By Dr Charlotte Russell and Dr Jill Dunbar, Clinical Psychologists
Here at the Travel Psychologist we write a lot about the psychological benefits of travel and we believe that these benefits should be accessible to everyone. But when you have difficulties with mental health it is important to think carefully about how to manage this before you jet-off.
To help you to manage your mental health when you travel, we’ve put together this advice guide. This is general advice which we hope will be helpful, however every piece of advice may not be applicable for everyone. We would advise you to speak to your GP or mental health professional if you are feeling unsure or if you would like advice on your specific situation and difficulties.
Part 1 of this guide will focus on preparation for your trip. Part 2, focusing on coping while you are away, will be published later this month.
Is my mental health stable?
Travel comes with a lot of change, new situations and stresses so it is important that your mental health is stable before you travel. Signs that your mental health is stable would include you having consistent routines, eating and exercising regularly, maintaining good relationships and being able to manage your work and home life. When your mental health is more stable you will feel more able to deal with challenging situations, and you won’t avoid them. Of course situations might feel stressful, and that’s ok, but you feel able to deal with them constructively and have ways to wind down.
If you are under the care of a mental health team it is important to collaborate with your team and to ask their opinion on your travel plans.
Knowing and understanding your triggers
Having a good understanding of your triggers can help you to know how to cope with situations that you may find challenging. Your triggers will be individual to you and based on the kind of difficulties you experience.
· Anxiety triggers may be crowds, new situations, social situations or your own body sensations.
· Triggers when you have an eating disorder may be related to food or needing to dress differently on holiday.
· Triggers for low mood can include relationships, such as situations where we may feel invalidated or judged by others, or situations that might trigger self-criticism.
· Triggers for trauma will depend heavily on the type or types of trauma you have experienced.
If you are unaware of your triggers it is likely that you will struggle to cope with them effectively. Psychological therapy can be an effective way to help you to recognise your triggers, understand how and why they have developed, and to help you build ways of coping. If you don’t have a good understanding of your triggers I would advise you to consider accessing therapy as a first step.
Have a plan to cope if you are triggered
Once you have a good understanding of your triggers, you can start to plan how you will cope if you feel triggered. Your plan might include grounding-techniques or relaxation techniques. You might take yourself away from the situation if you can. For situations such as airports and planes where you will be confined, make sure you have a selection of activities to keep you entertained such as books, music, podcasts and videos downloaded to watch on your phone.
Some airlines encourage individuals with anxiety or other mental health challenges to let them know in advance of travel so that they can assist you if necessary. Keep in mind that cabin crew are trained to deal with emergency situations and the more information they have the better. If you think you may have a panic attack while flying, call the airline in advance and they will inform the cabin crew that you may need extra support. It can also be helpful to write down a small note explaining what is happening and what help you need which you can then pass to the cabin crew if necessary. Try to prepare a small, easily accessible pack to help you. This could include a small bottle of water, emergency medication, a sensory grounding aid such as a sweetie or soft piece of fabric, and a written mantra to help you focus and soothe.
We would encourage you to spend time at the planning stage to do this, as this will enable you to feel prepared and more relaxed when it is time to set off.
Consider your destination choice
Your triggers on holiday may be similar to what you experience at home, or they may be different because of differences in the culture, weather, your accommodation and the kinds of activities you’ll be doing.
It is helpful to try and ensure a good fit between your needs and your destination choice. If you feel anxious in crowds it would probably not be advisable to visit a busy destination like Venice in peak season. Likewise there may be destinations that are a better fit for your needs.
As an example, over the years we have met several clients who have spent time on islands in Thailand after a experiencing traumatic events, and have found this to be very therapeutic. Our impression is that the gentle and non-confrontational culture in Thailand was helpful in these instances. This may not be the solution for everyone, but we would encourage you to think about whether the destination you are visiting is a good fit for your needs.
There are times when we don’t have full control over our destination, so if whatever reason you are visiting a destination that doesn’t seem a good fit, think about how you will manage if you do feel triggered or overwhelmed. This might involve ensuring that you have accommodation with your own private space that you can retreat to if things get too much.
Finding out about your destination and planning
Having information about where you are staying and the activities available can help you to feel reassured. Many people find it helpful to research their destination in some detail beforehand and to read blog posts and guides. This can be helpful, but be aware if you start to become overly focused on reviews or planning to the point that you feel wound up. Some information is helpful but too much information can send us in to overload and worry.
Time zone considerations
Travelling across different time zones can be a challenge for our mental health, and for most of us it will impact on our mood considerably. So think carefully about travelling to long-haul destinations and whether this is right for you.
If you decide to travel long haul, prepare yourself as much as you can by following our guide How can psychology help us to manage jet lag?
Talk to you travel companions
If you are travelling with a partner, friends or family members talk to them about how they can best support you. If you know that you will feel bored and agitated sitting on the beach all day, explain to them that you like to get out and explore. Likewise if you know that you might need to take time out alone to recharge, explain this.
It is helpful to be clear about our needs and to explain beforehand when we are calm. This is much better than trying to explain when you might already be feeling frustrated or wound up.
If you take regular medication for your mental health, ensure you have enough to cover the length of your trip, and extra in case you are delayed at your destination. It is not a good idea to stop taking medication whilst you are in any new situation so make sure you take your dose regularly as prescribed.
There are restrictions on certain medications in some countries. For further information see this guide from the International Association Medical Assistance to Travellers.
If you have a mental health diagnosis, it is important to ensure that your travel insurance covers this. This is particularly important if you have ever had a mental health admission or if you have experienced a mental health crisis in the past.
We hope you have found this helpful. You can find part 2 of this guide, ‘coping whilst you are away‘ here.