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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stacey Chimimba Ault

Hit these international streets: 10 tips to make traveling with mental health less stressful and more restful

Restful Leadership Travel Edition Part 1

Did y’all see that reel that said something like “I thought I had depression, turns out it was just America”? It was accompanied by gorgeous travel pics that had me literally checking prices for a tropical unwind.  

When I thought more about it later (as we all do, right? being critical can be exhausting) I started thinking about how privileged I am to be able to hit these international streets, and contemplating what it is actually like traveling with depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, and other mental health issues or hidden disability.  There is evidence that shows that travel can rewire your brain, increase happy hormones like dopamine and serotonin, and can be good for your mental health.

Travel can allow for amazing experiences and delightful memories, but travel doesn’t always positively impact your mental health issues, and can sometimes make things harder.  According to the CDC, people who have mental health challenges can experience more symptoms while traveling. 

I have high-functioning anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and racialized traumatic stress.  I also have a deep, intimate, and complicated relationship with fear and grief, and try as I might, I can’t outrun either one of them.  I also have loved ones who have mental health diagnoses. And … we all love to travel! This means I have learned a lot about what strategies have helped me and my lil friends maintain our mental health. Hopefully, these ideas will help you on your next trip so you can hit these streets and keep Ms. Anxiety, or whoever else be trying to roll with you, in check.

  1. Communicate with others.  Before, during, and after your trip.  Practice telling the truth maybe even more boldly than you do at home.  Remind people if you are struggling and let them know that you may continue to do so while traveling.  Ask them to be gentle with you and give you spaciousness. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself.  Prioritize rest, whatever that looks like for you.  Remember rest is more than just sleeping.  Check out Restful Leadership for more rest-related resources.

  2. Plan ahead.  Here are some things that might help:

    1. Plan your trip out as much as you can.  This can reduce stress and allow you to benefit from the anticipation of travel.  A 2002 study by the University of Surrey in the U.K. assessed the sense of well-being in two groups of people — those with a vacation planned and those without — and found those who were waiting to go on a holiday were much happier with life as a whole and reported experiencing fewer negative and unpleasant feelings.

    2. I started using the Wanderlust app to organize my reservations because I have anxiety about losing something.  When I am really on top of my shit I print things out (because, y’know, mapquest).  I also download the apps for my airlines and share my phone number to get notifications and updates. 

    3. Using an intersectional lens, do some research to see how people with your unique identifiers are treated in the country you are planning to visit.  Green Book Global has reviews for traveling while Black and Travel Noir is a good place to find travel guides.  Racism can trigger anxiety and microaggressions are exhausting, so it is good to know what to expect.  It is also important to know if a space is queer-friendly, safe for women and femmes, and/or has mental health resources in case you need them.

    4. Talk to your psychiatrist, doctor, and, or therapist before you travel, so that you can best prepare.  Create a travel safety plan that lists what you will do if you have a mental health episode while you travel. Share it with your people (both those on the trip and those back at home).  Get a letter from your doctor that explains your condition and medication needs.  If you already have a safety plan you can use this template.  If not, create one here.

    5. Make sure you have prescription medications available.  Check the location that you are visiting to make sure your prescription medicines are permitted.  If you use cannabis or other non-prescription meds to ease your mental health symptoms make sure the products are legal in the place you are visiting and/or during travel.  For example, you can’t take weed on the plane, so you will need to scope out a safe, reputable, legal business to purchase cannabis products if you need them.  This ain’t your community, so don’t take any chances.  Remember Brittany Griner? Yea, Black women will fight for you to come home, but we would rather not have to. Figure out your options before you travel.

    6. Obtain travel insurance, yea the optional coverage we almost always decline when we are booking a trip because it adds to the cost.  Depending on your disability, having medical costs covered will at least give you one less thing to worry about.

    7. If you have a mental health crisis while traveling, your embassy can help you navigate the local healthcare system and notify your friends and family.  This is especially important if you are traveling solo.  Do some research to understand what resources are available before you travel and don't be afraid to share your doctor's letter and safety plan with your embassy representative.

    8. Enroll in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyard scheme which is “an initiative designed to act as a discrete sign that somebody has a hidden disability and requires additional assistance while out in public”.  This tool allows you to voluntarily share that you have a hidden disability. Simply by wearing the Sunflower, you’re just letting everyone know that you might need extra help, understanding, or just more time. 

    9. Pack a sensory/rest kit.  I already mentioned my straw, I also carry lavender, smelling it helps me calm down.  Headphones are a must and I’m careful to listen to my regular playlist as it is familiar.  One of my daughters never travels without her favorite blanket, and another one has her psychiatric service animal (which we are all convinced has as much anxiety as her - we will definitely write more about this!).   A sensory kit is a way to self-soothe with familiar materials.  Many people use the five senses as a guide, and may include fidget spinners, stress balls, incense, and eye masks for sleeping.

  3. Maintain your rituals and routines as much as you can.  If you take medications or supplements, talk to your doctor about whether you should take them at the same time (you may need to set alarms if traveling internationally) or switch to morning/night in the new time zone.  I sip tea, journal, meditate and pray every morning, even when (especially when) I’m traveling.   I also journal as part of my morning and evening rituals.  Even if you’re not a journaler, processing through writing can help you process and move things from your head to your paper. It may also help you look back later and remember this moment.  This article started in my notes app/journal as I was processing some of my travel thoughts.  My nighttime ritual also involves a hot shower in the dark, and lavender on my pillow.  I have lavender in my rest kit (as you know by now, lol).  This article I wrote about self-care can help you learn more about creating rituals and maintaining routines. 

  4. While traveling, don’t pressure yourself to “feel” better - focus on just “feeling”. Notice the feelings you have and honor them.  If you need to cry, do so.  If happiness or excitement are feelings that elude you, that’s ok.  Don’t try to force them.  Practice just being, however, and wherever you are. If anxiety emerges, return to your breath.  Try this simple practice: Take a deep breath, filling your lungs and stomach with air.  Put your hand on your chest and hold anxiety here for a moment (remember she just wants to keep you safe).  Breathe out for as long as you can.  Empty all the anxiety from your body.  Breathing through a straw if you have one helps. I have a bamboo straw that hangs around my neck when I travel.  I also recommend practicing your breathing for at least a few weeks before you travel, so your body/muscle memory understands what to do when you need to.  

  5. Drink a lot of water.  No seriously,  I know you may not want to go pee in public restrooms, but hydration is a key to your mental and physical health. You know your body, so plan accordingly. Traveling by air can make you dehydrated, so drink water (no ice) on the plane.  In addition, make time to sit by some water or immerse yourself in water.  Water is healing.  If you are on a tropical vacation this will be easier.   If not, walk by a stream or river. Take long showers and baths.  If you can light a candle or turn the light off, it will help you decompress at the end of the day.  You can also play water sounds as you sleep.  This will trick your brain into relaxing in a similar way as it would if you were literally watching rain trickle down your window.   

  6. Eat veggies and fruit.  Sometimes when we are eating out, we forget this and wonder why our bodies are rebelling.  It is also ok to eat familiar food. I know when you’re traveling you want to try new things, and sometimes the familiar can help you ground yourself.  Scope out what you want to eat ahead of time.  We don’t talk enough about the anxiety that comes when you are hungry or unsure if there is food you can eat/will like.  Your travel companions may want to try fancy local food, if you know that gives you anxiety say that! You may also be able to compromise and eat before you go to the fancy restaurant, and then spend your time with an appetizer enjoying the company. 

  7. Take a lot of pictures - even though you may not “feel’ as though you are enjoying yourself, looking back at pics when you are home will remind you how powerful your experience really was.  Also when you are depressed, you tend to minimize the good things.  Pictures can remind you that good things do exist.  And good things do exist with you in them.  Looking at the pictures can increase serotonin.  Combining this with journaling or meditation can allow you to engage in a gratitude or positivity practice that is evidenced to support your healing and positive mental health. 

  8. Get outside and if you are able, move your body outside.  Even if you don’t feel like leaving the hotel, try to get a walk in every day and touch some dirt, a tree, some sand.  If it’s cold, bundle up. If it’s too hot to walk far see if the hotel has a treadmill. Stretch your body in your room, or join a yoga class. Moving allows you to transfer energy throughout your body. Nature has the ability to do the same. Both of these things decrease cortisol (the stress hormone).  My grandbaby and I went to a yogalates class on a recent trip to The Eaton, Washington DC.   Not only was the class so good she went back after I left, it set the tone for the day and allowed us to appreciate the time we had in the city and the time we had together. 

  9. Don’t try to jam everything in.  Make a list of things you will do when you come back next time.  In fact, visiting a location more than one time can reduce some of the anxiety that newness brings, and allow you to enjoy a familiar place.  A 2020  study from South Korea, interviewed 225 tourists who traveled overseas and found that, on average, life satisfaction rose 15 days before travel and lasted for about one month after returning home.  Reviewing your to-do list and planning your next holiday can improve your wellness long after your trip is over.

  10. Don’t try to meet everyone else’s needs, or feel bad if you are sad, depressed, anxious or frustrated. You might be quiet and sullen; angry and irritated, or a wide variety of other emotions. It will help to communicate with others as clearly and succinctly as possible before you travel so that your travel companions can manage their expectations.  If you like to sleep in, let them know.  If you are looking forward to a mid-day nap, make sure it is in the itinerary.  If you need to take time to adjust to your new environment before you hit the streets, build that in. 

Overall, traveling with mental health challenges is very rewarding and incredibly brave.  It has been life-changing for me and my lil friends, and does wonders for my mental health to be outside of the US or the UK for periods of time. 

Let us know if any of these strategies or tools resonate with you, or if you have any suggestions I might be missing. We would love to hear them in the comments below. Part 2 will include all your tips!

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