by Dr. Ted Zeff
Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2011
Traveling can be challenging for an HSP. Besides the inevitable overstimulation, there are many risks and uncertainties inherent in leaving the safety of home, such as not knowing if you will be able to stay in a quiet and safe place. Yet we all need travel sometimes, often at the holiday season.
The Secret is Careful Planning
It’s important to be able to feel like you have some control in your new environment and that you won’t be overwhelmed by overstimulation. I recently took two trips to Europe in the last six months and am pleased to report that both trips went smoothly because I planned ahead.
Many HSPs, including myself, tend to experience some anxiety as the departure date gets closer. If I’m feeling nervous before a trip, I take either some herbal anti-anxiety formula or Bach flower remedies. Some herbs that calm the nervous system are valerian, passion flower, hops, and chamomile. Since everyone reacts differently to herbs, ask your doctor or health care practitioner what dosage you should take. Since HSPs are usually more sensitive to the effects of herbal formulas, you should begin with a small dose and slowly increase the amount you take under your health care provider’s advice. Experiment with different herbs to see which one works best for your constitution, and be careful about driving when taking sedating herbs like valerian root.
I have also found the Bach flower essence “white chestnut” very effective for lessening unwanted thoughts prior to a trip and “aspen” helps lower the fear of the unknown. Warm organic sesame oil is the only oil that soaks into all seven tissue layers. It also deeply calms the nervous system. If you are anxious about an upcoming trip, apply warm sesame oil on your forehead and ears for at least ten minutes and watch your tension float away.
However, if herbal formulas, flower essences and oils are not strong enough to deal with travel anxiety, you may want to take a low dose of an allopathic anti-anxiety medicine such as Xanax or one of the benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Atavin, Klonopin; which may make some people sleepy) for a day or two before you leave. Allopathic medicine can have side effects if taken over a long time period and could become addictive. Therefore, it’s important to only take a small amount of an anti-anxiety allopathic medicine occasionally. Before I took a trip to India, where I heard about the excessive noise, rampant pollution and illnesses that some people have experienced, I was quite nervous before my flight. Therefore, I took the lowest dose of an allopathic medicine that calmed my nervous system.
Preparing for Arrival
In order to feel secure at your new destination, especially if it’s a foreign country, use the Internet. It can be an HSP’s best friend. Before I travel anywhere, I thoroughly research hotels in order to assess if the inn will work for my sensitive nervous system. I also carefully read the hotel reviews. If many travelers have written that the facility is noisy, dirty, and has an unfriendly staff, I won’t consider staying there. However, don’t discard a hotel if just one reviewer has had a bad experience. I recently stayed at a quiet, HSP-friendly hotel in Minnesota that one reviewer had written was terrible.
When I reserve a room, I always ask for a quiet room, and definitely on the top floor, in the rear away from the traffic, and if possible at the end of the hallway. This summer, I was assigned a room by mistake that was above a hotel bar. I asked to speak to the manager when the clerk told me there were no other rooms available, and after some negotiation, I secured a very quiet room. It’s important to speak up rather than spending an uncomfortable night in a noisy or dirty room.
You can reduce annoying ambient noises in your hotel room by turning on an air conditioner (in the summer) or a fan, and be sure to take a small sound machine that offers different sounds from nature, such as the flow of a river or “white noise.” You can buy long-lasting batteries for your portable sound machine so you only have to change batteries once during a two week trip. I use batteries since I have had some problems with electric converters.
Another blessing of the Internet is to be able to print out maps of your destination city so that you will feel more secure in a strange location. I have always felt overwhelmed trying to decipher street maps in a foreign country or even sometimes in the United States, but now I simply print out street maps so that I will have an understanding how to navigate through a strange city from my hotel to different sites. If needed, I will give myself the comfort of taking a taxi rather than trying to figure out how to take public transportation when I first arrive in a new locale. Even if I don’t take a cab, knowing that that option is available gives me peace of mind.
Another advent of modern technology that has helped numerous people is using a GPS navigation system when driving in a strange city. However, make sure that your GPS is up-to-date. Recently we spent hours trying to drive out of Milano, Italy, on our way to Switzerland and ended up more than once in an underground garage because the GPS was an older version.
Upon landing in a foreign country, it may be better to spend your first few nights in a smaller town that is less overwhelming, or at least treat yourself to a really nice hotel for the first few nights if you are arriving in a large city. Your nervous system will likely be very overstimulated when you arrive, so if you have trouble falling asleep the first night, again, take an herbal relaxation formula or allopathic medicine. Several years ago when I arrived in India, my nervous system was wired from overstimulation due to the very long journey, so I took a small dosage of a mild allopathic sleeping pill at bedtime. The next thing I knew, light from the sun was rising over the Arabian Sea and pouring into my room. Since I had also taken a homeopathic remedy on the plane to minimize jet lag, I awoke the first morning full of energy and joy as I explored the fascinating new world that I had just entered. As you become familiar with your new destination, you will feel more secure and after a few days you will likely be able to sleep better without sleeping aids.
Air Travel Tips
It can be challenging for HSPs to travel by plane due to the overstimulation and proximity to so many people. It’s vital to assert yourself rather than suffering during a long flight. For example, ask the steward or stewardess to change your seat as soon as you notice that you’re sitting next to someone with a strong perfume (if the odor is making you sick) or if you are sitting near a screaming infant. You can tell the flight attendant that you have a chemical or noise sensitivity and need to change seats. As soon as someone is kicking the back of your chair, politely ask the person to stop.
Make sure that you take a warm jacket since sometimes planes, buses and trains are cold. Last summer I took a five-hour bus trip and was extremely cold since I was wearing just a thin shirt (my suitcase was in the bin below the bus) with the cold air blasting from the air-conditioner. I asked the bus driver to please turn down the air-conditioner. It helped a little, but I was still cold.
When you are flying through more than three time zones, you will likely experience jet lag. A homeopathic remedy called Jet Zone for jet lag prevention really works for me. You may also want to try taking melatonin for your first few nights. Melatonin is the actual hormone that our brain releases when we go to sleep. During a long flight, it’s best to try to stay awake when it is daytime at the arrival city and sleep, meditate, or rest with eyes closed between early evening to late morning at your destination city. Upon arrival, it’s important to stay awake until evening and do not sleep late the next morning. Always take a sleep mask, ear plugs and, if needed, an earmuff-style headset that construction workers use to tune out light and noise on your flight. You may want to buy a noise-reducing headset that can eliminate the sound of the airplane engine. I usually listen to calming Mozart music on my IPOD or find a station with relaxing music that the airline provides. You may want to take flower essences, herbal remedies or a very low dose of allopathic medicine for sleep during the flight and be sure to drink plenty of water. Plan plenty of time to just relax during your first few days in your new location.
When You Don’t Know the Language
If you are an English-speaker in a non-English-speaking country, I recommend learning some basic survival language skills. In countries like Denmark and Holland, virtually everyone speaks English, but local people appreciate hearing visitors say “please” and “thank you” in their native language. I was recently in Italy and found that most people where I visited spoke only Italian. I speak some Spanish, French and Hebrew, but those languages didn’t help me much. By learning and speaking some basic phrases in Italian, I was able to navigate fairly easily through the country, which made me feel more secure.
Some Final Tips
Traveling may be upsetting to the digestive tract for some people, resulting in a stomach disorder, constipation or diarrhea, so be sure to take natural or allopathic remedies that maintain healthy digestion and elimination. As a preventative, try taking probiotics (which can improve the intestinal microbial balance) for a few weeks before your trip. Not only is it important for you to take good care of yourself when you travel, but don’t feel guilty about needing special preparations. If you are going to be a houseguest, let the host know, before you leave home, of your needs. It’s better to make other sleeping arrangements than staying in an untenable situation. When you plan ahead, both you and your non-HSP relatives and friends will be glad you did. By following these simple procedures, you will have a rewarding and peaceful trip! Bon Voyage.
HSP Travel Essentials:
For the nervous system: Herbal relaxation formula, flower essences, calming herbal teas, or allopathic medicine, for dealing with anxiety, overstimulation, and insomnia.
To reduce overstimulation: Eye shade, sound (white noise) machine and batteries, ear plugs, IPOD/MP3 player with soothing music, earmuff-style headset or noise-reducing headset, nose mask (in case of pollution).
For health and safety: small flashlight; copies of your driver’s license, passport, etc.; handiwipes and hand sanitizer; small plastic bags; antibiotic cream and bandaids, natural or allopathic medicine for healthy digestion and elimination; warm clothes and “layers.” If you take medications, keep an extra supply in your carry-on-bag.
Ted Zeff is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide and The Strong Sensitive Boy. For more information please visit www.drtedzeff.com