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What if you relapse on vacation?

In planning the perfect vacation, lining up the right hotels, the best tours, all the train-flight-freighter-donkey connections, the visas, the insurance, the kids’ school schedules, your work schedules, the seasons, the tickets, the luggage, it’s not strange if you’re also worrying about some mental health challenges popping up. The fear of relapsing on vacation is such a common fear. Below we’ll explore some skills and tips your Guide has been practicing for years and often shares with clients.

On the left side of the image: A smiling man with the word THRIVING over his head. On the right side is the same man but with an octopus on his head and the word RELAPSE over him.
For the record: relapse does not work like this. Relapse is not like an octopus. Relapse will not fall on your head (like an octopus).

How does relapse happen?

Here’s a very important thing to remember with mental health: having human experiences like thoughts, images, feelings and urges are NOT relapse. Relapses happen because of how we interact with experiences. It’s that interaction that you’re in charge of.

If somebody is engaging in lots of controlling and judging and checking around experiences before the trip, or chasing certainty and feelings and control during the trip, then it’s totally natural they might relapse back into old habits and internal struggles. But it can help to see that not as a relapse on your trip, but as a natural outcome of what you’re practicing. It’s the same as how somebody will feel sore after a workout if they’ve been avoiding the gym for a month. They haven’t “relapsed” into a disorder. In fact, the body is working exactly as designed! The same is true with mental health: if we make excuses to practice lots of unhealthy checking and controlling and ruminating, we experience the natural results of those practices.

But what if intrusive thoughts come back during the trip?

Brains are like uncertainty detectors, and the way they alert us to the uncertainty is by giving us intrusive thoughts, physical sensations, uncomfortable emotions we’ve had experience controlling in the past. The brain registers the uncertainty, doesn’t know how to control it, and throws up something we have tried to control. 

And what does this have to do with not letting intrusive thoughts ruin a vacation? A big help can simply be recognizing why something like this happens. It’s no different than indigestion. The brain is simply an organ trying to digest something it hasn’t before. The intrusive thoughts don’t mean anything about you. If anything, it’s an opportunity for kindness to yourself. It’s an opportunity to show your brain new ways of interacting with experiences. You don’t have to flinch and withdraw. Of course there is uncertainty! Let’s explore it!

Don't turn vacation planning into compulsion practice time

Because relapses don’t fall out of the sky (like an octopus might), it’s useful to look at mental health skills when planning and preparing for any trip. That’s where we’ll engage in the practices that determine where our mental health is at when we go on our journey. 

The brain you take on vacation is the one you’ve been training during the weeks prior. If you’ve been chasing certainty and control about your adventure, researching constantly, micromanaging and overworking in the office, ruminating on every possible disaster that could go wrong, having imaginary arguments with police officers in your head… well, of course you’ll find yourself in Napoli distracted from your gelato because you’re obsessing about whether the world is a simulation. You’ve spent weeks teaching your brain that any amount of uncertainty is a terrible thing and absolute control is a good thing. So helpful brain is bringing up some new uncertainties for you. 

With that in mind, be aware of the patterns you practice while planning and booking. You don’t need to spend weeks researching every review on TripAdvisor. You don’t need to dig yourself back into the mental illness hole trying to get a feeling about the trip. Instead, here is an exercise you can do to identify what you value about the trip and use that to guide your decision making…

Sticky notes that say mezcal and nature, beside a feather pen, and a notepad that asks: What is most important to you on this trip?

How to plan a trip without losing your mind

Understanding what we value is about understanding how we want to spend our time and energy in life. Before we start planning a journey, it helps to first identify what we value. They’re directions. They show us where to go and how to navigate uncertainty, before the trip and during the trip. To identify your values, try this: 

  • Grab some sticky notes or pieces of paper and something to write with. If you’re going on a trip with a group, do this with the group. Make it fun. Go out for coffee, bring the sticky notes, and give everybody their own pad and marker.
  • If you’re doing this solo, write out everything that’s important to you on this trip. One important thing per note. If you’re doing this in a group, ask everybody to write out the three things that are most important to them.
  • When everybody stops writing, then, one-by-one, place each note on the table and explain why it’s important. Even if you’re doing this solo, take the time to tell the story of why something is important. You may be surprised by your own assumptions about what’s important.
  • Next comes the Silent Sort. Move the most important values to one side, and the least important to the other. If you’re in a group, anybody is allowed to move any note. So if one person moves it way to one side, and somebody else moves it back, that’s fair game. You’ll likely come to some compromise in the middle. Cluster the values that are similar. Finish when there’s no more movement and you have at least one note that’s more important than all of the others.
  • Reflect on the top values. Will they help you make decisions? What will they cut? What will they emphasize? Is anything missing, like money, or time? If it’s missing, how does it factor in?
  • The next step is application. You can use the values like a weighted scorecard. The most important value breaks any ties. Use the scorecard to decide the structure of the trip, where you stay, how you schedule your day, the activities you do, etc. Set time limits as you’re doing research. You can find the best option that scores the highest on your scorecard in 1 hour of searching. It feels wild at first, but you get so much time and health back in return. The scorecard won’t always workout perfectly, but on average, it’s more likely to deliver an amazing trip the delivers on what truly matters to you.

Ok, but what if I have a panic attack on the trip?!

You can handle it. The fear of panic attacks can actually be the thing that triggers a panic attack. It starts a cycle of checking, judging, and controlling internal experiences, and before you know it, trying to avoid a panic attack turns into a spectacular one. 

But there is something you can do about panic attacks before your trip! Check out the dispatch on getting over panic attacks your Guide put together: Getting over a fear of panic attacks on planes

Make sure you pack this important tool in your carry-on...

There is a multi-use tool for handling mental health challenges that you can bring along: curiosity. So much of the struggle with mental health, the stress when things are going wrong, the frustration and anxiety, the craving and the compulsions, originates in an unwillingness to have experiences, and especially experiences we don’t control. 

Curiosity equips us to handle trip disruptions and make smart decisions instead of reacting impulsively to fear. Curiosity helps us notice the urges and cravings inside of us and question if we really want to put those in charge of our actions. Curiosity opens us up to exploring new cultures and foods and opportunities we might have avoided because of fear. Curiosity allows for the brain to do whatever it wants to do while we give it compassion and take it on an adventure. Curiosity replaces judgment with kindness and understanding. Curiosity is less work than constant checking.

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