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4 Tips for OCD Flares During Holiday Travel

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The holidays are quickly approaching, and as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), that means I need to prepare. Now, I don’t mean prepare in a do lots of compulsions and ruminate sort of way, though some of that will likely happen. Change often increases stress, whether that is traveling and being in a new environment, socializing with new people or people you haven’t seen for a while, or some other aspect of the holidays. What I mean though is it’s time to prepare my coping plans, so I can best manage living with an anxiety disorder like OCD.

1. Predict your triggers, and do the exposures in advance

For me, one of the biggest triggers to my OCD is traveling itself. While I enjoy the trips, being away from home and having to get there is stressful. This can lead to compulsions, for example, making sure I haven’t forgotten anything when packing for the trip or leaving any space during the trip. With OCD, it would be much harder to start the exposure process once I’m already in the new, higher stress setting. I need to do exposures in advance. The week or two before, I can write out a script about maybe leaving something behind. I can avoid writing lists of what I need to pack. Though people without OCD may make lists, for me, it becomes compulsive and excessive. That said, I will still likely need to do exposures while over the holidays or while on a trip. But if I’ve already started the exposures and working my way up my fear hierarchy, I will be better prepared to handle harder exposures in the moment.

2. Communicate your needs with loved ones

Perhaps the most important thing for me when traveling for the holidays is to communicate my needs to those around me. I have a hard time doing this. It’s easy to hope our friends or family will notice we are stressed and then help us. But for me, most of the time I am incredibly anxious, no one would have any idea from the outside. Somehow, I still look as calm as a cucumber. So, it’s on me to communicate that increased stress, and even better, what they can do to help.

The best way to help me when I’m in an OCD spiral is not reassurance about the fear, but reassurance that I am strong and can handle the anxiety. Also, it is helpful to make sure I’ve eaten enough. Half the time I’m having an anxiety attack, it’s because I didn’t eat a meal recently. Providing validation and food are two easy tasks those around me can do, but only if I’ve communicated those needs.

3. Give yourself permission to take breaks

With the treatment of OCD, we are often taught, “Go! Go! Go!” with pushing ourselves to face our fears. What I’ve learned over the past few years though, is that sometimes there is merit in rest. It is OK to take breaks, both from exposures, and from the holidays themselves. If I need to sit by myself in a quiet room, that is OK. If I need to zone out and play on my phone for an hour, that is OK. And the need for these breaks can be something to communicate to those around you (see number 2). If we keep pushing ourselves, we will likely run out of steam. There is value in resting and recuperating, to gear up for the next challenge.

4. Give yourself a pat on the back

Finally, as cheesy as it may sound, take a moment to be proud of yourself. Though the holidays can be an exciting and joyful time, for many people with anxiety disorders, the can also be stressful. We can be happy to be there and anxious; both can be true. The key is we are choosing values-based activities, of spending time in person or virtually with loved ones, and acting out of self-care. That deserves recognition, even if it is coming from yourself. So take a moment these holidays to be proud of yourself for all you’re doing. You deserve it.

Getty image by Tom Werner

Originally published: November 23, 2021
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