As the final days of spring give way to the sunny weather and sunscreened noses of summertime, many of us eagerly anticipate our summer vacations. Vacations, after all, are when we escape the drearier components of our regular, everyday lives, go to new places, and do things for no other reason than because we want to do them.
I myself happen to be going on vacation next week, and I could not be more excited.
Vacations can also be a difficult time, particularly for people with mental health issues. As delightful as it is to escape the daily grind, a lot of us with chronic mental health issues find security and stability in our everyday lives, whether that be from our support networks (friends, family, partners, etc.), from our daily routines (work, home, eat, sleep), or from the places we inhabit (offices, homes, local parks and shopping centres). Not having that security and stability around us can be highly unsettling, and suffering from bad mental health during a vacation is common. I know this from experience as much as anything else. The last time I went on a long vacation, I became particularly anxious for the last few days. I wanted nothing more than to get back to my flat in London, my friends, my flatmates, and even my job (which was not a particularly pleasant one). My home life was nothing special, but it was safe and familiar to me, and after being on vacation for two weeks, I had to get back to safety.
Having mental health trouble on vacation is terrible for a number of reasons. For one, mental illness is a terrible thing to experience in general, and I would not wish it upon my worst enemy. For another, vacations should be about relaxing, enjoying oneself, having fun, and making good memories, but it is hard to relax and have fun when your mental health is suffering.
I have had chronic mental health problems for much of my life, but they only became significantly worse about six years ago. Throughout those six years I have come across a number of useful techniques for taking care of my mental health while on vacation. Here are ten of my favourites.
Choose the right kind of vacation for you. This might seem obvious, but I have been on plenty of vacations that I have not enjoyed, because they were not the right kind of for me. We are all different, and we all enjoy different things. If you are going to spend time and money on a vacation, you owe it to yourself to really think about where you would like to go and what you would like to do, and go and do just that.
Try to get help for specific travel-related fears ahead of time. I write this point in honour of my father, who recently went on a weekend course to help him with his fear of flying. If you happen to be going on a vacation that involves flying, or enclosed spaces, or heights, or some other relatively common phobia that you have, there are special programs available to teach people how to better manage the fear. It was helpful for my father, who was feeling particularly uneasy about the long flight. While he is not completely free of his fear, he feels much better prepared than he did before. So if it is an option for you, I would highly recommend it.
Plan the vacation out ahead of time. A lot of people like to arrive at a new place and decide on what they want to do on the fly. Personally, I am not so fond of that method. I feel less anxious when there is some structure in my day, even when I am on vacation. If you feel similarly to me, spend some time coming up with a basic plan for each day of your trip. That way, you will always have something to follow, even if your mental illness is making it hard for you to think properly on the day itself.
Maintain parts of your everyday routine. If being away from your routine makes you feel uneasy, try continuing to do parts of your routine while on vacation. These do not have to be big things; they can be as simple as waking up at the same time, or having the same thing for breakfast, or spending the same half an hour reading before bed. I find this helps to make the vacation environment seem a little more like the home environment that brings me stability.
Bring mementos that remind you of home. Another way to feel connected to your home is to bring little things that remind you of home. A favourite book, for instance, or a couple of photos, or a soft toy. If it makes you think of home, it will do the job. I, for instance, plan to pack my lucky coin and a little photo album for my vacation next week.
Have activities that require you to use your hands. This is one that I find useful in general, not just when I am on vacation. I find when I am in a panicked state, doing an activity with my hands makes me have to divert my attention, which, in turn, gives my anxious brain a chance to calm down. I am very fond of casual phone games, and I also like crochet, cross-stitching, and hand lettering. But you can do anything you want, as long as it takes your mind away from your distress.
Let your travel companions know. If you happen to be travelling with people you love and trust, telling them that you have mental health problems that might flare up during your vacation can be a huge help, for them and for you. Sometimes it is embarrassing to admit that you are not feeling great, particularly when you are on vacation and it is supposed to be a happy time. But your travel companions love you and care about you, and they will want to know if you are feeling down. Mental illness is a terrible burden to bear, but you do not have to bear it alone.
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Have Time Outs if you need them. One of my best friends has a tendency to get ‘peopled out’, and when she is on vacation, her strategy is to separate herself from her travel companions for an hour or two and entertain herself elsewhere. Travelling with other people can be a lot of fun, but if you are the type of person who needs space every now and then, there is nothing wrong with declaring that you need some time to yourself. That way, when you return to your travel companions, you will feel fresh, recharged, and ready to spend quality time together.
Keep a diary. Diaries are often useful tools for people with chronic mental health issues, because they provide a way to let out and process thoughts and feelings, while still keeping those thoughts and feelings private. I plan to keep a detailed travel diary during this vacation, complete with calligraphy, stickers, and Polaroid photos. If you do not take as much of an interest in arts and crafts as I do, spending five or ten minutes making notes on the day in a notebook or on an app in your phone will do the job just as well.
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Challenge yourself to try new things. As important as it is for people with mental health problems to feel safe and secure, it is equally important for us not to let concern over our mental health stop us from trying new things. vacations provide all of us with opportunities to have new experiences, and it is only by pushing the boat out and giving these new experiences a try that we open ourselves up to finding new things to enjoy. And who knows? Maybe the new things you try will end up being good for your mental health as well.
Vacations are a way for all of us to remove ourselves from our everyday lives and recharge our batteries, but for people with mental health problems, they can also be a source of distress and concern. However, if we take a little time and pay a little attention to our mental health needs before and during our vacation, we can be better equipped to make the most of the vacation experience.
[Featured Image: A photo of two people. Behind them is a distressed brick wall. The person on the left has long dark hair and is wearing a white shirt and is smiling. The person on the right has shoulder length brown hair and they are wearing a blue shirt. They are looking at their phone posing. Source: pexels.com]
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