In my family we have two types of flyers:
A—The adventurous type, who is still uneasy at the idea of being in the air
B—The anxious type, who only takes trips because they enjoy traveling with type A
The result is that person A is often tasked to take care of person B prior to and during the flight. The benefit to person A is being able to continue to take trips with someone they love, while also learning invaluable coping mechanisms that are useful to just about every person on this planet.
The points below are collaborative conclusions of two people traveling with mental illness for the past 10+ years now together.
Travel is Not a Cure for Mental Health Ailments
This seems pretty basic but I have to point it out because too many times I have heard well-meaning people say things like, “you just need to get out more.” Meaning being outside would magically fix someone’s mental illness. I (and others living with anxiety, etc) wish it were that simple. But, that is not how our minds work. Unbalanced chemicals and similar issues will remain with you, no matter where you are. Yes, getting out there helps your mind reach new spaces, and for some, might even be the long-needed jolt, but that is by far, not the case for all.
That’s why I like to set realistic goals for the expected outcome of a trip well before tickets are booked.
I avoid setting the following expectations for my trip:
- Expecting to not feel depressed during the trip
- Expecting to not have any episode/stop having panic attacks, etc
In favor of things like:
- Learning at least one thing everyday
- Reigniting my relationship with my significant other
It's ok to be nervous that a panic attack or other sudden illness can ruin your time away, but let’s dive deeper into what the word “ruin” means to us in this instance. Many things can go wrong during a trip: luggage gets lost, passports get torn or wet. In order to avoid panicking, embrace the fact that depression and anxiety might come up just as any other nuisance when on the road, and since you cannot tell the future, there is no way to know how well something will go.
Worrying about the worst, will not make it less likely to happen. Considering this, spending your trip being stressed will create memories full of such stress and anxiety. If you focus on relaxing, you will come home feeling refreshed, because it’s what you spent most of your time doing.
Adjusting your expectations in favor of things you can control will leave you more likely to enjoy yourself too. That feeling of emptiness doesn’t go away just because thousands were spent on travel, no matter what aunt Becky said. Your brain will not reprogram itself to avoid feeling as though you are drowning when you’re on dry land just because you want it to.
Mental illness occurs whether or not it’s convenient for us, just like any other illness (I know people who have gotten the Flu during their honeymoon). Someone with diabetes wouldn’t consider the trip wasted because they had a diabetic emergency. In the same way, you cannot hang the expectation on yourself or your partner that your mental health will stay perfect because you only have this week away from home.
Find an appropriate travel buddy if your partner isn’t ready
There are certain medical conditions that make flying, for example, all but impossible at points.
I am a huge proponent of not letting your mental illness stop you from living your life to the fullest, but if someone is just not ready to take the huge step of confronting a debilitating fear, it is best to find a more suitable travel buddy for the moment.
Ask your friends, maybe they also have spouses who also don’t enjoy travel and who have been itching to go somewhere. Maybe it’s time to take a solo adventure or find a tour to join. That’s okay. There is no need to exacerbate conditions just to say you went somewhere. It’s way better of an experience if both of you feel right.
However, if traveling together is something you both dream of doing, there is no reason to let mental illness stop you. This is one of the few occasions where it’s not at all like a broken foot. There are therapy and other options specifically designed to help you get there. Literally.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is just one of the many options at your disposal to help assist someone who is afraid of flying or experiences panic attacks at the mere idea of being in an enclosed space in the sky for hours at a time. Lookup a therapist nearby. Keep in mind that something like fear of flying might require no more than 4-6 sessions to get through in most cases.
Know That Being Afraid is Totally Okay
If you think about flying as being the awful process I mentioned above—that make anyone become terrified. Consider the fact that some fear accompanying flight is totally normal. Humans aren’t exactly naturally predisposed to flight. It’s ok to be nervous or a bit scared, even if you understand the science perfectly and realize that the odds of anything bad happening are minimal.
Create a Mantra
I don’t say this to shamelessly push yoga/meditation onto anyone. Anyone can use a mantra, no other physical piece attached. If you know you tend to be overly logical, find some facts about flying that ease you, which you can then repeat to yourself. If you know you are going to do something fun at your destination, write 3 of them down and then think about them whenever you feel yourself getting a bit worked up. This will be the mental space you can retreat to whether you are on the plane or prior to your trip when you’re getting pre-travel jitters.
Itineraries, Budgeting and Learning New Stuff
These are all incredible tools to beat that nagging fear of the unknown. Budgeting I find to be priority one of the three, as I have seen many friends want to turn back and cancel all of their hard plans when they get to closer to departure time and realize that the trip is more expensive than they planned. My rule here? Well, I nabbed it off the cover of a travel planner I have at home: “pack half as little as you think you need and twice as much money.” You want to enjoy your trip, and having to penny-pinch instead of knowing it’s in your budget to buy that nice souvenir will create a whole new atmosphere. So, in all, budget before you buy those tickets.
Next comes your itinerary. Google trips and Google maps make this incredibly easy to pull off. I am sure there are tons of other incredible planning tools out there, but both of those are free and easy to use, so start there. Plan out some dinners. Feel like planning takes the fun out of things? Then just set a few landmarks and fly [see what I did there?] by the seat of your pants for the rest.
Language barriers melt away with Google Translate, but learning some basics will help create some confidence in your ability to fend for yourself while you’re away. It will also give you another thing to focus on should you find yourself panicking a bit. Have fun with it, make some notecards and study them and quiz your partner. It’s a great bonding experience too. Leave notes around the house on top of objects with their name in the other language. Staying local? Look up some things about the local environment, become a know it all about the flowers that grow where you’re going. Research something weird you might find in the area. Knowledge is fun!
Talk to your doctor about which medications you can take.
Yes, talk to them even if you plan on using something over the counter. I personally don’t travel without Cannabidiol or CBD anymore [link features sponsored content, where the author receives kickback for every purchase. Use code “Mxiety” for 10% off]. But some people find taking a Benadryl or Zquil will do the trick for them. I say talk to your doctor because they might suggest a prescription that can help too if your anxiety is VERY severe.
Finally, here comes the cheesiest, most obvious and stumbled upon advice I can offer. Have freaking fun. You have a mental illness, you’re not dead. And for that matter, life is too short to only know the 15-mile radius around your house.