Holiday Travel With PTSD

With the holiday season upon us, there is a lot of traveling going on. Crowds are larger, stress levels are high, flights are delayed, weather issues are abound and we all have heightened expectations. These are just some of the typical stressors many of us contend with this time of year. If someone you know or love has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health issues, perhaps this can shed some light on what they are trying to navigate (on top of the typical stressors) during this travel season.

I love the ocean. The sound of it feeds my soul and grounds me. I can sit and watch the ocean for hours. It touches something deep, deep inside of me. A knowing, a presence, a connectedness.

I live in Minnesota, which is nowhere near the ocean. When I get close to the ocean, and my senses begin to come alive, I know I’m now on vacation. Ahhh, vacation! I was once that person who worked to go on vacation. Road trip? Yep, I was the first person to raise my hand and jump in the car. I love to explore, I love new places, I love new people. I understand my little corner of the world is not the be-all, end-all, and I want to see the rest.

Then I was struck with PTSD and my whole world turned upside down. The things I did without thought have suddenly become a big production. I’m plagued with flashbacks, and my symptoms are easily triggered.

My trauma occurred over a 20-year period in many different places throughout the world. I can be triggered by certain smells, sounds, the way the wind blows, dialect, and many other things. Sometimes, that can start a flashback. Sometimes, I get disoriented and anxious, and sometimes it’s just a general feeling of knowing something’s off. When I’m at home, I can figure out ways to ground myself, get support or use one of the many tools in my distress tolerance tool-box to ride out the wave. When I travel, things are unfamiliar, and it takes longer to come out of a trigger.

Another symptom of my PTSD is that I become overwhelmed in busy, loud places — restaurants, for example. It’s very easy for me to get flooded by too many menu choices and a voracious appetite can become non-existent. Before PTSD, I loved trying new food and going to restaurants that I wouldn’t have visited in my hometown.

Airports are triggering for me. The noise, the crowds, the upheaval, the lines. The anticipation of sitting in a tiny chair for a four-hour flight. The same anxiety that most feel at airports is more pronounced for me. My anxiety is ramped up because my perpetrators often put me on a plane and sent me all over the world. So just walking into an airport is triggering. And yet, I love the speediness of getting to your vacation destination by flying, and how wonderful to be in this machine that flies in the sky. It’s part of the travel experience.

My support system is different when I travel. For my family, it’s often a good respite when I go out of town for a few days. But it’s not an easy decision for them to let me go off without one of them accompanying me. So, a lot of moving parts must happen before I can hop on the plane. My support works together to provide text, phone or FaceTime calls with regular check-ins. I must be mindful and respect the times that are available, especially with a time change. It feels uncomfortable for me to know I require this support.

I just want to jump on a plane, hide out at a beach for a few days and think, write, read and relax. It’s part of my fantasy travel experience. But the extra support is part of the give-and-take if I’m to travel right now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity and the support.

I understand traveling with all my PTSD symptoms front and center is a huge challenge. But I’m determined to have a great time, get my spirit renewed at the ocean, or spend some wonderful girl-time with a good friend. My intention is to look at the beautiful palm trees and fill my senses with the healing ocean air and for just a few perfect moments, breathe with ease.

Traveling with PTSD is certainly a challenge but not impossible.

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Getty image by Yakobchuk Olena

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