You could probably use a relaxing getaway. Traveling with bipolar disorder can be a positive experience, but it’s wise to plan well.

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Who isn’t fantasizing about the next time they’ll be able to chill out on vacation? Taking a break is an essential part of stress management. But if you live with bipolar disorder, traveling can have unintended impacts on your mental well-being.

You don’t have to cancel all of your travel plans, though. You can still get the most out of your vacation while managing your bipolar disorder symptoms with some extra planning.

People who live with bipolar disorder can benefit from travel the same as anyone else. But if you have bipolar disorder, you might want to wait until you’ve reached a euthymic state (mood disturbance-free state), recommends Dr. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Effects of travel on people with bipolar disorder

There are broad benefits to traveling for recreation. One study shows that traveling may help with depression. People who travel frequently are 7% happier and more satisfied with life than people who don’t travel.

Still, waiting in long airport lines, flying, navigating unknown territory, and experiencing jetlag and disrupted sleep patterns are parts of travel that can also contribute to intensified bipolar disorder symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that traveling can stir up anxiety and depression and worsen symptoms in people managing a mental health condition.

You can get the most out of your vacation while keeping your mood disorder at the forefront of your planning by considering the following recommendations:

1. Collaborate with your clinician, avoid a spontaneous departure

Depending on which type of bipolar disorder you experience, episodes of mania could spur feelings of impulsivity, grandiosity, and urges to overspend.

You might find it helpful to let your therapist, counselor, or support team know when you’ll be leaving and give them an overview of your itinerary.

Similarly, if you think a trip will help with a depressive episode, and you get away from home only to discover it doesn’t, you may find it reassuring that you can reach out to your support network.

2. Bring extra meds

There are endless ways to lose items while traveling — from airport security to forgetting a bag in the back of your ride-share. You could bring extra medication and pack it in a separate bag to more than cover what you’ll need while traveling.

3. Book departures and arrivals around your schedule

There’s no trophy for the most jam-packed trip. You can give yourself some breathing room between arrival, your planned activities, and departure to minimize travel stress.

4. Flexibility is your friend

You might want to go easy on yourself if you need some extra, unplanned time to manage your bipolar disorder symptoms.

“Don’t be afraid to change your plans,” Wind says. “Even if you intended to visit a place of interest, if you’re not feeling up to it, cancel your plans and focus on self-care. You can always change your itinerary or come back again.”

5. Plan for your known triggers

Stressors such as crowds, lack of sleep, and poor diet can worsen your mental state. “Letting your therapist know about your travel plans can be very helpful to understand potential changes in the environment and how you can handle any potential triggers,” Wind says.

6. Prioritize your self-care

Self-care is not selfish pampering. Instead, as recent research explains, self-care is making decisions that best support your health — emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual.

Your version of self-care might be keeping your regular bedtime hours even while on a getaway, so a break in routine doesn’t spur a mood shift. Or it might be enjoying moments away from a boisterous family during a group vacation to preserve your boundaries.

Whatever helps you feel your best, having all the items to intervene should you experience depression or anxiety is essential.

7. Keep some free time open for exercise

You might want to pack your running shoes and athletic gear. One 2019 study finds improvements in depressive symptoms and overall well-being when people with bipolar disorder exercise.

8. Plan for your transition back home

A vacation can have a lasting impact, good and bad, once you’re back home. You might be wondering, can jet lag cause depression post-vacation? Absolutely.

To give your body time to adjust after your return, the CDC advises:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • avoiding alcohol
  • eating small meals
  • scheduling important events for no sooner than a couple of days after your return

You can escape to the scenic mountains, the quaint countryside, or the calming oceanside. Wherever you go, you can consider your routine and management of your bipolar disorder symptoms in every step of your vacation planning. This way, you’ll set yourself up for a relaxing vacation with realistic expectations and can lessen the unwanted effects of travel.