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When Meredith R., 28, prepared to go on her meticulously planned vacation to Paris, she wasn’t thinking too much about her mental health. In fact, she kind of hoped her depression and anxiety would take a vacation of their own while she was living out a lifelong dream. How could I be anything but happy in Paris? she thought. “I didn’t realize it until after the fact, but as I was planning, I was working around a very specific fantasy of what my vacation would look like,” she tells SELF. “That fantasy didn’t involve me being depressed or anxious.”
But Meredith’s mental illnesses didn’t take a break just so she could enjoy her vacation. She had her first panic attack after navigating crowds to climb the stairs to a lookout point at Sacré-Cœur. “I was so thrown for the rest of the trip,” she says. “I was even more anxious because I thought another panic attack could strike at any time, and I got caught in a hell of a negative thought spiral about how my trip was ruined, which was basically a flytrap for my depression. It was awful.”
Looking back, Meredith says she wishes she had planned ahead instead of just hoping for the best where her mental health was concerned. Experts typically agree that that’s a smart call no matter your history of mental illness because travel can be stressful or triggering for just about anybody, Claire Westmacott, M.P.H., a research specialist with the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT), tells SELF. “Traveling can get overwhelming quite quickly,” she says. “The process—like jet lag [and] navigating airports, unfamiliar places, and crowds—can all be physically and mentally taxing.”
It’s so, so normal to be overly optimistic about how your mental health will fare on vacation. “A common misunderstanding among some people with depression, anxiety, or other conditions is that when I leave my surroundings, my problems will also leave,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. “Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Your [condition] will likely come with you.”
With that in mind, we talked to experts and travelers who have been there about their best tips for protecting your mental health while on the go. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Create a stress-relief tool kit.
It’s helpful to plan ahead for how you’ll deal with things like travel anxiety. You can keep it simple.
“If deep breathing, positive affirmations, seeking support, exercise, or journaling worked for you at home, it will probably work for you on vacation,” says Howes. The same goes for things like clutching stress balls, listening to grounding playlists, watching downloaded episodes of your favorite shows, or whatever you use to practice self-care on a regular basis.
If you don’t know where to start, try packing a journal, which Howes says can be an incredible tool. “Writing a journal helps you tame the tsunami of activity [of a trip] and forces all those feelings and experiences into a linear narrative,” he says. “By journaling, you’re beginning to write the story you’ll tell your friends about the trip when you return, which helps you feel more in control and grounded.”
2. Make plans for checking in with loved ones.
Even if you don’t anticipate being hit with a wave of homesickness, being away from everything that’s familiar to you can be unexpectedly stressful. “For some people, travel can feel like you’re floating in space, untethered from your day-to-day world, and this is scary,” says Howes.
Do what you need to do ahead of time to make sure you can check in with people back home, especially if you know for sure that will bring you some comfort. Make sure you have the right phone plan so you can call, text, or FaceTime from wherever you’re going. (Bonus: Sorting this out ahead of time means you won’t wind up with a surprisingly high, anxiety-inducing phone bill when you’re back.) You might also want to give your friends or family a heads-up that you anticipate wanting to say hey occasionally or even regularly. When depression, anxiety, or unhelpful mental health thoughts kick in, it can be easy to convince yourself not to “burden” other people. Planning in advance and getting reinforcement that they can’t wait to hear from you can help mitigate that.
“[Check in] to remind yourself there are people at home who miss you and are holding down the fort,” says Howes.
3. Talk to your mental health care provider before you go.
If you’re worried about your mental health while traveling due to past experiences or because you deal with a mental illness, Westmacott suggests making an appointment with your mental-health-care provider or even your general practitioner before you go. Use it as an opportunity to make sure you’re mentally and physically fit for the type of traveling you plan to do and to make a game plan. “Really take this time to talk about any anxieties you have about the trip and make sure you have good coping mechanisms in place,” says Westmacott.
Just like with your friends or family, you can also ask to keep in touch with your care provider during your trip and schedule regular check-ins. On that note...
4. Consider signing up for a teletherapy service.
Elisa D., 39, learned this lesson while traveling in Prague for three months. She had an unexpected mental health crisis set off by the dour winter weather and social isolation. “I cried heartily—like heaving, sobbing, fetal-position cries—every day for at least an hour for almost a month straight,” she tells SELF. “I left my apartment only to get beans and rice and an apple danish from the corner market 30 feet from my front door.”
At the time Elisa didn’t have the bandwidth to seek help, a reality anyone who has been in the throes of a depressive or anxious episode knows well. Since returning from Prague, she’s signed up for BetterHelp, an online therapy portal. She recommends it, or similar services like TalkSpace or even short-term resources like the Crisis Text Line, for anyone who is traveling and worried about their mental health. Armed with her teletherapist, Elisa continues to travel regularly.
Even if you already have a therapist, it’s worth asking them if they’ll consider doing teletherapy appointments while you’re away if you think that might help.
5. Bring reminders of home with you.
According to Howes, the unfamiliarity of traveling can feel mentally disorienting for some people. Bringing some familiar comforts from home with you can make a big difference. “If you have room, pack your own pillow, bring the familiar shampoo, haul that novel around, or cram your jammies in your bag,” he says. “Pushing the limits of [your luggage] may be worth it if self-care is at stake.”
6. Research your destination and have a plan in case of an emergency.
This is especially important for travelers with a history of mental health problems who want to prepare in case they need to seek help. That said, Westmacott suggests every traveler put in this legwork just in case because, well, you never know.
Bree S., 24, was on a monthlong European trip with friends when a serious case of homesickness hit. “I was more depressed than I had ever been, but I didn’t think I could do anything but stick it out,” she tells SELF. That’s exactly what she did, and it wasn’t fun. In retrospect, she says, she wishes she’d thought to seek help or even knew what that would look like.
“Before you go, you should find a reputable mental health professional at your destination who speaks your language so that in the event of an emergency, you have someone you can immediately get in touch with,” says Westmacott. You can do this on your own, through your insurance, or through a nonprofit like IAMAT, which helps travelers access care from reputable English-speaking doctors and mental health practitioners.
If you’re specifically setting up a safety net for a potential mental health crisis, Westmacott suggests taking it a step further by making sure your destination is a smart choice in the first place. “We recommend travelers worried about a mental health emergency research to gain a really good understanding of what mental health services are available and the country’s cultural attitude toward mental illness and mental health,” she says. “These factors can really shape the type of care that you’ll receive.”
7. Take extra precautions if you manage a mental health condition with medication.
It might seem obvious that you should make sure to pack enough medication for the duration of your trip, but with mental health medication, it’s not that simple. According to Westmacott, many medications that are used to manage mental health conditions are considered controlled substances in some countries. Because of that, you have to make sure you’re in compliance with your destination’s import regulations, which may include a maximum amount of medication or a requirement for carrying a written prescription or a doctor’s note. Depending on the length of your trip and where you’re going, it might not be possible to bring enough medication to get you through.
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has a list of controlled substance regulations by country and is a good place to start, but unfortunately, some countries don’t have publicly stated restrictions. In that case, your doctor may be able to help offer some information. The INCB also has some general traveling guidelines you should check out to make sure you’re being smart about your meds while away from home, and this IAMAT guide to traveling with medications offers some additional tips too.
It’s also smart to check with your doctor to make sure your medication is available at your destination if you need it. It would really suck, for example, if you lost your medication while traveling and found out you couldn’t get a replacement prescription because it’s not legal where you are.
8. Make sure your itinerary includes time for any necessary self-care.
When Meredith went to Paris, she was so excited to cram in as many sights as possible that she didn’t leave any room for rest and relaxation—something she depended on for managing her mental health back home. “It doesn’t surprise me now that I had an anxiety meltdown,” she says. “I can never be that busy in my day-to-day life without time to refuel.”
While rest and relaxation are good for everyone to work into their trip, there might be other things you want to include in your itinerary to round it out, especially if you’re a creature of habit. “When you’re at home, you know your routine, your restaurants, and your bedtime rituals, but on vacation, these may all be unfamiliar and require more mental effort,” says Howes. “There are no go-tos for lunch or evening entertainment, and you may need to step outside numerous comfort zones in order to make the most of your trip.”
While Howes says just acknowledging this fact can help you make peace with the change and unfamiliarity, it can’t hurt to fold an activity or two you’re accustomed to into your vacation routine for comfort.
9. Be honest with yourself about what to expect, but try to stay positive too.
It’s always a great idea to prepare for the worst just in case. Hopefully, that will put your mind at ease because you know you’re prepared in case of trouble. But try not to anticipate the worst and let your preparation stress you out more.
“If you go into it thinking it will be an overwhelming, chaotic, and stressful experience, it probably will be,” says Howes. “If you instead look at travel as an adventure that may give you exciting stories and good life lessons, this will probably be true. Think of the bumps in the road as details in the story you’ll be telling friends in a few weeks, and it all seems less stressful.”