This article has been previously published in our free downloadable Mental Health & Self-Care Abroad Ebook.
Travelers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, personalities, and medical histories, and all of these things impact the way we travel.
Take me, for example – I am a 5 foot 8 inch woman (I stand out in large crowds), I am multi-ethnic, though I physically look white (and deal with the respective stereotypes), I am a hard worker (great for volunteering!) who also loves to play and daydream, and I manage daily an autoimmune disease (I have to get good sleep), anxiety (I have to calm my panicking mind), and life in recovery from an eating disorder.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t pretend that crossing a border leaves all of this behind.
My autoimmune disease and anxiety disorder are chronic, but stable; I can take meds daily and manage them. I don’t necessarily want to take meds, and I won’t forever, but right now for traveling, it helps.
The eating disorder (ED) is different. There isn’t a medication specifically for eating disorders. Maybe something for the depression or anxiety can help, but it doesn’t treat your disorder or keep you in recovery. It’s up to you to keep yourself there.
I write this now eating disorder free and loving it, but it was a journey to get here. Treatment started in 2007, followed by relapses, the beginning of recovery (treatment does not simply equal recovery), finding stability so I could study abroad in 2009, slips, volunteering in Guatemala in 2010, and then ending treatment in 2011, when I finally could say that I was fully healthy again.
Even in sustained recovery, though, distorted thoughts and triggering events happen, and they happen as well when you travel.
If you’re considering taking your first solo (or small group) trip abroad, or are getting back out on the road after successful treatment, here’s some important information to consider about travel and eating disorder recovery.
Note: If you have an eating disorder and have not received treatment, the mental, emotional, and physical risks of participating in a travel abroad program far outweigh the benefits. I strongly recommend prioritizing your mental and physical health and seeking treatment before deciding to travel abroad.
Why you should NOT travel abroad if you are still in the thick of your ED.
Regardless of the amount of time spent in treatment, if you still live with recurrent episodes of eating disorder symptoms (i.e. restricting, bingeing, purging, etc.), travel is not the best answer. Beyond the more obvious health risks and chance of the disorder becoming worse, traveling “in symptom” only takes away from your experience. Rather than being present in your studies or your service, the disorder will have a hold over you and will cloud your ability to take in all that your trip abroad has to offer–new opportunities, new friends, new foods, new perspectives, and more.
Since there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for an ED, it can take time to figure out the right combination of therapy style, medication, and medical and nutritional support you need. Disrupting your treatment by leaving to go abroad too soon only leaves you vulnerable to relapse and/or an even longer road to recovery.
So, when is the right time to travel abroad?
Great question! Here’s a quick checklist:
- Are my symptoms under control?
- Is my physical and mental health stabilized?
- Have I been making progress in recovery for a sustained amount of time?
- Do I feel properly supported?
- Does the thought of travel bring joy and excitement (not fear or anxiety)?
Do yourself a HUGE favor and be honest with yourself as you answer these. If you just started treatment a month ago, it is probably not the best time to head out on your own. But if you’ve found a treatment team and plan that is working for you and you’ve been able to reach a stable place in your path to recovery, then talking to your doctor about traveling abroad is definitely in the picture. Just make sure to take the proper steps before traveling abroad with a mental illness.
What to expect while traveling abroad.
A program abroad can have one of three effects on your eating disorder recovery:
1. A new culture and way of life can help you progress in your recovery even more.
This was my experience. The lifestyle I stepped into when I studied in South Africa for three months was different than my lifestyle back home–more laidback, more focused on time spent with others, and appreciating life by simply enjoying the one you have. I found peace within the culture and the people and I no longer needed the eating disorder to find a sense of calm.
2. Since you can’t plan for everything when you travel, the unexpected can be triggering.
Even the most esteemed travel abroad programs can come with delays, last minute changes, setbacks, and participants or staff that you either love or could do without. Your resiliency and coping skills will be tested.
Since it’s easy to turn to your ED for comfort while alone and abroad, resisting the urge is one more challenge to add to the list. This is why it’s essential to make sure you are confident enough in your recovery before traveling, so these challenges don’t send you spiraling backward.
3. More realistically, a combo of the two.
You’ll go through periods where life in your host country is amazing and you want nothing more than to keep it that way, and periods where old triggers creep up and you have to work a bit harder to stay on track.
In my last weeks leading up to returning home, as I also prepared my final papers for class, the carefree attitude I inherited in South Africa for three months quickly reverted to my old stressed-out ways. I had to be honest to myself and program staff on what I needed to remain healthy.
How to keep your mental and physical health abroad.
The good news is there are MANY things you can do while traveling to keep your overall health smooth-sailing!
Make yourself comfortable. Volunteering on your own in the middle of the forest is soothing for some, while studying with a group in a big city is more comfortable for others. Now is not the time to push your limits and comfort zone too far, especially for your first trip abroad in recovery. Choose a location and program type that will make for an easier transition. Don’t worry–there will still be many opportunities to explore different destinations in trips to come!
Do what you know you need to do. Taking care of your basic health needs– a consistent sleep schedule, proper nutrition, limited alcohol, daily medications if needed, etc.–is always fundamental in any type of recovery. If you need structure and balance in your day to day life, do your research on both the country and program ahead of time to know how you will be able to incorporate stability into your new and potentially changing territory.
Make time for yourself. If you are used to running five times a week, journaling before going to bed each night, or starting your day in quiet meditation, make sure you find ways to fit these into your schedule. Not only do coping strategies help during times of stress, but they can also prevent potential breakdowns.
Write things down. Keeping a meal plan can be difficult depending on the type of program you choose, but having a rough outline along with a food journal will help control the anxiety around meal times. Adding positive affirmations, appreciations, and examples of your successful coping in the journal along the way can do wonders for your self-esteem and wellbeing too!
How to deal with triggers and symptoms.
Especially with longer trips abroad, triggers and symptoms are bound to arise, but that doesn’t mean you have to be defeated.
Have a plan. Keep a step-by-step action plan you will take when you experience a severe trigger or can feel the eating disorder “voice” trying to take over. The plan could include in-the-moment coping (such as counting your breaths to 100 to let an urge subside) or Skyping with someone back home to clear your head. Knowing where and how you will be able to find support will help you not get caught off guard.
Talk to someone. Whether you actually talk about the eating disorder or simply talk about the weather, finding someone to connect with or a conversation to distract you also provides in-the-moment support. Being thrown into another country with a group of strangers, program participants often develop close friendships fast. If you’ve been able to connect with some, don’t be afraid to confide in them when you are struggling. While they may not be able to directly relate to an eating disorder, chances are they will also be able to confide about their own struggles, too.
To make talking to someone easier, it’s also a good idea to tell a friend you are traveling with or the director of the program abroad* about the status of your eating disorder before departure. This will not only make it easier to bring up if the time is needed, it will also create a bigger safety net for you.
*If you fear telling the program will jeopardize your opportunity to participate, ask your doctor to write a letter confirming your health status.
Be alert. At this stage in your recovery, you probably know and understand many of your triggers. Maintain awareness of potential triggering circumstances as well as how you are feeling around new situations. Acknowledging triggers and your emotions and talking yourself through them will help you avoid unhealthy responses and old habits.
Be kind to yourself. It’s always frustrating when we’ve had a slip. Throughout all different stages of recovery, slips happen. Remember that a slip (i.e. having an episode or experiencing some symptoms) is not a relapse* and does NOT mean we’ve stepped backwards. You are on a journey, you’ve made it this far to be able to travel abroad, and you are maintaining your health alone! Don’t beat yourself up and let a slip be a floodgate for even more. Stay empowered and help yourself move on.
*If you feel you are experiencing a relapse, talk to your program coordinator immediately.
Travel has been an extremely positive part of my recovery. Seeing life outside of my own– knowing there are so many different types of people, types of beauty, types of joy–has helped me understand and become comfortable in my own skin, in my own beauty, in my own joy.
I write this while on my sixth trip abroad and in my ninth country. And while I’ve been living in strong recovery for five years, I still have to take proper care of myself and be careful so the eating disorder doesn’t come back. But, with each travel experience, the distorted thoughts and urges grow weaker and weaker, and I grow stronger and more confident in my ability to never give in.
I guess in a sense, the world has been part of my recovery; travel when you are ready and have the support you need, so it can also be a part of yours, too.