As we approach the summer, many people with OCD may be planning to travel. Vacation can be a time of great anticipation and joy for many people, a time to unwind and relax. A time to forget about your day-to-day worries. A time for a much-needed recharge from the struggles of everyday life and work.
But for many who suffer from OCD, time away from our surroundings can be less of a time to relax and more of a time to ruminate. Intrusive thoughts related to traveling may arise: What if something bad happens on the trip? What if I have a severe allergic reaction to trying new foods? Am I excited enough to be on vacation with my partner?
Take it from me: as an OCD specialist, I’ve worked people for many years—but I’ve struggled with OCD myself for far longer. I understand from extensive personal experience (and at times, intense suffering) just how often OCD can interfere in the most valuable parts of life, the parts that should be the most enjoyable and memorable.
Here’s what you should know about why OCD might sneak up at the most inopportune moments, and how you can regain your vacation time from the grip of OCD.
OCD is opportunistic
It’s no surprise that OCD will try to sneak up during the most inconvenient moments when you’d otherwise be having the time of your life. I have worked with many people with OCD who dread vacations. The idea of going somewhere outside of their comfort zone is scary, and the shift in routine can trigger obsessions and compulsions. Often, they experience anxiety attacks when away from home—this anticipatory anxiety can flare up at even the mention of being gone for any period of time.
People with OCD may ask themselves, is all this really worth it? Traveling can already be stressful, between planning, packing, making arrangements for pets or a house sitter, and a whole host of other things. If you are traveling with family or friends, you may need to take into account their desires about how to spend the trip and include all the things they wish to do. Or you may not be in control of planning at all. All of these things can feel overwhelming to many people, and these anxieties may be heightened if you have OCD.
On the other end of the spectrum, the excitement and carefree attitudes others have about traveling may make you feel guilty or even angry. You may wonder, why do they get to live a life where these things don’t seem to bother them? Why aren’t they worried about the same things? Why does their life seem so easy?
Align witih your attention and values
When you have OCD, it can feel like doing the things that most people take for granted is a huge obstacle. Living in recovery from OCD, I confront these obstacles with a “challenge accepted” attitude. If OCD confronts me, then I make it my goal to do what I want to do, challenging OCD directly. This is the same mindset I take with me when I travel. If OCD tries to tell me not to go, that I won’t enjoy it, or that my symptoms will worsen, then I ask myself: do I want to go? If my answer is yes, then I do it. I have made the decision that OCD will not dictate my plans or my journey any longer—I hope you will, too.
I also make it a point to remember that vacations will look different for different people, so I try not to compare my experiences to the experiences of others. I have frequently heard sayings like “don’t compare your life to someone else’s highlight reel.” I like this because it speaks to the importance of living your best life, not someone else’s.
Remember that the goal of any vacation is to relax, unwind, and find peace—your way of achieving this is your own and no one else’s. It doesn’t matter what kind of beautiful images of life someone can post or dream up; nothing beats your reality. Know that your feelings and experiences are valid, and try to give yourself compassion.
If you’re experiencing difficulties due to future travel or find yourself dreading an upcoming trip, there is still hope to turn things around. When OCD is effectively managed, anxieties from OCD related to your vacation or unexpected episodes that may arise due to traveling can become less problematic.
The best way to prepare for a trip is to seek help for OCD before you travel
The truth is that since OCD doesn’t simply go away, OCD episodes will happen, even on vacation—but by building a toolbox of strategies to help you deal with your obsessions and not give in to your compulsions before you leave, you’ll be able to handle unexpected episodes when they arise.
Managing OCD effectively starts with finding a licensed therapist who is trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP), the gold standard, evidence-based therapy for OCD. They will help you become equipped to respond in effective ways no matter when OCD strikes, including before or during travel.
Having a plan in place with your ERP therapist can help you prepare for a successful trip. People with OCD may wonder, how do I know if this is an OCD worry or not? Your ERP therapist can help you to identify what anxieties likely come from OCD and which ones don’t, so that you can feel more confident about how to respond. That is why it can be beneficial to have these conversations with your ERP therapist ahead of time. Identifying when to practice response prevention and when to seek answers can be very helpful.
Your ERP therapist can also help you develop intentional therapy exercises that are manageable for you to do even while on vacation, maybe even ones that are intended to be done specifically when you are away from home.
While you cannot change that you have OCD, ERP can help you learn ways to manage it effectively while traveling. Through ERP, you will learn to effectively self-manage OCD episodes when you’re away from home and on your own.
Additional tips for traveling when you have OCD
The skills you learn from ERP will be critical in helping you manage OCD when you’re traveling, and there are additional things that may be helpful as well. Here are some tips you may find helpful in preparing for an upcoming trip:
- Understand your needs. Do you do better when you have a schedule to follow? Or do you struggle with the pressure of following an itinerary? Do you need frequent breaks? Do you often experience sensory or emotional overload? Remember, it’s okay to be true to yourself and do what is right for you, like taking a break when you need to.
- Talk to your treatment providers before you leave. Let them know that you are planning to travel and ask what you can do if you need extra support. At NOCD, we know that when people with OCD are on their own, that’s when they need the most help. That’s why NOCD Therapy includes self-help tools, support groups, and other services for members to manage between sessions. If you are on medications and your prescriber is still in the process of making changes to them, have a plan ahead of time and make sure you have the appropriate amount of medication for the entire trip.
- Have a list of local resources available. This may include a mental health support chat line or an after-hours line you can call if you need extra support.
- Ask for help from your family, friends, or loved ones. You don’t have to share anything you are uncomfortable sharing, but it’s okay to ask for help. People aren’t mind readers, so you can’t expect them to know when and if you are struggling if you don’t tell them.
- Respect your own limits and boundaries. If an activity is too much for you, it’s okay to stay behind. Too often, people feel pressured to do what everyone else is doing or what others want them to do. Don’t be afraid to do your own thing.
- Commit to taking care of your health, even while on vacation. It’s common to have a disruption in your sleep schedule or to do things you may not normally do, like eat or drink more than usual, but do your best to stay on track with your health goals. We know that physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand.
- Be prepared for new intrusive thoughts, images, or urges to arise. OCD is creative and will sneak in at the most inopportune times. Whenever you are in new surroundings, around new people, or in new situations, it is highly likely that OCD will find you. Expect this so that when it happens, you are prepared and can use your skills to counter it. Your ERP therapist can help you put a plan in place ahead of time, and can hold you accountable for it afterwards.
- Pack comfort items. This may sound silly, but you might have specific items that bring you peace. It can be a trinket, a piece of jewelry, or really anything that brings a sense of grounding. These comfort items can help you remember that you are safe and that anxiety and discomfort will pass. It can be helpful to be reminded that you won’t always feel the distress you feel at any particular moment.
Starting treatment now to help you in the future
I hope you can apply the recommendations in this article as a start. But remember, proper treatment is the best way to minimize the impact of OCD when you’re traveling or on vacation and manage the condition long-term.
Personally, ERP helped me recognize that avoiding travel actually increases my anxiety about being away from home. I learned that just because I feel anxious doesn’t mean that I have to respond with compulsive avoidance; I can feel uncomfortable at first and still do the things that I enjoy.
I also learned that whether I am at home or somewhere else, OCD may show up. And it doesn’t really matter where I am physically when it does pop up—I can still use the same skills I learned through ERP. By taking the focus off of the themes or content of the OCD, I was able to recognize that no matter what intrusive thought or feeling I am experiencing, it will not last forever, and I can still live the life that I want to live. Even if the thoughts and feelings want to hang around, they do not need to be in the driver’s seat.
For me, managing OCD means doing things that I never would have dreamed of. Managing OCD means facing fears and finding freedom through my choices on a daily basis. It is doing things while afraid and knowing that those feelings will eventually pass and become less and less.
If you haven’t already sought out ERP treatment for this debilitating disorder, I recommend that you do so today. Our team at NOCD is here to help you. At NOCD, you can work with a licensed therapist who is specialty-trained to treat OCD using ERP therapy, and who will begin to teach you to manage OCD on your own, such as while you’re traveling. You will also receive always-on support between sessions through the NOCD platform by messaging with your therapist, accessing self-help tools, connecting with peer communities, and more. This is especially useful when you’re away from home and may have heightened OCD fears or unexpected episodes.