If you’re dealing with OCD, you can do incredible adventures. When this Guide was struggling with serious OCD and anxiety, I also did one of the biggest trips of my life, traveling around the world by land and sea. I did amazing things when I was struggling, but I also missed out on a lot because I had to stay in and watch a locked door, or avoid talking to people because I’d invented some terrible story in my head about them, or spend hours ruminating when I could’ve been present with the incredible place where my body actually was at that moment.
These tips below come from the perspective of helping yourself with getting over OCD. At the same time, they come from a place of compassion for the struggle of mental illness when we’re deep in it. I wish somebody had shared these with me. They’re to help put you back in charge of your journey instead of letting OCD be the tour guide:
1. Start building mental health skills before your trip
On any trip, you’ll only have the brain you brought with you. The lead up to the trip is a great time to start working on recovery from OCD. Sometimes we can trick ourselves into believing we need the compulsions before a vacation to help us with the stress of getting it planned or wrapping up school and work. Although that may seem like it’s going to help, it’s only going to spin up the rat wheels in our heads. The brain is going to head off on that adventure primed to obsess about every tiny uncertainty and uncontrollable possibility.
For an example of the type of workout plan you can do to build up mental health skills before your journey, try something like this workout plan for getting over panic attacks on airplanes: Getting over the fear of panic attacks on planes
And for more on healthy trip planning, check out this article on relapse during trips: What if you relapse during vacation?
2. Set realistic expectations.
If you don’t want any anxiety or intrusive thoughts or disruptions or challenges on the trip, that’ll set you up for disaster. It’ll actually put you on high alert and get you into lots of checking compulsions. The fear of something “bad” contaminating the trip, will create bad things!
Carrying those unreasonable expectations of perfection, whether it’s about the stuff inside of our heads, or just your hotel room, can set you up for suffering and relapse. The brain will be looking for any excuse to judge the vacation as ruined so it can trick you into doing compulsions to fix and solve the ruined vacation.
To help address this, try setting goals around actions you’ll do. The success of the trip does not depend on things external to you that you don’t control. Success here is about what you do and what you give. What is important to you on this trip?
3. Prioritize sleep, food, and ease.
You probably know what sleep and food are. If you eat/drink a ton of junk and start messing with your sleep, of course you’ll feel terrible and the brain will react to that by throwing up lots of intrusive thoughts and wanting to control something. So get sleep and food and get them good.
Ease may require some extra explanation in this context. Ease is about seeing how much extra work for yourself. For instance, when you’re planning the trip, you might be interacting with some anxiety about the cost of the trip, so you pick a hotel that’s far away from everything you want to do, just because it was the cheapest hotel. That could create more stress during the trip because you need to commute everywhere. The chance of missing tour times or getting stuck in traffic or getting lost increases. You have to do more planning to fit everything in, or maybe you get back later so it impacts sleep.
Ease is about being mindful of the work we create for ourselves on the adventure. Consider how much that will cost you. Do you really want to be running through the airport with two kids to catch that tight connection? Are you trying to pack too much into the trip because you feel you need to post certain things on Instagram?
How can you make your trip easy?
4. Don’t judge compulsions.
Sure, it’s possible to get over OCD and it’s useful to work on recovery, but if you know you’re struggling with OCD, a huge help with recovery can actually be to make space for it.
Judging ourselves for doing compulsions, hating on them, fearing them, taking an all-or-nothing approach to them, can really set us up for even more compulsions. In the past, if I had committed to not doing a compulsion, and then I did one, I would judge the day as ruined and contaminated. And then I would binge on compulsions, telling myself it would “get it out of my system”. But it wouldn’t. All I was doing was practicing compulsions and getting better at doing them more automatically. Judging compulsions as a problem was not helpful.
If they happen, they happen. That’s not strange. That’s no excuse to run off the path and get lost. You can celebrate that awareness. You can see that you’re doing a compulsion and you know that’s not something you want to spend time and energy on. With that awareness, in this moment, with compassion, you can give your time and energy to something you do want to build and grow in your life.
5. Bring an anchor.
An anchor is a simple action (or maybe you bring a few) that you can come back to when you’re caught up in compulsions and ruminating. It’s about making it easy to step back on the path.
One challenge of dealing with OCD is that it’s very easy to do compulsions because our brains are always conveniently close. There are no barriers to doing compulsions like ruminating. And even with many physical compulsions, like scrolling endlessly through social media, there is very little getting in the way. They’re easy. So to help with choosing a different activity, it helps to make that activity as easy and accessible as possible.
When I was cutting out a lot of compulsions online, it helped to have a book with me. If I felt the urge to do compulsions online, I grabbed the book instead. The anchor might also be about a mental action you choose, like listening mindfully or exploring loving kindness, like I shared about in this post: Practicing Loving Kindness in Granada
You know the types of compulsions your brain likes to latch onto. Where do you want to take your brain instead?
Enjoy all of the wonderful adventures you take your brain on! It’ll be scared sometimes or chase feelings and you can give it a hug, understand it’s just trying to help, but instead show it a better way to travel.
Ok, but is there an OCD travel kit people can buy?
Special soaps and gels for extra 110% sanitization? A mini UV light for identifying bacteria or emotional contamination? Disinfectant wipes to scour every surface and clog up the local waterways? A tool for remembering you turned off the stove? Maybe some extra locks? Special supplements to make intrusive thoughts vanish?
The thing is, a kit like that would be very damaging to the individual using it. It wouldn’t be a travel kit for helping OCD get better. It would make the mental illness much worse, like packing extra bottles of whisky for somebody struggling with alcoholism. You’d come back from the trip with a crappy souvenir: worse mental illness symptoms.
Your adventure can be an opportunity for change that’s beneficial to your health and the health of the communities you visit. That urge to do compulsions is understandable and you can give yourself a hug when you notice that. Your brain is scared and just trying to help. But you can show it how to step into the world and explore in a much healthier way.
Earlier this year, as part of the excellent work they’ve done to bring their meditation community online during the pandemic, Upaya Zen Centre hosted a