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Make Your Summer Vacation Pain-LESS: Travel Tips for Chronic Pain, Pt. 1

Updated: Jun 15, 2023


Person looking at a map to plan a vacation at home.

Photo by Brady Knoll, Pexels.com


Do your vacations actually feel like a vacation?


The stress of getting ready, the logistics of travel, and a hectic sightseeing pace can leave anyone exhausted after a trip.


But when you experience chronic pain, your pain and other symptoms may worsen—or even become debilitating—before, during, AND after the trip.


As you’re lying in bed at your hotel room with a pillow over your head instead of being out at the Broadway show you bought tickets for months ago…


Or when you’ve been home from your vacation for a week and are still too wrecked to return to your usual routine…


…you may wonder if it’s worth it to take a vacation at all.


There’s a lot of great advice on the internet about managing pain while traveling, and much of it revolves around preparation: having everything you need to be as comfortable as possible on an airplane or being ready for emergency situations.


We’re taking a slightly different approach.


Pain science contends that pain is a multidimensional phenomenon, not only a physical phenomenon.


All pain comes back to a sense of danger and fear in the nervous system.


The greater the sense of danger, the more hypervigilant the nervous system becomes, the greater the likelihood that you will experience pain.


If we experience an increase in pain, then the nervous system is interpreting a higher level of danger. By default we tend to think that an increase in physical pain means an increase in physical danger.


However, fear of physical injury is not the only fear that contributes to a sense of danger in the nervous system. In fact any fear, from the fear of being late to the fear of offending someone, influences our overall sense of danger and hypervigilance.


In this article series, we will examine some common vacation fears you may not have realized can impact the physical pain you experience.


We will also offer the “antidote” for each fear. These are tips to get you thinking along the lines of increasing safety in your nervous system.

The safer we feel, the greater the likelihood of less pain, more enjoyment, and greater satisfaction with your vacation this summer.


The exact strategies that will work for you may be variations of what are suggested in these articles, so think of this more as a starting point to explore what leads to hypervigilance for you and what leads to a sense of security and wellbeing.


Without further ado, here is the first common vacation fear we will look at:

THE FEAR: Missing Out

It’s not every day you get to go on vacation, and you want it to be as good as it can be! Of course, there are limits to time, energy, and money, so part of the planning process is deciding how you will spend those resources—and how you won’t.


As you sift through all the possible places to stay, restaurants to try, and sights to see, you may feel your anxiety on the rise:

  • If you cannot find the ideal accommodations you’ve envisioned, you may relentlessly scour the internet, hoping that the perfect listing will eventually pop up.

  • If you buy plane tickets and later see that the price has dropped, you may lament over what you would have done with that extra money, if only you had bought your tickets a week later.

  • When there are too many things to see and do, you may go around and around in your mind, debating with yourself over what you would most regret missing out on.

If you’ve ever experienced instances like the ones above, you may be able to imagine how the fear of missing out on your vacation can lead to hypervigilance in your nervous system.


When the search for perfection is never-ending, you can’t rest. When you’re always wondering if it could have been better, enjoyment is dampened, satisfaction is out of reach, and you’re more vulnerable to heightened chronic symptoms.


THE ANTIDOTE: Affirm Your Choices

If the possibility of missing out feels dangerous to your nervous system, then confidence in your choices will make your nervous system feel more secure. Here are a few strategies to help you feel more confident while planning your vacation:


Mindset.

The most important way to overcome the fear of missing out is to approach vacation planning with a mindset that engenders confidence in the decisions you make.


First, consider whether you’re trying to plan a perfect vacation or a great vacation. Which do you feel more confident you can actually do? (I will proceed under the assumption that you answered ‘great vacation’.)


As you evaluate different options in the course of planning, ask yourself whether they could be a part of a great vacation. From this point of view, many options could bring satisfaction to your experience, so the pressure to find the ‘best one’ is diminished.


Second, affirm your decisions after you’ve committed to your travel plans and itinerary. Doubt and second-guessing may creep in, so try using affirmations to build confidence in the plan you made.


Here are a few examples:

  • I made wise choices.

  • I spent a reasonable amount of time searching for accommodations.

  • I can afford this vacation.

  • These activities can make for a great vacation.

Set Priorities.

Is it the food? A certain experience? Perhaps there’s a specific view you’d really like to have or a museum you’ve always dreamed of visiting.


Choose 2-3 specific things to do or experience that would make you feel like you had the vacation you wanted, and let everything else revolve around those priorities.


For example, if you’re taking a beach trip to Mexico, you may decide that your priorities are (1) enjoying the sights and sounds of the ocean from the comfort of a cabana, (2) eating fresh seafood from a beachfront restaurant, and (3) drinking tropical drinks.


You may end up forgoing the cheaper accommodations in town in order to stay at a hotel on the beach. And you may not go on the excursion to see the ancient pyramids—but when you stick with your priorities, you can feel confident that you have chosen to spend your resources in a great way.

Curb Your Research.

Daydreaming about and planning your trip is part of the fun, but be honest with yourself: does researching your chosen destination contribute to a fear of missing out?


At first glance, extensive research seems empowering: we think that we can make better decisions when we have all possible information.


But for many of us, the reality is that having too many choices is overwhelming. When we discover allllllllllll the fabulous options out there, it actually becomes harder to make decisions—and once we have decided, it’s harder to let go of all the other possibilities.


Here are some strategies for researching less:

  • Book a pre-planned trip. Try a cruise or hire a guide.

  • Use a suggested trip itinerary. You can find these on travel blogs and in printed guidebooks.

  • Get recommendations. Ask friends and family members whose opinions you trust.

  • Ask your travel companion to research. They can propose a few options based on your priorities

  • Set time limits. Give yourself a predetermined amount of time to gather information.


What do you think of these travel tips for chronic pain? Does the fear of missing out resonate with you? What have you found helps you? Let us know by leaving a comment!


Up next: The fear of being unprepared. Read the article here!


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