How Students with Anxiety Can Benefit from Traveling
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How Students with Anxiety Can Benefit from Traveling

Recent news about teen mental health may seem daunting, with studies indicating as many as one in three adolescents may battle with anxiety disorders. The growing recognition of the problem has sparked increased efforts to address the issue.

Travel programs are one tool that can make a big difference since they enable teens to learn how to manage new settings and new people while in a monitored environment. That can be a stepping stone to independent living in college and beyond. A number of Rustic alumni have shared how this certainly was the case with them.

This includes Victoria Hernandez Morales from Guadalajara, Mexico and Megan Gallagher from Los Angeles, California. Hernandez said she was really nervous when she first decided to do a service trip abroad, but her successful journey enabled her to overcome her self-doubts.

“We have so many fears that make us believe we won’t make any friends or that nobody will like us. Luckily, the worries don’t last long,” Hernandez said. “During my travels, there was a shift when I realized that I was actually being my most authentic self.”

Her success led her to catching the travel bug, taking part in eight other programs. Her barriers to success though may have been a bit smaller than Gallagher, who suffered from a challenging anxiety disorder in high school. In her Rustic blog, she shares how she was having more than ten panic attacks a day before she made her first student trip.

student travel in New Orleans with Rustic Pathways

Megan, second from left, with other students from her group in New Orleans.

“It’s really hard to put into words the physical feeling of having that many panic attacks while trying to pay attention in class, having a social life, etc,” Gallagher said.

Despite her fears, Gallagher booked a Rustic trip in the U.S. While on the program, the activities kept her busy enough to distract her from her anxiety.

“For me, to travel to another state at 16 years old was a big deal. I constantly felt anxious, but it was a major breakthrough moment for me,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher learned so much from the experience she went on to be a motivational speaker who talks about overcoming anxiety. There are key reasons why travel can play a role in this growth.

How Travel Helps Teen Mental Health

Taking a break from day-to-day struggles can go a long way towards easing anxiety. Among the reasons it helps are that students:

  • Get away from sources of stress – While traveling there is no pressure to do homework or get good grades. It also takes teens away from peers who may be a source of stress for them in their everyday life
  • Enjoy freedom from their social history – No one on a travel program will know if a teen is “popular” or has a certain image at school. Teenagers can reinvent themselves during a program to the person they want to be.
  • Keep busy – Anxiety-related problems like racing thoughts can be worse when there is too much down time to ruminate.
  • Get active and embrace nature – There are reams of studies on the mental health benefits of exercise and being outdoors. It provides Vitamin D, endorphins and so much more.
  • Help others – A service-oriented project provides multiple benefits. We know helping others is good for mental health. Plus, service projects can give students perspective, enabling them to see the gifts they have in their lives.
  • Laugh – This should hopefully be a given during a travel program, and as the cliché goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.”
  • Increase confidence – Navigating through an independent trip allows teens to believe in themselves more. It enables them to see they can handle challenges on their own, despite their doubts.

None of this is to say the journey will be simple for a teen with an anxiety disorder. Therefore, it’s important to set realistic expectations. It’s also important to make proper preparations for any trip.

Important Steps to Take Before Travel

Teens with anxiety disorders may need to take extra steps before traveling. Here are a few potential considerations.

Practice Relaxation Techniques Before Leaving Home

Teens will benefit from having ways to ease their anxiety when traveling. This could include journal writing, listening to music, doing progressive muscle relaxation and giving themselves self-affirming thoughts. If a panic attack seems to be coming, some teens have success using this technique promoted by the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI):

Take 3 slow and quiet deep breaths
List 5 things you can see
List 4 things you can feel
List 3 things you can hear
List 2 things you can smell
List something positive about yourself
Now take 3 more slow and deep breaths

Know Your Triggers

Triggers lose some of their power when they are recognized. This includes both internal and external ones. Internal ones can include feelings, such as being overwhelmed. External ones can vary greatly ranging from sounds and smells to specific words.

The good thing about travel is a student is less likely to be triggered by common things, such as a specific location, and they may be less likely to encounter other ones ranging from certain songs to particular foods.

Once triggers are recognized, they can be avoided or defused faster.

Carefully Consider Your Program

Where a student goes may depend on what kind of anxiety they have. Students with social anxiety, for example, may want a program with slightly less social interaction. This could be a nature-oriented program or even a surfing program that allows some individual time in the water.

Work Out the Logistics

More thoughts may need to be put into travel aspects such as flight options or medication management. Rustic offers chaperoned flights that may be better for students with anxiety.

If a student is on medication, parents can work with a Rustic travel advisor for details on management. You also can visit the CDC site on medication management abroad. Rules vary by country, so you’ll need to know beforehand what paperwork may be required, such as a copy of a prescription.

Some standard travel health insurance plans do not cover mental health conditions. Therefore, it may be beneficial to look into insurance options.

It’s wise to consult your doctor before traveling as well. A medical professional is the best source for managing the nitty gritty, including handling medication in different time zones.

Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that it is better to tackle mental health challenges when they arise in youth than to let them fester. If students grow in their ability to handle mental health challenges, their chances of success as an adult are much greater.

For more information on student travel program options, please visit our program page.


About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer