Quick Tips For Using DBT Skills When Traveling

In contrast to the dreary, snowy landscape outside my window the last time that I wrote for Healing from BPD, I now find myself at the height of summer. The days are hot and long, and the sky is sunny and blue. Looking out the window, it is difficult to imagine feeling anything but relaxed and happy.

Yet, here I am, writing to you about coping with and healing from Borderline Personality Disorder.

The truth is, the summer brings it's own unique set of stressors and triggers. Today, I am going to talk about one of my own biggest sources of stress: travel. Whether you plan to head across the ocean or just across town, many of us travel over the summer. That means that many of us deal with the stressors of balancing logistics and delays, of dealing with the unknown and potentially uncomfortable.

If you follow my own blog, Down the Center, you'll know that one of the most common scenarios that prompts me to bring out my arsenal of DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills is travel. I travel often for work, but the challenges and stressors are the same as if I were going on a summer trip. I just have to deal with potentially annoying colleagues rather than potentially annoying family members.

At Down the Center, I typically go into detail with how I use DBT to deal with individual situations. For this article, I will present you with some quick tips for how I use DBT to deal with two of the most commonly experienced travel annoyances:

Annoyance:Intercultural Communication
DBT Solution: The great thing about interpersonal effectiveness skills is that they are (largely) cross-cultural. DEAR MAN is one of my favorite skills to use on the road. Traveling often puts you at the mercy of other people - taxi drivers, hotel concierges, even locals whom you meet on the street. Without your typical resources at hand, you often find yourself forced to rely upon the kindness of strangers. For someone used to being self-sufficient, this can feel odd or even uncomfortable. It can be especially tricky when your request feels atypical. 

For example, I recently found myself stranded in Nebraska. To get home, I had to cancel my previous reservations and make new ones at the very last minute. I experienced feelings of guilt, as I knew that accommodating my needs created extra work for others. To moderate my anxiety and maximize my efficacy, I thought through each step of DEAR MAN in my head before approaching each new employee. When speaking with the employees, I was careful to:

  • briefly DESCRIBE the situation in which I found myself
  • EXPRESS that I wanted to find a convenient way to return home
  • ASSERT exactly what I wanted from the employee - whether this was to check out of the hotel early or book a new flight for a particular time
  • REINFORCE the impact of this change - it would help me attend to an emergency situation at work and save a lot of hassle
While engaging in these four steps, I attempted to stay MINDFUL of my objective (getting home), APPEAR confident (even if I didn’t feel confident), and NEGOTIATE. I actually mentally prepared a list of compromises that I was and was not willing to make ahead of time.

Annoyance: Airport Delays 
DBT Solution: Distress tolerance skills can be hugely important in a modern airport. You get shuffled through lines, patted down by strangers, and then - after all of that - you can be made to wait. And wait. And then wait some more. Whether you are eager to get to your vacation spot or anxious to arrive at an appointment on time, delays can be majorly stressful. 
The most stressful delay that I ever experienced was when I was returning home from a short overnight trip. My co-workers took a different flight that left 15 minutes before mine did. Apparently, 15 minutes is just enough time for air traffic control to decide to close all airspace over NYC. Unfortunately, my own crew did not hear about this until we already were boarded on the plane and sitting on the tarmac. That night, I sat in my cramped coach seat for the maximum amount of time allowable by law. When we finally deplaned, it was late, and all of the hotels had been booked by passengers whose flights got cancelled earlier. Exhausted from a full day of work and travel, I was forced to spend over an hour negotiating with airline agents and hotel desk clerks to rebook my flight and find somewhere to sleep.
What kept me sane - not to mention calm - that night? I used many of the skills from Wise Mind ACCEPTS:

  • I distracted myself with pleasant ACTIVITIES rather than sitting and focusing on a negative situation that I had no power to change. Whenever traveling, I always make sure to pack an extra book or download an extra podcast just in case I find myself bored and without wifi.
  • I attempted to CONTRIBUTE by doing whatever I could to help others. This included warmly thanking the flight attendant for her help and sharing whatever helpful information that I had with other marooned travelers.
  • I kept the situation in perspective with COMPARISONS. I remained mindful of how lucky I was to be safe and sound on the ground rather than flying through a potentially dangerous storm.
  • I could have managed excess anxiety by using opposite EMOTION skills, using mindfulness meditation to focus on feelings of calmness.
  • I used my book to mentally PUSH away and distract myself from the situation at hand.
  • Engaging with my book allowed me to focus on positive THOUGHTS rather than dwelling on negative judgments about my icky situation.
  • In situations of truly heightened anxiety, focusing on SENSATIONS can help. This can be anything from snapping a rubber band against your wrist to digging your toes into the sand at the beach. I recently helped moderate the stress of a busy work trip by stopping by a beach at the end of the day. Engaging in mindfulness meditation while feeling cool water lap around my legs really helped to maintain balance during an otherwise trying week.

What other travel annoyances have you experienced, and how how you used DBT to help? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I will be sure to reply. Also, come visit me at Down the Center to read more about how I use DBT (and other skills) to maintain wellness and balance in all sorts of situations. 

Til next time,

You can also read Caroline's first guest post at HFBPD, "Another Perspective on BPD and Recovery."

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  1. This was helpful! Thanks Caroline for this post!
    Contrary to what you feel, travel for me is equivalent to self-soothe. I feel like a free bird, and like the fact that so many people from different places/cultures are functioning as a system at any given place. They have nothing to do with each other but still identify with each other as co-passengers, service seekers and providers, believers of a common deity etc. These relations are temporary but I find it beautiful that these unspoken relations exist.

    One distressing feeling I experience during my travels is this- I automatically begin to feel that all are nice human beings. I feel that all will (and must) cooperate to coexist in harmony. In situationsj when someone disregards my need, yells or insults, cheats or deceives, I feel extremely vulnerable and shudder at the thought of someone not giving me basic regard. It acts as a trigger for me, takes me back to disturbing moments when my feelings were not given due regards by certain other people who actually mattered to me... My voice shakes while fighting back for my own rights, i feel guilty for no reason and find myself creating excuses to justify what happened. Like for example, on one occasion i told myself, "This is what you have got for doing 'that bad thing'* in the past." In short, all's fine and travel is fun when everyone around me is good to me. A breach in their niceness acts as a major trigger for me n I feel unarmed to fight back.

    I'd like to hear your opinion. Caroline and Debbie.

    1. Hi Radha,

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      For me, travel can be a trigger, so I look to strategies that work in other situations and extend them to what I experience during travel. Perhaps something similar could work for you. What strategies have you learned to cope with these sorts of thoughts more generally? Thinking this through in advance and having a concrete plan before you travel not only can provide you with tools, but with a sense of empowerment knowing that you can handle the trigger.

      Meanwhile, it's amazing to hear that travel is a form of self-soothing for you. One thing missing from my post was an acknowledgment of how wonderful travel can be. I definitely am appreciative that you reminded me (and everyone else reading) of that!


  2. I think all the feelings are good companion in your life. Because you are learn more than more through your great creative opinions and feelings. I read your blog and I really inspired from your creative and fine thoughts. Basically I like your skills of wise mind. It’s a very good way for yourself security. Good work and nice sharing.

  3. According to my opinion travel is a good method to release stress because it gets you away from your problems. For many people, vacations or simple weekend getaways are part of their plans each year. Vacations are a great way to get families and couples to spend time together away from the everyday pressures of their lives. They are also good for people who like to travel solo. The simple act of "getting away from it all" helps people reduce stress, whether it is for a day or a week. I am also planning a washington bus tours with my family in vacations.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this Ashwin, and enjoy your bus tour!

    2. Such a pretty sharing! I am impressed; I really found this blog very informative and helpful to learn about how to reduce the anxiety and stress. Ashwin Aj is also right! Travelling around the beautiful places is the best way to reduce the stress and enjoy some time with your family or friends. Next month I am going with grand canyon tours from vegas and want to know about the best places to relax for some time for this busy routine. Can you suggest me?

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.



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