How Travel Has Helped My PTSD

It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m in Myanmar exploring a bustling market next to yet another pagoda on Inle Lake. The smells of mohinga and burning incenses fill the air while colourful longyis, shiny jewellery, and a few random crowns made out of teeth keep my eyes busy with curiosity. Though utterly exhausted from two days of hiking through the countryside of Shan State compounded by four and a half months of intense travel, I’m riding a high from the past few days filled with laughter, holiday cheer, friendship, beautiful scenery, and tons of delicious food and I feel like nothing can bring me down.

But suddenly, I stop dead in my tracks. I feel like I can’t breath and my heart is racing. It’s like I’m trapped in a dark room that’s caving in and there’s no way out. I’m being transported back to that night when I was assaulted.

It was a classic anxiety attack combined flashback.

I’ve spent enough time sitting on a comfy couch across from numerous therapists and doing my own self-reflection and healing work to know my triggers and how to cope as best as I can when situations like these do arise. The trigger? I remember seeing a face in the crowd of people that looked exactly like one of my rapists. The next thing I know I’m scrambling to find a place to sit down so I can try to pull myself together and message my tour leader in case I can’t calm myself down before it was time to meet the group to depart for our next stop of the day. How do I cope?

“Breath in through my nose, out through my mouth,” I repeat in my head over and over again as I focus on the rough cement beneath my bare feet to ground myself in the present. I begin counting in binary because the nerd in me has decided time and time again that it's the best way to peel my mind away from a flashback. I gently massage the back of my neck to remind my body that pleasure does still exist. My mind might have been trapped in that night, but I had to remember that I was physical safe with nearly seven years and over 8,000 miles separating that moment from this moment.

I sometimes wonder if part of the reason why I love travel as much as I do is because it’s a way to escape the parts of my past that I long to forget. But then things like this happen and I’m reminded that there is no escape from the memories or the past, there’s only the process of learning to cope, heal and move beyond the trauma so I can thrive instead of just survive. Travel has empowered me to regain control over my body and my life by giving me opportunities to simply follow my heart and do things like paragliding in the Swiss Alps or exploring abandoned bob sled tracks in Bosnia and Herzegovina or riding horses in Mongolia or hiking the Great Wall of China that have no real purpose other than providing me with joy. Travel has given me the chance to thrive which has proven to be a necessary step for me in the constant process of healing from trauma.

Not only that, travel has put me in situations where I have to test the skills I’ve learned over the years for coping in a healthy way with my PTSD and the anxiety and depression that stem from it. For me, I think these sorts of tests that travel has provided where I have no option but to cope and push through (because I’m literally on an island in Myanmar with no accessible transport anywhere) have proven to me that I’m capable of more than I give myself credit for, even if it may not always be pretty or something I can do alone. It’s shown me that I’m ready to take on the world in whatever shape or form that may take, and while trauma and PTSD will always be part of my life, I don’t have to let it dictate my life.