How Teens Can Handle Mental Health Challenges When Traveling
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How Teens Can Handle Mental Health Challenges When Traveling

News reports about teen mental health certainly haven’t been great in recent years, and the pandemic didn’t help. Naturally there may be worries about how a student will fare during a summer travel program. But now there may be a greater focus on these concerns.

For many years, there have been teens who travel with Rustic Pathways who face a little bit of homesickness or anxiety. In most cases that eases once the students get settled. For teens with mental health challenges, it may take a little longer or require some tools to provide assistance.

Rustic Pathways met virtually with Dr. Yishan Xu to talk about student stress and sleep to discuss ways to support these students. She is a licensed psychologist and the founder of Mind & Body Garden Psychology. Dr. Xu also is a behavioral sleep medicine specialist who trained in the Stanford Sleep Medicine Department.

With her help, we shared sleep tips, including how to handle jet lag, in our blog on sleep myths. Now we’re tackling tips for teen stress and mental health.

A Therapeutic Foundation

To begin, it’s helpful for families to know a little bit about a common treatment used by therapists called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There are many books written about the topic, and a student would generally need a professional to benefit from the therapy. Still is helpful to understand the core concepts of CBT.

As a general overview, CBT refers to how three aspects of our lives interact like the three corners of a triangle – thinking, emotions and behavior. For a teen, a negative cycle could develop like this – a teen may think, “I’m a bad student because my grades are not where I want them to be.” These thoughts could trigger emotions like anxiety or sadness. As that grows, it would manifest in behaviors like wanting to stay home from school.

The goal of CBT is to break negative cycles – to redirect the thinking or behavior in hopes of alleviating challenging emotions. One aspect of this is an understanding that thoughts are not necessarily reality. Just because someone thinks they are a bad student does not mean they actually are.

On the emotional front, it actually can be difficult for some kids and teens to label their emotions. This is particularly true if they are suffering from depression, which can cause numbness in some people. One small way to see if this is happening is to utilize one of the emotion card games that are available for teens and adults. Proper labeling of emotions is important for mental health.

Once this foundation is set, then students can identify moments where they may need tools to prevent a negative situation from escalating.

Techniques That Help

When on the road there are several techniques that can ease anxiety or other dips in mental health. Here are a few ideas:

5,4,3,2,1 Grounding Technique

This is a method often promoted by the mental health organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). There are slightly different variations, but generally the process is the same.

In a moment of high anxiety, a person is asked to:

Take 3 slow and quiet deep breaths
List 5 things you can see
List 4 things you can feel/touch
List 3 things you can hear
List 2 things you can smell
List 1 thing positive about yourself
Take 3 more slow and quiet deep breaths

Gratitude Journal

This is a quick and easy task that is worthwhile for everyone. At the end of each day, you write down three good things that happened that day. If you want to expand on that, you can write down why you think they are good.

They do not have to be big things. It could be as simple as stopping to notice a flower that is blooming. It can help focus your brain on the good things in life.

TIPP Technique

This is frequently used by therapists who use a treatment called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It involves four steps that can help with overwhelming emotions: temperature change, intense exercise, paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

  • Temperature Change – Cooler temperatures can help lower your heart rate and higher temperatures can increase it. Therefore, in cases of anxiety, holding a melting ice cube may help. If someone is depressed and sluggish, a hot shower or a drink of hot tea may do the trick.
  • Intense Exercise – It is well known that exercise is good for mental health. In this case, the goal is to help with overwhelming emotions. The hope is to use some of the energy causing the emotion. Doing some jumping jacks or running around the block should help restore balance.
  • Paced Breathing – For this, you take in a deep breath for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and breathe out for eight seconds. You continue this for one to two minutes to relieve stress and promote sleep.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – This involves tensing and then relaxing muscles from your forehead to your feet. You start by squeezing the muscles in your forehead for 15 seconds and then slowly releasing for 30 seconds. Then you work your way down to your jaw, shoulders, hands, etc.

These are just a few of the techniques that can help teens get through stressful moments. Aside from these tools, it’s also beneficial to ensure that teens are exposed to a good ratio of positive and negative comments. We should aim for a 5 to 1 or 4 to 1 ratio. For parents that means for every negative comment given to a teen, we should aim to share four or five positive comments.

All of these steps go a long way towards helping teens thrive at home and when on the road. Teens who are worried can rest assured that many other students with mental health challenges have thrived during Rustic programs. You can read more here:

How Students with Anxiety Can Benefit from Traveling

How A Student Travel Program Helped Me Overcome My Anxiety

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.