Tips for Traveling with PTSD

Traveling can be a fun yet stressful experience, and this is especially true if you suffer from PTSD. One of my least favorite things about traveling is the plane flight to get to the destination. I especially hate the process of getting on the plane because there’s so many random people around and there’s no space to move. Then, random noises start to make me irritable and I can easily snap. Hopefully I lose it on someone close to me and they somewhat understand what is happening. I just can’t stand when someone bumps into me– it makes me feel unsafe. These are just a few of the thoughts that run through my head while traveling and suffering from PTSD.

Now that I’ve had PTSD for a few years, and have taken multiple flights since then, I have gathered some tools that help me with my PTSD symptoms when I’m trying to catch a flight. It’s important that when traveling, you remember to bring and use tools because it can be very easy to forget them and then go into a full-blown panic attack. You’ll need to have easy access to these items because if you have trouble accessing them you can get more frustrated, which can definitely accelerate and heighten emotions.

One of my favorite techniques is a grounding technique with all 5 of the senses– taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. I have found this grounding method most helpful when I get triggered and need to get my self out of a negative mindset. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t be fun getting arrested on the plane for completely freaking out and letting a panic attack get the best of you, so it’s important to have your PTSD on lock while traveling.

When I start to experience shortness of breath, and I feel my mind drift away, I know I have to begin the 5 senses grounding technique.

1. Sight.

I personally like to start with sight. This one is the easiest ones for me to use. I like to start easy and work my way toward the more difficult ones, especially when I’m trying to get out of a certain headspace.

For sight, you want to start pointing out things that are around you. It can be colors, people you see that make you happy, or really any object that interests you. For me, I focus on colors. What I do is I begin to look for the color red. Red is an easy color to start with because it’s vibrant and so easy to spot. After I have found everything that is red I move on to two more colors to find. Make sure that you are choosing easy colors to find so this technique doesn’t have the opposite effect on you. Find a few of the colors that you choose to focus on and then move on to the next sense.

2. Sound.

After finding all the colors and starting to get the negative feelings out of my head, I move to the sound technique. On the plane or in the terminal there are many sounds that are not enjoyable. One of my favorite items that I have started to travel with are noise canceling headphones. I can plug them into my phone or my laptop and play my favorite music or some melodic calming tunes. Listen to one of your favorite songs or a couple minutes of the melodic tunes. This is going to help you focus on better and more relaxing sounds than the sounds that are bothering you. Other sound techniques include talking to yourself about something you enjoy. Talking out loud and just listening to your own voice helps awaken your sound sense. Headphones aren’t always accessible, so it’s also important that you have another way to use the sound technique.

3. Touch.

When I fly, I always bring a soft blanket with me. It’s so easy to pull out of your bag or even carry around your neck. You can still have your noise canceling headphones on your head, but focus on stroking the blanket. Feel the blanket and describe how the blanket feels. Really get yourself thinking about how good it feels to touch the blanket. After feeling the blanket for a few minutes and really studying the feeling, move on to smell.

4. Smell.

Now that you are starting to feel good, you want to make sure that you don’t sink back into panic mode. You are going to need to awaken the other 2 senses. To awaken my sense of smell, I bring my miniature lavender essential oil. I’ll hold it close to my nose and dab a bit on my wrist to really get the aroma flowing. Lavender can be very overwhelming for some people, but it gives a calming effect, so I like to use it. Of course you’ll need to find your favorite scent! To find your favorite scent, you can go to your nearest natural food market and test the oils there. Every natural food market that I’ve ever been to always has a place where you can test the oils.

Another technique for smell is to smell the blanket you brought with you from home. I like to take my blanket straight from my bed so that it smells like my dog Cash. Take a minute or two and to take in that sense and then move on to the last sense which is taste.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil from Sprouts

5. Taste.

By now you should be feeling back to normal, with little to no anxiety, but there’s still one last sense that you need to awaken. For taste, I like to chew gum. I prefer peppermint flavored gum, but cannot do cinnamon. You can also chew flavored toothpicks too. The key is, whatever you do, try not start eating food. You do not want to associate eating with stress, so stick to something that you won’t ingest. If you do not have gum or a toothpick, just swish around your own salvia in your mouth and think of the taste in your mouth. Do this for a minute or two.

Now that you have finished all 5 of the sense techniques you should feel better and should have settled down. If you use these techniques before getting on the plane then set a timer on your phone so you won’t forget to get to your flight on time.

This grounding technique has helped me so much not only when traveling but in every day situations too. I wanted to share this because I get so many questions about how I cope with my PTSD. This technique may not work for everyone and it does take a lot of practice to get it down. I know that the first couple of times of trying it myself, I couldn’t remember anything except to look for the color red. In all honesty it probably took me fifteen times to remember how to do everything, so try not to get frustrated with yourself!

I have attached a website that helps remind me how to ground myself using my senses. It also has a lot of other techniques for when you’re about to have a panic attack.

I hope you guys have found this helpful, and if you don’t have PTSD, just try to be there for a friend you has it.

xoxo Terra Newell

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  • Terra, I have PTSD and I hate traveling but I’ve had a hard time pointing why flying causes me so much stress. I think you identify the reasons so clearly, all these strangers at close proximity,you, the noise, the lines. I love your 5 tips and I will definitely refer back to them prior to my next trip to prepare myself.

    • I think its important to do that also if you have Anxiety. For me personally the loud noises brings me back to to the attack but for someone else it might be something else that makes them anxious or triggers them.

      • Phew. Today I am going to practice that.
        I had heard of the five senses grounding… but love ALL the preparation for dealing with anxiety attacks.
        In that way you acknowledge it exists.
        It takes time to “tell” people that you have anxiety/ptsd/panic attacks bc you want to “appear” normal, so I am relieved to see that you still HAVE friends.
        I’m off to get a soft blankie.
        ❤Melbourne Australia.oxo

  • Last November, I had a terrible experience at the security checkpoint in Honolulu Airport. Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to lessen my stress while I’m waiting in the TSA line. While there’s only so much I can do while waiting in line, I can probably try fitting these techniques into my wait to avoid the kind of panic attack that nearly derailed my flight back to the mainland last fall.

  • These are really helpful strategies. I had the headphones and blanket but am definitely going to bring a soothing scent with me next Time. I like that the coping techniques can be done without drawing attention to myself.

  • All these ideas are great. Also, Dr.’s can give people who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, etc., prescription medicines that truly work.

  • I’m in the UK and have just heard your story ! I work with people affected by domestic violence and as a survivor myself can I just please say you are an inspiration !!

  • Hi Terra,

    Thank you so much for writing this, I also have PTSD as a result of 2 consecutive car accidents and my therapist only recently suggested what you’ve mentioned. And it feels better knowing it works for other people too. Thanks heaps hun! Keep up the good work xx

  • Hi Terra,

    Thank you so much for posting this, I also have PTSD as a result of 2 consecutive car accidents so traveling is a nightmare for me.. but my therapist actually recently mentioned what you suggest and it makes me feel so good knowing it works and helps others. Thanks hun, keep up the good work xx

  • I’m really impressed about your last situation… But the most impressed me was your courage to react when that happened. You’re an example of resilience, thanks for share about you and help other people.
    From Cali, Colombia, hugs!

  • I like your tip about bringing essential oils to calm yourself down. That makes sense considering you want to stay as stable as possible in new environments. I’ll have to consider your tips so that I can keep myself calm when walking my dog.

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