Traveling with OCD is challenging. I started travelling before I was diagnosed with OCD. When I spent a year in South America, I experienced distressing thoughts about losing an arm in an accident. I ignored them and carried on. It’s probably the most effective strategy I’ve ever had for dealing with my illness, but it certainly became harder to manage once I started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.
Last year I took a second long trip, to spend a year in South and Southeast Asia. It was brilliant, but parts were very tough – especially with the setbacks and the disorganization that you encounter in many areas. The good news is that it gave me opportunities to learn to manage my condition as well as becoming comfortable writing about it.
Everyone is different, and there are different manifestations of OCD. Mine is predominantly thought-based but can involve excessive checking too. Here are some simple strategies that can help make traveling with OCD more manageable.
Find a focus
If I’m having intrusive thoughts, or feeling anxious, I look for something to focus on. I really love wildlife, especially bird-watching. Incidentally bird-watching is a great way to feel calmer. Look for birds or smaller creatures like lizards. It doesn’t have to be an animal though. It can be anything which gives your mind something to do – counting lamp posts, people-watching or a getting lost in a really good book.
Challenge or accept your thoughts
A key element of OCD management is being able to challenge or accept your distressing thoughts or feelings. If you start to get pulled into a thought, then think of all the reasons why its inaccurate – or consider accepting it so that your mind can move on.
Listen to podcasts
I found long bus journeys difficult as sometimes there is not much to focus on. But once I started downloading podcasts that all changed! Reading or watching a screen is difficult on a bus. Podcasts are the perfect compromise for a dose of escapism, as every subject from history to comedy is covered.
Be kind to yourself
Every mental health journey, whether literal or metaphorical, begins by accepting kindness from other people. You need to also accept this from yourself. Some days will be better than others, so it’s important to foster kindness in yourself to help you through them. Say something good to yourself every day to train your brain to really believe it.
Eat and drink well
Part of looking after yourself means eating regularly and staying hydrated. I always feel worse when my blood sugar drops. Eating healthily and drinking often can help stabilize your mood.
Keep in contact
You know who the important people are in your life. Improvements in technology mean that it is easier to stay in touch than ever. Take time to connect with friends or family every few days to be part of your community, even when you’re physically far away.
Schedule rest stops
Sometimes travel can get really hectic, so it’s important to schedule days in more restful places where you can take stock, speak to friends, do some washing, read, look at your photos or whatever else makes you happy.
Take time for yourself
If you’re traveling with someone else, or in a group, then consider taking some time out for yourself to do what you want and fully relax. I spent my year in Asia traveling around with my boyfriend and it really taught me the importance of personal space! Everyone needs time alone to recharge as its easy to get annoyed with each other when you’re always together.
Take your medication
If you take medication for OCD or anxiety, make sure that you have enough before you start your journey – some prescription drugs can be really difficult to find on the road. Take it at the same time every day to make sure you don’t forget when you’re in a different routine.
In many ways, spending a year in Asia helped me to face my OCD because I encountered so many challenging situations that I become better able to face them. Being back in the UK now seems much easier as budget travel was more demanding in terms of long journeys, lack of sleep, and constant problem-solving, but the experience was well worth it! No matter how anxiety-inducing your trip is, there will be strategies that you can take away from it, so be good to yourself while you’re on the road, your tricky mind deserves it. I hope my tips for traveling with OCD will help ease your journey.
Jen is an author, freelance writer and producer with a travel blog that focuses on ethical and eco-friendly travel and living.