Sure, doctor’s advice is important and all. But when you’re dealing with a health issue, sometimes the most helpful hacks come not from the experts or the science, but from the people who have been living every day with the same issue. Here are their tried-and-true workarounds.
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I've always found it difficult to have an amazing time on vacation. There's something in the combination of knowing I'm dropping a bunch of money, having a limited number of days in which to have an optimal experience, and dealing with the process of getting there—including flight delays and lost luggage (both of which seem to happen to me with uncanny frequency)—that can make it feel kind of impossible to fully enjoy.
People who don’t deal with anxiety the way I do can struggle to enjoy vacation, or even develop vacation depression. So what about those of us with mental illness? Vacation is both a disruption in routine and a command to enjoy every moment; a combination that rarely goes well with something like an anxiety disorder.
Yet studies tell us that using vacation days is good for mental and physical health. So rather than give up on them, there must be a way to get away without creating more mental distress.
I recently went on my first vacation in five years, and surprised myself by not letting anxiety completely dominate my trip. As it turns out, having traveled a lot for work in the previous few years had allowed me to develop tools that actually helped transform my vacation. Instead of gritting my teeth, staring into the mirror, and ordering myself to have fun and relax, I was able to somewhat overcome the usual vacation unease and have a nice time. Here are my new vacation tenets:
I acknowledge that I am the same person on vacation as I am at home.
I used to think that the point of vacation was to have no schedule at all, live in the moment, stay up late, sleep late, and find the time to see the cultural sites I wanted to, all in the same chill trip. This led to total catastrophe because frankly, I hate not having a plan. The first day, I would inevitably pretend like I was ok with it; around day three I would erupt in panic about what I’m even doing and what’s going to happen next.
When I'm not on vacation, I eat the same thing for breakfast every day. I generally know each activity—social or not—that I’m going to do in advance. This doesn't change when I'm on vacation. The number one strategy I use to able to enjoy time away is to come to terms with this fact: I am the same person on vacation as I am at home. This sounds obvious, but it has taken me years to learn.
Going to Hawaii or Thailand or Disneyland or London doesn’t magically transform me into an anxiety-less person, and expecting myself to suddenly be free of the anxiety shackles I wear every day just leads to frustration and disappointment.
Now, I make a plan. I make an itinerary for each day and write down what I’d like to do, where I’d like to eat, and look up how I’m going to get there. I keep, roughly, the same waking, sleeping, and eating schedule that I do at home. Importantly, I don’t overload each day. It’s just a guide, so that I know at least the bare minimum of what I’m going to be doing. This helps me avoid total meltdown.
I accept that my travel companion and I don't have to do all the same things
Maybe you’re thinking that traveling with me sounds super annoying, because everything has to be planned out. But my planning exists for me, and it doesn't have to extend beyond me. My partner is my opposite in many ways: He doesn’t like scheduling ahead, and doesn’t need to know what’s going to happen each day. How do we make vacationing together work? We recognize that it’s normal to spend some time apart, rather than being glued to the hip. (“We don’t do this in our daily lives, and the sudden change to this during a vacation can be a shock to a relationship,” said Angela M. Durko, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s department of recreation, park and tourism sciences, in a recent New York Times article about traveling with a significant other.)
Since we’re not expecting to spend every second together, it makes it easier for me to maintain my schedule and take down time when I need it. I like to get up early, while my partner likes to sleep in. Instead of forcing myself to stay up late—which makes me anxious—or lying in bed until he wakes up, we respect each other’s sleeping schedules. I’ll have the mornings to myself to eat my usual breakfast, then go on a walk or do yoga. At night, we’ll eat dinner together, but he will go out and explore after I’ve gone to bed. During the day, he’s usually cool to go along with whatever I had planned, because we have a lot of the same interests. But if there was ever a conflict, we’d be ok with splitting up, and rejoining each other later for drinks and to talk about what we saw.
This is probably something to talk to your partner about before your vacation, to make sure you're on the same page. If they don't like the idea of you doing your own thing to avoid anxious flare ups, it might be worth having a deeper conversation about what it means for you to have anxiety before you go away together.
I maintain somewhat healthy practices
This is boring advice, but unavoidably helpful when traveling: Don't throw all your healthy habits out the window. I love to try restaurants and drink local wines when I'm in a new place, but the effect on my mind from drinking every night, not exercising, and not eating anything green is overwhelming after a few days. I've learned the hard way that forcing myself to indulge because "that's what vacation is for" leaves me feeling worse than if I had strived for balance. Now, I drink plenty of water, only drink alcohol if I really want to, and try to go on a long walk or do a short workout in my room in the morning. I watch yoga videos on YouTube, or do these great 10 or 15 minute HIIT workouts that are designed to be done in small spaces, like hotel rooms.
I also keep my regular therapy sessions, especially if I'm going to be gone longer than a week. It can be tricky to schedule between activities and time-zone differences, but consider setting up a phone session a few days into vacation. It might be all you need to let out pent-up worries and anxieties midway and get perspective from someone not on vacation. Then you can return to your trip mentally rejuvenated.
I choose accommodations that I can use as a home base
Within reason, I’ve started to make fewer budget-driven compromises to make sure that whatever happens, I have a place to return to where I feel comfortable. Otherwise it can seem like there's no respite: If I feel anxious during the day, and return back to a cramped, shared Air Bnb or hostel, I’ll spiral and feel like nowhere is safe.
This will look different for everyone. I’ve found that when I travel alone, I prefer to stay in hotels and have the amenities and support on hand if I need them. When I travel with friends or my partner, I choose Air Bnb so that we have more space, and access to a kitchen. I value my privacy, so when I travel, I’ve nixed any shared spaces for now. If you're the opposite, and get more anxious when you’re isolated, take that into consideration when booking.
Because of my obsessive nature around planning, I also try to stay in places that are centrally located, so that I can walk everywhere and not be anticipating a long commute home each night. Also, I can over-worry about cleanliness, so even if it costs a few extra bucks, I try to stay in places that look clean. Don’t have guilt about this, please. I used to think that I was a diva, or had too many requirements. But there’s a time and place to rough it, and a six-day vacation isn’t the situation to challenge yourself at the expense of the whole trip.
I don't make vacation the time to tackle my phobias
I’m constantly working on my anxiety, and OCD, which is my particular flavor of anxiety disorder. I have many specific phobias that I talk about in therapy weekly, try to challenge and understand, or select which ones are inhibiting and which ones I should offer compassion to. It can be a lot of work, but vacation is not the time to do this work.
While traveling, I put that all on hold, in a way. I don’t try any new challenges that might upset me or ruin the limited time that I have. For example: One of my obsessions has to do with food safety and refrigerator temperatures. At home, I have a thermometer in my fridge so that I can always check what the temp is and assure myself that my food isn’t contaminated. When I travel, instead of ignoring this compulsion and trying to ignore it while in a new place, I simply bring a small fridge thermometer with me and do the same while abroad. This may seem a little much, but the peace of mind it brings me is worth it, and it’s not difficult to throw a three inch thermometer into my carry-on bag. Again, you’ve only got a handful of days. Save these kinds of exposure exercises for home, when there’s not a countdown clock over your head.
I accept who I am
None of these tips will help you if you're constantly judging yourself for what you need. I like to have a plan, go to bed early, do yoga, eat kinda healthy—maybe this doesn't sound like vacation to you. But I find if I start in on the self-loathing, calling myself inflexible or boring or no fun, it's counter-productive. If I cut myself some slack, I find I'm able to explore a brand new place, and maybe even get some much-desired R&R. For those of us with anxiety, you know that is a rare occurrence. Do what you need to do to claim it.
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