortable experiencing the uncomfortable feelings or thoughts associated with past trauma.
I think what is of the upmost importance is safety. You need to feel safe after what you have been through therefore consider what will enhance this feeling while travelling. Do you feel safer travelling alone or with someone else? Do you feel safer with a more planned or less planned trip? Are there places that bring you comfort and joy? Consider some of these questions and plan your travel around safety.
Another possibility is that everything goes smoothly on your travels but then when you return home you are retriggered, especially if this is where the trauma happened or the threat lies. Perhaps consider what you may need to readjust on your return, such as a few more days off work, some quiet time on your own or reconnecting with friends and family.
Where to go?
This mainly comes down to personal preference but I will reiterate- think about what makes you feel safe and grounded in the present. Perhaps also consider what you want to gain from the trip. For example, physical goals, emotional goals, clarity, calmness, to learn a new skill/hobby, to learn or practice another language, discover a different culture or see something incredible. One idea could be to plan to hike in the mountains, which could offer you clarity, stunning views and a sense of accomplishment. I found hiking to Macchu Picchu, Peru a deeply profound emotional experience, which allowed me to see things from a different perspective. I would highly recommend Macchu Picchu. Alternatively, you could volunteer abroad; the focus on helping others often makes us feel good and can give us a sense of purpose.
When I volunteered in a refuge in Mexico in 2007 I was conscious of how many people were volunteering in order to overcome their own traumatic experiences. We formed a special bond and supported each other through tough times. I feel like it was a privilege to care for children who had suffered so much and this experience shifted my perspective on aspects of my own life, something I believe that was echoed by fellow volunteers.