Anxiety, Panic, PTSD, and Travel – Coping Strategies for the Adventurous

It’d be great if we lived in a world that acknowledged that many of us have moments when we feel completely overwhelmed, on the verge of meltdown, and don’t know what to do.  It would help if we admit to ourselves this can happen anywhere, even when we travel. Maybe it’s the unfamiliar, the unexpected, and the occasional dangers, but there’s nothing like having an episode when you’re traveling to make you wish you had stayed on your couch. Cover photo: The Scream by Edvard Munch

Whether you have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or simply have had moments of blind panic, let’s talk about the options that can allow you to go adventuring and see new things. First off, preparation can help reduce the likelihood something will set us off.  That includes redundant systems, which is the art of having a clever system and a backup system when your clever system doesn’t work.  For example, you check your passport months before travel to see if it’s got enough time on it for the country you’re traveling to, then you select  a purse or belt that makes your passport less likely to be stolen or lost, and then you keep a photo of it on your phone just in case it disappears.

A little redundant? Sure, but there’s nothing like being barred from a country because they require a passport that doesn’t expire for three months even though you’re only there two weeks. Or realizing you have lost your passport in Cairo. So yeah, it’s worth the extra effort to prevent a panic. The same is true with finances. Sure, there’s the credit card with the chip, but you also want cash of the country you are visiting in a safe place, and locations of ATMs just in case. The rule: for any essential item, have a back-up, including of itineraries, plane, and train tickets, reservations, etc.

For those who have PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc., and want to travel, check in with yourself to see how you are doing. If things are going very well for you, great. If not, touch bases with a skilled therapist before you go. For example, if you know you have PTSD and found talk therapy wasn’t all that helpful, locate a therapist who is skilled at EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), since it happens to be the one therapy that is actually useful in reducing symptoms to very manageable levels.

I have PTSD and found EMDR to be the only therapy that reduced my PTSD to the point that I’m rarely aware I have it. It almost always works for trauma (over twenty-five years that I’ve recommended it, only two people were unable to benefit from it). I know I’m making a major plug for this therapy, but there are far too many women out there with PTSD (primarily due to sexual assault but also due to war, disasters, and other causes that create severe trauma). I would love it if more women with PTSD knew of EMDR and benefited from it so they could travel safely and happily. I believe those with depression, anxiety or other issues can find valuable assistance pre-trip with a good therapist. Many therapists will have some good coping strategies for your particular condition that you can use as necessary while traveling.

For those of you who have simply had an episode or two while on travel, planning is the key to having a good trip, along with a few helpful coping strategies.

Fruehling in Siegen

The first is to go to the nearest quiet place, take some deep breaths and do an exercise called 5,4,3,2,1. The way it works is that you pick something you hear, see, and feel.

Then you pick two things you see, hear and feel. You do this up to five and will discover you are much calmer if not completely calmed. The reason it works is that when your brain is in panic mode it gets into a loop of obsessive thinking. When you focus on something simple, you break out of the loop; you calm down and can think in a more linear way. Another good tactic is to learn some breathing exercises and start them right away since you can stay alert while relaxing your body. Photo credit: Ngocchat1014 via Wikimedia Commons

Another coping strategy I borrow from Option B, an interesting book by Sheryl Standberg about building resilience. It happens to work fairly well when you’re stressed and anxious as well. Avoid the three Ps: permanence, personalizing, and pervasiveness.

Permanence is the natural tendency to think a temporary problem is permanent.

Shenzhen Luohu district map

Let’s say I’m traveling in China and had counted on English signs at the train station because the guidebook said they were there. But they lied and I’m afraid I’ll miss my train and connection to meet up with my travel buddy. I might catch myself thinking I’ll be stuck in this train station forever! I’ll never escape since no one speaks English and I can’t read Chinese!!! Sure, it’s irrational but it feels real so if you catch yourself thinking a travel problem is permanent, remind yourself this is temporary, there is a solution. Photo credit: Feilopeshune via Wikimedia Commons

Personalizing the problem is feeling like you are at fault for things like torrential rains or language barriers, and the more you personalize a problem, the harder it is to think and regroup. Again, somewhat irrational but it’s easy for women to feel guilty at the drop of a hat, so best to be aware of it and get rid of it since it interferes with the ability to problem solve.

Pervasiveness; that this problem will affect every area of your trip (or life!). So let’s go back to the Chinese train station – I may be making matters worse by assuming if I don’t catch the train I intended to catch, I won’t be able to connect with my friend, my trip will be ruined and so will our friendship. That’s not likely since there is probably a way to get another train soon and connect with my travel buddy. The way to make this strategy work is to listen to your thoughts for a few seconds. You’ll be surprised at some of the irrational things you feel at a moment of crisis. It feels very real but if you identify what you’re thinking and get things in perspective, it will help you regroup.

Coffee for Love

Another coping strategy also requires a quiet moment and perhaps a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Photo credit: Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons

Ask yourself what is really bothering you. A fellow traveler found she couldn’t get past a certain point in scuba instruction even though she was taking the course for the second time and was totally committed to learning so she could go exploring under water. She realized it was a fear of the dark and being confined. Once she realized the problem, she talked with her scuba instructor and developed some coping strategies that allowed her to finish the course, successfully pass the test, and enjoy scuba diving even in dark stormy weather. (Okay, maybe not enjoy the stormy weather but still be able to explore.) By the way, it also helps to work out the issue and reach out to others with expertise or just someone whose judgment you can trust by way of working out a plan.


My favorite coping strategy, is to simply remember to eat well, sleep well, bring really comfortable clothes and shoes, and generally treat yourself like a princess. Who doesn’t like to be encouraged to linger over a chocolate croissant and latte?

Who really minds being advised to sleep in? Why not have a genuinely rainproof coat and a lightweight warming layer that’s cozy? Honestly, even if this is a business trip, taking really good care of yourself will cushion your system and make you better prepared to deal with any challenges.

A final coping strategy is for solo travelers who run into trouble: Let’s say I’m holed up in my hotel and feel unable to continue my climbing trip because my language skills aren’t adequate and the situation is more dangerous than anticipated. Contrary to my guidebook, no one speaks my language and the local dialect is tricky. Transport to the mountain seems sketchy, I’m getting a lot of stares and comments from local men and the weather seems to be turning. Time to find a reliable guide! That solves several problems since I will have someone who speaks the language, knows local conditions, and can provide safer transport than I can arrange on my own. It is often far more affordable then you would think and better than returning home having seen only your hotel and the airport or worse, to die climbing or get attacked. This also works for a traveler in a city since there are often a variety of reputable sightseeing tours that will accommodate your interests and budget.

And once you get home? If it’s been a great trip, then you can tell your friends amusing stories and show off your photos. However, if you suffered through an avalanche, or other incidents that make you shudder recalling the trip, don’t ignore it. Ignoring it doesn’t make you stronger; working through whatever didn’t work out makes you stronger so that you emerge to go adventuring again.

Staple gun

Recently, I was traveling and heard sounds nearby like gunshots. It was actually one of those industrial staple guns being used to fix a table behind a partition, but it made my chest tighten, my breathing wonky, and I immediately lost my appetite. So my husband went in back and asked if he could stop temporarily, since unfortunately, it reminded me of gunfire and he agreed immediately and was quite nice about it. It took a few moments of breathing exercises–and I never did finish my lunch–but the main thing is that I regained my equilibrium and we continued on our way. I felt bad for a few minutes but reminded myself it had been a long time since I had a problem like this and it was fine. Soon, it was. I wish happy and safe travels to all who have issues like this. The world is not closed to us, we just need extra planning and a different mindset.

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