Travelling is essentially navigating unfamiliar territory. So is life. With the summer months shortly coming to an end, I thought I would reflect on how many of the skills I used to look after my mental health while on holiday are also relevant to the upcoming transition back to school or work (or whatever it may be).
Unfortunately, mental health troubles don’t just decide to take a vacation when you do. Nor do they take a backseat when things get busy. Travelling is essentially the process of exploring the unknown, and so are life’s transitions. Preparing to get the most out of a trip or a life change are more similar than you might think, and these tips can help.
Prepare Coping Skills
Developing a plan of attack for whatever lies ahead can certainly be helpful but unfortunately, even the best-laid plans can go wrong. There’s a sweet spot between arming yourself with information to help you feel at ease and putting too much pressure on an inflexible plan. That’s why giving some thought to how you can manage your symptoms during an upcoming adventure can help keep you in a healthier state of mind to to cope with a more unpredictable environment.
Knowing you have helpful coping skills to take with you wherever you go can ease some worry. Practice self-soothing or grounding through the five senses (strong mints, scented oils, sour candies, and stress balls can help). Try some breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. Pack puzzles, activities, or music you can use to distract yourself during the more intense moments. Download a mental health app on your phone that can help you take a time-out if you need one.
Set aside time everyday to look after yourself. Maybe its 20 minutes to get your heart rate up or to write in a journal. It’s important to schedule in you-time because when things get busy it can quickly fall to the way-side.
It might be difficult, but confiding in someone you trust about how they can help can be useful too. Be honest about how you find change difficult to deal with – chances are they can at least relate to the feeling of discomfort about the unknown, most of us can. Maybe you can lean on them to add an element of structure to this dynamic period (maybe its scheduling regular coffee dates). It can be reassuring to have a sense of constancy and support from someone else when things are unfamiliar around you.
Think about what you’re looking forward to about the upcoming transition. Maybe you’re excited for cooler fall weather or you’re looking forward to learning and experiencing new things. Holding the “pro”s in the back of your mind can help you keep perspective when the “con”s resurface.
Know Your Triggers
Now that you have tools to cope in your back pocket, to give yourself a better chance to benefit from them you can focus on taking care of yourself.
Things that can increase your vulnerability include poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, alcohol/drugs, dehydration, forgetting to take your medication, too much caffeine, poor hygiene etc etc. If you can think of others, that’s great, and more personally-relevant, the better.
Do your best to take care of yourself to make weathering the transition easier. Pick a few habits you want to work on, one at a time to make things more manageable. Enter in to an accountability agreement with a friend, therapist, or family member to make sure you’re both taking care of yourselves.
Don’t Fight Your Feelings
Even the most easy-going people can get nervous in a new place. It’s stressful! Even for the best of us. Acknowledge your experience with self-compassion. Remind yourself that it makes sense to feel uneasy in a foreign environment.
While anxiety disorders often generate stress and fear with no apparent cause, there may still be some validity to listening to the messages your mind is trying to send you. At its core, anxiety is evolutionary. It’s meant to keep us safe, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. If you can identify specific things that are causing you worry, you may be better able to prepare for them.
Even if the alarm bells are ringing with no obvious explanation, taking the time to notice your vulnerabilities and make space for your feelings can be helpful on its own. There may actually be no immediate danger, your brain is just trying to protect you. Sometimes it just gets a little too carried away.
“Yes, thank you anxiety – I’m very alert to my new surroundings, but I think we’ll actually be okay“.
Being nervous means you are alert. It means you care. You don’t need to fight off all your feelings of anxiousness. Actively resisting feelings of panic or anxiety can worsen your experience of them and leave you feeling even more out of control. If you can successfully use your coping strategies to manage your symptoms, what’s left might actually be helpful.