How to Self-Care While Traveling & Learn From Your Body’s Breaking Points

Have you ever experienced a breaking point? Where, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, your body/mind/spirit wouldn’t allow you continue down the path of stress and anxiety you were on? The path of avoidance and resistance? Where you were forced on your back to stare at the ceiling and attend to your suffering and put into practice all the self-care lessons you’ve been gathering?

When I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2017, I didn’t sleep for 2 days. I tried everything – Benadryl, copious amounts of South African wine, giving up caffeine. None of it worked. I couldn’t figure it out – I will never forget lying in bed, staring straight up at the ceiling for the second night in a row, thinking, “This is it.” I was convinced I was having a manic episode. Bipolar runs in my family, and tends to confirm itself through the first psychotic episode in one’s early to late twenties. The terror of this anxiety, exacerbated by my sleep-deprivation, caused my heart to race to the point I thought I would have a heart attack. On top of it all, I was coordinating my first international conference with 70 attendees, and I had only been in the job for a couple of months. I felt extremely insecure and completely in over my head.

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Finally, in the glow of my smartphone, an idea dawned on me and I researched “jet lag insomnia.” I was experiencing a very common illness among travelers who come from west to east. I had always thought jet lag was exhaustion due to travel and timezone changes. Turns out – it can include insomnia and disorientation. Our two hippocampuses in the brain need regular exposure to sunlight in order to regulate our time orientation, and are responsible for memory storage. As it’s the first place to experience deterioration when someone is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, it’s no wonder I felt so disoriented during my night of terror. At the moment, this information was too little too late, and I ended up needing a hotel doctor to administer a tranquilizer. While on my third night I slept like a baby and was back to my usual self a couple days later, I wouldn’t wish sleep deprivation on anyone. The anxiety that not just my body, but my brain, experienced was a full-on nightmare. I ended up having a positive experience after that, and was lucky enough to go on a safari afterwards! The whole experience introduced me to guided meditations (streamed in a sleepless panic), and to self-care as a lifeline.

Things got better – I went on a safari when work was over.

Eight months later, I coordinated another gathering in Bogotá, Colombia, where I had been struck again with a health issue – the norovirus. It was one of the most painful physical experiences I’ve ever had, and again affected my ability to do my job. I ended up being quarantined to my hotel room for 2 days because the virus can be deadly in the young and elderly. I was lucky enough to be staying at the W hotel, and there are definitely worse places to get stuck! Ironically, the illness struck the morning I was slotted to train on self-care and meditation. But I ended up laughing about the whole thing, because I realized, between binging episodes of Outlander and crying on the phone to my husband and mom, that the Universe was giving me an opportunity to actually put the self-care lessons I had learned from my earlier experience into practice. Part of me worried that this was somehow my fault, that practicing self-care the night before (meditation, essential oils, self-massage) had led to a decline in adrenaline  and cortisol and increase in seratonin, allowing me the space to get sick. Of course, this let down effect is real, but the problem isn’t in relaxing. It’s the inability to regulate our emotions during the times of high stress. And, in this case, the problem was my exposure to a very serious virus in a foreign country, when my immunity was already compromised.

My self-care tools from the hotel in Bogotá: The Universe Has Your Back card deck and Judgment Detox by Gaby Bernstein, ceremonial-grade sage, my spirit animal buffalo Jon got me, tea, and journaling!

Things always get better – the clouds opened, Jon met me in Colombia, and we saw these beautiful sights together! It ended up being a very spiritual and healing trip.

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One year after my insomnia episode in Johannesburg, I returned to South Africa for work – Cape Town this time. I was anxious at the thought of returning to the country where I had experienced sleep-deprivation, and taking a third work trip after getting sick on the first two. But this time, I had a different perspective as well: I was much more comfortable in my position, I was more confident on my path and in my body, and I knew self-care was more than something to be taught, it was a path I now knew how to walk. I had been gearing up for this with my daily spiritual and self-care practices. I had a different attitude toward declines in my health – I knew that the last thing I needed in those moments was guilt or shame. Rather, I needed self-compassion, understanding and care. And, especially when I wasn’t receiving it from other sources, I had to get it from myself.

If we cannot genuinely care for ourselves in our times of greatest need, how can we expect anyone else to?

If we can’t see our own suffering through the eyes of compassion, how will we see other’s suffering, and be able to care for them?

If we identify with our suffering as bad or wrong, how much longer do we prolong our own healing?

The trip to Cape Town ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not saying things went off without a hitch because of my attitude alone. I know that not being exposed to a virus helped. And this time I prepared against jet-lag and insomnia. I did my research – I adjusted my schedule by one hour every day for a week before traveling so that I would transition slowly to South Africa time (this included wake up times, meal times, and bedtimes). I took an over-the-counter sleep aid on the plane and scheduled my sleep en route. Once in South Africa, I switched to melatonin at bedtime for the first few nights. I consumed no alcohol or caffeine for 2 days before and 2 days after landing (this is especially important – it seems counter-intuitive that you shouldn’t drink coffee when you’re tired or alcohol when you’re trying to get sleepy, but trust me – don’t do it!). It felt very empowering to have this information and a plan.

Cape Town is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. I am so fortunate to be able to travel for my job, despite the travel-induced health challenges I’ve experienced!

In the end, I’m able to look back on my traumatic travel experiences with gratitude. Had I not felt what it is to have insomnia and mental disorientation, I might not be as equipped to empathize with others going through similar episodes. Had everything gone swimmingly from that first trip, I would have never felt what it is to only have myself to lean on in a strange place, far from home. I’m grateful that I was given these opportunities to practice self-care and self-compassion. They led me on my path to eventually realize I want to teach the power of self-care to others. Those sleepless nights were some of the first times I had practiced guided meditation. Sure, it didn’t help me fall asleep – my brain was way too unregulated for that. But the calming voices were a lifeline to me in some of my scariest moments. It led me to eventually make meditation a daily practice, and now to record guided meditations for seekers. What a profound blessing, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Tell me, Dear Ones, have you ever had to put into practice emergency self-care lessons while traveling (or otherwise)? How do you take extra precautions to care for yourself while traveling? What self-care lessons were the hardest for you to learn? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Until next time, be well & take gentle self care.

Namaste, Ellen

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I started Luminous Leanings to share my passions of meditation & self-care. As a self-care coach, I'm really just a holder! I hold space for busy people on their self-care journey. Then I hold them accountable as they integrate self-care into their lives. If you want to develop more self-compassion, but aren't sure where to start, you've come to the right place. Be sure to check out my guided meditations & journal freebies, & sign up for the Letter to keep in touch. You don't have to self-care alone - I'm in your corner!

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