How I Learned to Travel With PTSD

Travel can bring great joy, opening one's eyes to things they may never know or experience otherwise. But when traveling with PTSD, it can also pose a lot of unforeseen challenges.

Person with suitcase illustrated as walking towards large looming blue buildings from around the world
Photo: Kaitlyn Collins

I was ecstatic when I got my first travel writing assignment. Writing and traveling were my two greatest passions, so having the opportunity to see the world while reporting on my experiences was a double dream come true. I delved into travel with my whole heart, never stopping to think about the many things I do each day to ensure that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn't overwhelm my life.

I took a break from traveling in early 2020 because of the pandemic, but before COVID-19, I was one of those people who adored every little thing about being on the road. Layovers were opportunities for exploration. Delays gave extra time to get work done or write in my diary. And an occasionally lost piece of luggage presented an excuse to shop. When it came to travel, I took nothing for granted and found pleasure in nearly all aspects.

You might have guessed that I'm an optimist with a hopeful heart and cheerful nature, but I'm also a survivor of extreme traumas. So, with that comes PTSD and its dark clouds that might descend and take away my sunny disposition at any moment. More than that, PTSD may knock me down into a dark emotional pit that threatens my well-being and is extraordinarily hard to overcome. I've been there before and don't want to go back.

When I first started traveling, though, I wasn't worried about it too much. The first time I got hit with a trigger was when a pat-down at the airport got overly intrusive. It immediately brought me back to another place and time of trauma. I started sobbing. The tears flowed as I retrieved my items and put my shoes back on, and I found it hard to pull it together on the plane or any other time that day.

I made it through, but I found myself phoning it in. I took long bathroom breaks to cry, and the joy was zapped right out of that special trip. Feelings of self-hatred thumped through my mind at a faster pace than my heartbeat coursed through my body. Worse than simply feeling worthless, I felt like a burden to everyone around me. I wanted to apologize to everyone on the trip, though I did my best to hide my symptoms. I did things that should be fun and saw sights that should amaze, but I couldn't access any good feelings.

I muddled through, but that was a wake-up call. I had to start doing more to manage my PTSD if I was going to live life to the fullest and continue traveling. From that moment on, I did everything I could to manage it. I was in weekly therapy, and I kept my sessions using Skype when I was traveling. I wrote in my diary to free the painful thoughts that sometimes surfaced. I had deep, meaningful conversations with my mentor that lifted my spirit and made me realize all the wonder in life even more fully. I had a comforting playlist of all my favorite Taylor Swift songs. I practiced self-soothing and cultivated self-love as best I could.

Seeing that I could handle PTSD while traveling gave me more confidence as a traveler.
Kaitlyn Collins

The next time I got triggered, I was able to handle it better. I only spiraled one wrung down the ladder before I was able to pull myself back up with the help of others. (Having help available and being willing to reach out for it is a big part of staying well.) Seeing that I could handle PTSD while traveling gave me more confidence as a traveler. Once again, I started to feel safe as I embarked on each new trip.

In subsequent trips, I've dealt with my PTSD one moment at a time. When I struggle, I do all the things I would do at home to take care of myself. That means packing more than most people might on a trip. I always carry soothing items, and I've learned to set boundaries and ask for what I need. If I must bow out of an activity to take care of myself, I do. Before, I would have tried to grin and bear it, but I now prioritize my well-being.

I hope to one day be mostly over it. Until then, I don't let hold me back from experiencing the splendors of travel.
Kaitlyn Collins

When you have PTSD, the symptoms can be severe, and sometimes they almost fade into the background. The bad thing is that this is unpredictable for many people, including me. You might be pondering mind-freeing delights one moment, then be sucked into the undertow of depression if a trigger appears before you. It's important for me to expect the unexpected and have a plan for how to stay safe in worst-case scenarios. That way, I can feel free to travel and stay open-hearted to all that comes with exploring the world.

When I'm spiraling with PTSD, I've had people tell me to "just get over it" and move on from the past. They may say they've been through worse, and I don't see them having these struggles. The thing is, anyone struggling with trauma would simply move on if they could. But it's unfortunately impossible when you're in the throes of PTSD. It's your mind and body stopping you in your tracks. I hope to one day be mostly over it. Until then, I don't let it hold me back from experiencing the splendors of travel.

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