From the perspective of someone with lived experience with OCD and related disorders.
Traveling can be really stressful for anyone. Things like figuring out directions, going through airport security, and forgetting things at home can all be normal stressors that people feel when going on a trip. When someone is struggling with OCD, it can create added complications when traveling. This person might be feeling all the normal stresses around traveling in addition to their OCD themes latching onto their travel plans.
Some examples of this might include: fears of being stopped at TSA for having something inappropriate, illegal or dangerous in their carry-on bag, fears around not being able to eat food cooked at home due to food cooked elsewhere being potentially contaminated, fears around being in a new city and not knowing where the closest hospitals is in fear of getting ill; the list could go on and on. All that being said, traveling is worth it with OCD because it so often aligns with one’s core values system. This might be because someone values the friendship of the person they’re traveling to see, or values the memories made on a family vacation.
In my case, I value mental health advocacy so that’s why I am challenging myself in traveling to OCD Con 2022. As I begin to plan for my trip, here are five tips that I find helpful when traveling with OCD.
1. Do some “mini” exposures
When you know you have a big exposure in your future that in some ways, is out of your control, a great way to better prepare yourself for that exposure is to start doing mini exposures. For example, if you will be going on a 6 hour road trip alone, you can do a day trip with a friend that’s 2-3 hours away. During that day you can practice some of the activities that you may find potentially triggering on your road trip. Maybe that looks like using public restrooms or eating at a restaurant, even driving on the highway. This is a great way to make that big travel exposure a little easier when the day comes!
2. Pack your comfort items
The last thing you want when you’re traveling is to not have the items that make you feel safe and comfortable. This might be a favorite stuffed animal, a Ziplock bag with fidget toy options, or a soft blanket or sweatshirt. These items can provide sensory comfort when in moments of distress. For some, OCD can attach to certain items such as a sweatshirt or pair of pants. OCD might say, “If you don’t wear this pair of pants on the plane then the plane will crash.” This would be an example of an item that is NOT a comfort item but something that OCD has taken control over. You and your therapist or support system might decide it’s best for you to challenge yourself and not wear that pair of pants on travel day.
3. Have an “emergency” kit
Stay with me here, because I know that the title of this can sound a bit like a safety behavior. When traveling is a 9-10 on your hierarchy, this may be just what you need to survive the trip. To give you an example of an emergency kit, I’ll tell you what’s in mine. As someone who suffers from chronic migraines, I include my migraine PRN’s, some nausea medications, a granola bar, and Liquid IV. I keep a small cosmetic bag with all these items in my carry-on. This way I can rest assured that I do not have to worry about getting a severe migraine while on flight. (Which this is a very real concern for me.) Some things that you won’t find in my emergency bag might be a thermometer, PRN medications that I “might” need but have never needed before, or a first aid kit, because these are all items that I use as safety behaviors or compulsions.
This tip is in your hands! Do you have realistic concerns about getting hangry on your long commute? Your emergency kit might have protein bars and trail mix. Do you get easily overstimulated by noise? Your emergency kit might include sound canceling headphones and an eye mask. On the flip side, is one of your OCD fears when traveling having your phone die? Maybe your emergency kit shouldn’t include a phone charger. Work with your mental health provider to help you identify your safety behaviors. If you are in need of a mental health provider, visit iocdf.org/find-help/ to find an OCD specialist near you.
4. Set specific goals
Traveling for many is a 10+ on the hierarchy and that can often come with the urge to do as many exposures as possible because you’re out there doing the hard thing so, might as well go all out…right?! Well, maybe not. Adding on exposure after exposure during your trip plus experiencing the ever present unplanned exposure, this could easily lead to flooding (adding a planned exposure after experiencing exposures during your travels) or feel overwhelming. Instead, you and your therapist or support system may find it best to set a few specific OCD related goals to accomplish during your trip. Maybe you won’t check your luggage before going through TSA or you’ll resist doing your prayer ritual for 5 minutes before boarding the plane. This way there isn’t pressure when the hundreds of exposures are arising throughout your trip to lean into each and every one.
5. Utilize the support at your disposal
There’s no doubt that this trip you’re about to take is going to be hard! Going into it with that realistic mindset is important. However, it is also important to remember that you are not alone on this ‘literal’ journey you are about to take. Before leaving, take notes of who your support system will be on this trip. Are you traveling with a friend who knows about OCD and the goals you’ve set for this trip? Does your therapist allow you to text them for on the spot coaching? Are you traveling to OCD Con where they offer coaching by real OCD therapists if you find yourself “stuck” in your hotel room? Know who your support system is and use them, that’s what they’re there for.
We made it! Let’s summarize. This trip you’re about to embark on might be really hard, but remind yourself how it aligns with your values. Before you leave, prepare mini exposures to make this big exposure slightly easier. Pack your comfort items to provide a sense of safety and familiarity while away from home. Consider making an emergency kit. What would you put in it? Did the things you include accommodate your OCD? If so, consider switching out some items. What specific goals did you set for this trip? How do you plan on accomplishing them while at this destination? And finally, who will you have there for support on this journey? Did you save their contacts in your phone? Have an honest conversation with them about how you will need their support on this trip?
Hopefully all these tips helped you to feel more confident before leaving on your next vacation. Remember that OCD can make traveling more difficult but it doesn’t need to stop you from pursuing something you value.
The 27th Annual OCD Conference will take place July 8-10th in Denver. The Annual OCD Conference brings together individuals and families living with OCD, mental health professionals, and researchers, to educate and empower the community. Learn more and register for the conference.