“Triggers control bipolar disorder,” said Julie A. Fast, a bestselling author of books on bipolar disorder, including Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder and Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder.
Common triggers include lack of sleep, time changes, new people and relationship problems, she said. Each individual’s triggers may vary, so while one person may be triggered by having to deal with unexpected changes to their schedule, another may be upset by missing a meal or having to deal with an angry partner.
Unfortunately, travel has all these elements. That’s why it’s critical to plan ahead and prepare for your trip. Fast offered these tips to help.
1. Prioritize sleep.
Sleep is the main challenge when traveling, according to Fast, also a professional coach who works with family members and partners of a loved one with bipolar disorder.
“If you are traveling to a different time zone, try to get on that sleep pattern before you leave.” When Fast travels from Portland to New York, she goes to sleep earlier and earlier before flying out. On the way back she naturally stays up later.
Don’t scramble packing the night before, which also sabotages sleep. “[T]he sooner you pack, the easier the trip.”
Talk to your doctor about using a sleep aid. “Just make sure you know the strength and if it will actually work.”
If you can afford it, getting a hotel room also helps with restful sleep. Fast has many friends who stay in hotels when visiting their families. “The family finds it odd at first, but they will get used to it.”
2. Book flights around your schedule.
Don’t try to save $100 or even $200 by booking a 4 a.m. flight or another time that clearly doesn’t work for you, Fast said.
Buy flights with fewer stops. If you are changing planes, make sure to schedule enough time between flights. It’s better to be bored than stressed out, she said.
And “If you really have the money, buy business class.”
3. Bring extra medication.
You might run into everything from flight delays to extra layovers to heavy traffic to family emergencies. In other words, you might be traveling for longer than you originally thought. And you don’t want to run out of your medication.
Think of traveling with bipolar disorder like traveling with diabetes, said Fast, who also pens a blog on bipolar disorder.
4. Ask for help.
Fast’s family knows how difficult traveling is for her. Her mom has helped her book flights and pack for her trips.
Maybe your family can help you clean the house so packing is easier (and you have a tidy home to return to), plan transportation to and from the airport, gas up your car or make a list of things you’ll need for your trip, Fast said.
5. Plan ahead for what might go wrong.
“In preparation [for your trip], think about bipolar first, and plan accordingly to minimize triggers,” Fast said. She suggested asking yourself these questions: What’s caused problems in the past? What might cause problems this time? How can you prepare for those problems? What is your plan if you start getting sick?
“Planning ahead is the only way to prevent the mood swings that sneak up on you when you travel.”
6. Bring things that’ll make your trip easier and more enjoyable.
This could be anything from packing snacks and sandwiches so you’re well-nourished and energized to downloading your favorite podcasts so you’re not bored. Fast, who’s a big soccer and cycling fan, downloads hours of sports podcasts to her iPod. She also downloads movies from Netflix and brings her Kindle.
7. Make time for exercise.
Movement is crucial for your mental, physical and emotional health. But it’s hard to fit physical activities in when you’re traveling.
If you’re at the airport early or have time between your flights, walk around. Fast listens to her podcasts while walking at the airport. “If you’re in the car, stop at least every few hours to walk, stretch, do yoga or run a bit,” she said.
8. Plan for your return.
“Don’t be shocked to have a mood swing when you get home,” Fast said, “especially depending on how long you’ve been away.” She suggested scheduling an appointment with your doctor within one or two weeks of coming home. (If you’re OK, you can always cancel.)
To help you plan for your return, consider: “What would be good for you when you get back home?”
9. Focus on your self-care.
If you’re on a tour, skip half the day or the whole day, Fast said. (“Say you have a migraine.”) If you’re visiting your family, and a potentially triggering conversation comes up, take a walk, she said. “Remember, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone when it comes to taking care of yourself.”
10. Wash your hands constantly.
Fast stressed the importance of taking care of your physical health. Use wipes, wash your hands, and watch where you put your hands, she said.
11. Try to be flexible.
“[L]et go of situations where things are not going your way,” Fast said. She recalled a trip to Hong Kong where her friend took complete control of their trip. “At first I was mad. Then I thought, ‘Oh well, it’s less work for me and we won’t fight about our travel plans.’ It worked well.”
12. Just breathe.
When you do get anxious or overwhelmed, focus on your breath. Slow down panicked panting by taking slow, deep breaths to a count of four, Fast said. Here’s more on breathing to reduce anxiety.
Traveling when you have bipolar disorder can be tricky. That’s why it’s vital to plan ahead, and be prepared. Also, remember: “[I]f you get really sick, it’s OK, really OK, to leave early and always call for help,” Fast said. Your health is more important than any trip.