The Invisible Carry On Luggage: Trauma- A Guide to Traveling with PTSD

It may seem hard to imagine laying out in the sand on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world while still feeling a complete sense of dread and terror, as a panic attack begins to consume you. Unfortunately, for many travelers that live with PTSD, this is the case. I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD for a long time, and while traveling has helped me a lot in my recovery, there are definitely times where I’ve found myself in some of the greatest places in the world where many would die to be, and yet I feel I’m dying as I’m there.

Would you guess I’m on the verge of a panic attack in this shot?

When checking your bags at the airport, it’s easy for everyone to see the big bag you’re checking, your one carry-on, and personal item. No one sees, however, that sneaky suitcase which is PTSD. That suitcase has no weight, yet it’s the heaviest one I always take. I long to leave it behind, yet it tags alongside me wherever I go. It makes it past all security gates every time, yet it’s a highly powerful explosive.

PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a mental disorder that can envelope a persons life after they’re exposed to a traumatic life event, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, or other threats to a person’s life. Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in how a person thinks and feels, and an increase in the fight or flight response (from Wikipedia).

Taken at East Day Spa in Auckland, NZ

Luckily, there are many tools I’ve developed to help myself and others during the more difficult times during travel.  I’ve also been able to identify some of the rougher periods where things can get tough mentally on vacations so anyone can be prepared for the unexpected, (can anyone say STRESS while on a 16-hour flight over the ocean experiencing major turbulence while a plane full of coughing and sneezing people surround you while a child kicks your seat?!).

First of all, airports and airplanes. A lot of people, not just those who’ve experienced trauma, get a sense of dread when they hear those words. Horrible thoughts come to mind: security checks (unwanted touching can be an especially triggering experience for those who have experienced assault), hijackings, long waits, flight delays, inclement weather, bombs, engine trouble, getting bloodied up by airline staff, etc. It can be difficult to even think about! I’ve always loved airports personally and they calm me in a weird way. Maybe because my parents always took me traveling when I was young, I believe that child-like wanderlust stuck with me. I do tend to get quite anxious about missing my flight though, so it’s different for everyone!

Changi Airport has beautiful gardens. this photo showcases the Orchid Garden of Changi in Singapore International Airport (SIN). A perfect place to relax when feeling overwhelmed. I’ve never felt such a place of relaxation. America’s airports are put to shame compared to other airports around the world! Just in one garden alone, there are over 5000 flora and fauna! There are over 10,000+ in other gardens!  Just imagine the city itself. It’s truly a world to explore! 

Changi Airport is perfect for anyone with airport nervousness as there are so many beautiful gardens to relax in. I’ve found transit to be one of the most nerve wracking parts of travel, so I’ve decided to focus on this part of travel for PTSD sufferers.

Here are a few tips for airport and airline nervousness:

  1. This may seem like an obvious first tip, but always arrive extra early for your flight. If your flight is scheduled to leave at 10:00am, that means boarding will be at 9:15am and the plane is TAKING OFF at 10:00am. The general rule of thumb is to arrive two hours early for domestic flights, and 3 hours early for international flights. That can sometimes seem a bit early, but I’ve found it’s worth it. This is what I would recommend, especially to feel comfortable. Sometimes it can be fun to get there even earlier and explore the airport a bit if you enjoy airports as much as I do! Don’t forget there may be a long line at security as well! Also, arriving a little bit early can help you get acquainted to your surroundings, find your gate, and even grab a quick bite to eat (or at least a cup of coffee if you don’t want to spend $15.00 for a sandwich, airline food is as much as it is at Disney World!). 
  2. Different seats on the plane may be better suited for different people, it all depends on YOU.  For me, I strongly prefer a window seat. I need to be able to see out into the open space outside, and the beautiful clouds and scenery comfort me (bonus for great photos too!)
  3. The view from Tanjong Surat
  4. . I also like the fact that the airplane’s wall gives me a nice sturdy place to rest my head. For others, an aisle seat may be your best bet, since it will allow you to get up easily and you wont feel as trapped. In fact, most people prefer aisle seats. 
  5. Being in an airplane with PTSD can really throw off one’s sense of being grounded. When you’re high up in the sky, it’s not easy to feel centered with the Earth. Remember grounding techniques, and also consider a comfort kit to help with the claustrophobia of being so close to others during transit.

This is the best comfort kit I’ve found online, but you can also create your own!

6.Try to avoid or limit alcoholic beverages on flights, especially if you take medication. While flying at a high altitude, alcohol will hit you much harder. While drinking may seem like a good idea to take the edge off, booze can actually cause you to get sick or have a bad reaction on a flight. Better to be safe than sorry. If you must imbibe, stick to something light in sugar or something you know you can handle well, and limit to one. An airplane is not the time to try out that new exotic drink!

Special Tip:

Being in an airport you don’t recognize can be fun but also very disorienting and scary if you’re a traveler with PTSD. Make sure to always double and triple check your itinerary, and remember that there are information booths set up around many airports with very helpful attendants who typically speak multiple languages! Don’t be afraid to ask for help and always stick with the person you’re traveling with (if you’re not a solo traveler). If you’re in a location where you don’t have wifi and can’t make calls it’s especially important to make sure you stay with your travel partner/s.

7.Always listen to announcements, because your flight could change gates at any moment. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the flight board of arrivals and departures as well.  Of course this also goes without saying, never leave your bags unattended and always report suspicious behavior!

8.It’s okay if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed. If at any time you do feel overwhelmed, try to go to a quiet place, wherever you feel most comfortable, and take some calming breaths. Do whatever you can to try to ground yourself while reminding yourself that you’re safe. Try to picture your legs as tree trunks and your feet as roots going deep into the ground. This can be grounding and helpful to come back into the present moment during periods of dissociation. It also helps me to hold my husband’s hand tightly, and to sip cold water.  Remember, this too shall pass. Think of the destination you’re going to and how it’s going to be INCREDIBLE!

Remember, the world isn’t nearly as dangerous as the news and some people make it out to be. Every traumatic event that happened to me in my life, was at or near my home at the time. Not once have I had something bad happen to me on vacation (unless you count the 16 hour flight with the kid kicking my seat and sneezing the whole time, ha!).

While traveling with PTSD, remember that there are certainly things that can always come up which can trigger flashbacks and other symptoms, but these things can happen at home as well. Don’t let this stop you from seeing the world though! Traveling has helped me to recover more than talk therapy ever has, and even though that PTSD suitcase goes with me along with the rest of my luggage, with time I hope that it can become a little lighter with each trip and each year!

What are your thoughts? Do you have PTSD or an anxiety related disorder? What are some things that you’ve done to help cope during periods of stress during travel?

Comment below and as always, happy safe travels!

*This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to test, diagnose, or replace the advice of physicians or health care practitioners. It is also not intended to diagnose or prescribe treatment for any illness or disorder. Anyone already undergoing physician-prescribed therapy should seek the advice of his or her doctor before reducing the dosage or stopping such treatment. Please call anyone in the case of an emergency. *

to The Invisible Carry On Luggage: Trauma- A Guide to Traveling with PTSD

  1. Marya says:

    i agree about arriving early at the airport. i get used to travel alone, i think in the opposite of most people, i feel uneasy whenever i have a partner to travel because the last time i traveled in group, i actually missed my flight. it was horrible as i never experienced it before. 🙁

    about the choice of seat though, i really thought that people were only divided into two categories, window-seat and aisle-seat people. guess what? my ex-roommate happened to be the girl who was crazy enough to choose the middle seat, it was hilarious when i found out! 😛

  2. Lizzie says:

    Thank you for sharing – it’s so important to keep the conversation about mental health out in the open! It’s great to see that you still travel, and have learnt realistic ways of dealing with your PTSD, to stop it getting in the way of your life! You go!

  3. Thank you very much!

  4. A middle seat lover?! I’ve never heard of that either!

  5. My dad is always about arriving that early, but I think it depends more on the airport and online check-in. Like here in Prague, we’ve a tiny airport. It takes alyou a max of twenty minutes to drop your bag and get passed security and passport control. Of course, if you’re prone to anxiety like he is, then it’s best to just go, heh.

  6. Keshia says:

    Really good written article. I hope you will inspire a lot of other people diagnosed with PTSD. Keep up the good work.

  7. Thank you Keshia for your kind words 💖

  8. Agreed about the tiny airports, don’t want to be bored to tears lol! Oh and I bet Prague is absolutely stunning!

  9. Elisa says:

    Great article! I’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD but I do experience extreme anxiety in a lot of situations, this past year has been the best it’s every been but it’s still there. Thank God for patient husbands is all I can say! Great way to bring awareness girl! Happy travels to you!

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