Travel and the Holidaysstrenuous one day but not again until after a significant rest, or have other requirements that appear inconsistent or confusing to onlookers. In addition, vacations often decrease your independence, making you more vulnerable to others’ desires. An active bunch who values your participation can be exhausting.

What to Do?

Traveling well requires a combination of self-knowledge, acceptance, adaptation, positive self-talk and assertiveness. The more familiar you are with your own needs, the better you will be able to self-advocate, build in needed breaks and evaluate activities that sound fun but would intensify discomfort.

It can help to view each foray as an opportunity to test travel strategies and build knowledge for the next one. It also helps to plan your days leading up to and following travel for maximum comfort. Engage in behaviors to feel rested and positive before setting off, such as planning sufficient sleep time and not leaving stressful preparations for the last minute. And reserve enough recuperative downtime for your return.

Preparing a Travel & Packing Checklist

Packing lists reduce anxiety and increase feelings of preparedness. Set aside plenty of quiet time to create a thoughtful list. Beyond your basic needs, consider items or strategies for your comfort, such as a heating pad, earplugs, a special pillow or cushion, medication and information on the location and hours of the nearest pool, spa or other facilities. Also include any tasks you need to do before departing, such as can-celing newspaper delivery, watering plants or arranging pet care. Thorough lists can help you to feel fresh, rather than depleted from your preparations.

If possible, read your list with a travel mate and check items off as you pack. Make sure to keep essential items, such as medication, within easy reach and not in the bottom of a large bag or in checked luggage. Travel can be disorienting. If you take multiple medications, consider using a pill caddy with the days of the week. Always pack for additional days to guard against unexpected travel changes. Once you have a useful list, save it for future trips, adapting it as you learn.

Car Travel

Significant time in the car can be uncomfortable or painful. Adjust your environment for maximum com-fort, such as with well-positioned pillows to support your back or buffer road vibrations and bumps; a comfortable seat cushion; or a plug-in pad that delivers heat, massage and/or vibration. As a passenger, make use of the opportunity to recline or engage in creative stretches. Schedule plenty of breaks, keeping in mind that deliberate breaks are time-savers once you factor in the time that would otherwise be needed to recuperate from continuous hours of travel.

Travel and the Holidays

Traveling with others can involve negotiation and compromises. It helps to be clear, direct and appreciative when making requests for adaptations that affect others, such as the temperature, noise level, extent to which you can drive versus ride as a passenger, or frequency and duration of rest breaks. Explain the degree of importance the adjustment would have for you. But keep in mind that everyone has preferences.

Avoid pressure, apologies or guilt. In the event that your wishes are at odds with others’, be effective. Stewing over the unfairness of a situation only increases discomfort. Seek creative alternatives, such as headphones to block out background noise.

Planes, Trains & Buses

Public transportation offers the advantage of greater mobility, but with less control over the environment. Come equipped with a comfort tool kit (e.g., eye-shades, a soft blanket, or whatever helps you relax). If you prefer not to be disturbed, preselect a window seat and express your desires explicitly or through body language. There is no need to lug heavy bags; wheeled suitcases are available in all shapes and sizes. Invest in a wheeled carry-on that can slide under the seat in front of you (eliminating the need to hoist it over your head) and can double as a footrest. Avoid playing the hero with heavy bags. Leading with a compliment and a simple explanation is likely to yield positive results: “You look fit and strong. Any chance your back is up to lifting this for me?” Use gratitude and sensitivity, as others may have invisible conditions also.

Your priority is to arrive feeling okay. If you benefit from stretching or engaging in yoga moves before boarding, shrug or laugh off any odd looks you might receive from passengers (seated in hard chairs). If you judge the investment worth it, partake in the comfort of airlines’ hospitality rooms or the massage therapy services now available in many airports.

Travel and the Holidays

Holidays & Expectations

Holidays can be stressful for anyone. This is often compounded by stories we tell ourselves about what they are supposed to be like. The more we accept what is, rather than dwelling on judgments about what “should” be, the more positive an experience we can have. Accepting what is, even when we do not like it, can be liberating. We can stop fighting against family members who don’t understand our experience, and focus instead on proactive measures for our comfort. We can stop berating ourselves for not being able to engage in a particular activity or tradition, and commit instead to core values, such as our gratitude for togetherness. Through mindfulness and deliberate self-talk, we can practice making the most of the current situation. This also allows us to take recuperative breaks from others without self-recrimination.

Hosting Rules

Being the host has advantages, such as not having to travel. Challenges stem from sacrificing one’s comfort while assuming responsibility for other people’s welfare. Reduce these risks by experimenting with the following rules:


If you are committed to offering labor-intensive food or other traditions, commit also to careful pacing. You can prepare delicious homemade meals days in advance (or longer if you use a freezer). Keep in mind that everyone benefits when you can avoid wearing yourself out in the process. Calculate the amount of time needed for you to feel able to welcome your guests with genuine enthusiasm, and work backward from there. RULE


Providing the meeting place does not make you a full-service inn. Ask visitors to bring to the table, sometimes literally. If someone has a specialty or crowd pleaser, request it. Explore already-prepared foods and delivery services in your community, or ask a guest to pick things up on the way. Potluck-style meals can also foster a community feeling. Cultivate a “help yourself” attitude among guests or other norms that you would find beneficial. You might let guests know where they can find things and encourage them to explore and clean up. The more comfortable and independent your guests feel, the more downtime you can enjoy. Consider other hassle-free strategies, such as using disposable plates (available in recycled and compostable varieties).


Being host does not mean you have to be available at all times. Evaluating each activity, outing or interaction is worthwhile. Make sure to schedule recuperative time. At times, you may opt out of an activity to nap, meditate, go to the gym, or do whatever best manages your pain.

If you feel uncomfortable taking time for yourself, explore the story you are telling yourself about your role as host or family member. Talk openly with your guests. Others are generally happy to excuse your presence if it means that you will be more able to be fully present later. Keep in mind that everyone can benefit from having time to relax and regroup. Others may appreciate the implied permission that they too can take time for themselves. Or, you might invite another to join in a relaxing self-care activity.

Being the Guest

Homes vary in their comfort. Before you arrive as a guest, research the options and pack feel-good supplies (even a comfortable chair, if it fits in your trunk). If you benefit from swimming, for example, locate the nearby pools and pack suitable gear. Toughing it out, rather than tending to your needs, not only risks additional pain but can affect our mood and the quality of your social interactions. If the accommodations themselves provide inadequate comfort, carefully weigh the costs and benefits of staying at a hotel or motel.

When should you say your goodbyes? Shorter trips are better trips. It is generally advisable to leave while you still feel good and can enthusiastically report to yourself and others what a great time you had.

Tracking Self-Talk & Learning Moments

Notice the self-talk that arises during travel and holidays. Be especially aware of extreme thoughts such as,“I am never going to leave home again,” or “How pathetic that I cannot even keep up with my elderly relatives!” The more you focus on facts (rather than judgments) the better. Tracking what occurs during travel can help you improve it.

Commit to learning from your experience while it is still fresh in your mind. Apply lessons to prepare for subsequent events. If you find yourself exhausted from a holiday or travel, it may not be the time to think about planning another excursion. However, don’t let this feeling stop you from jotting down what seemed to be most helpful and problematic. Finish the sentence, “It would have been better if …” and turn potential regrets into learning moments. Record your insights while they are still fresh — they offer valuable information you can include on your travel checklist. Otherwise, you may forget the important gems before the next holiday or vacation rolls around.

Paintracking can help you learn from your travels and improve your next adventure. {PP}

tttttttDeborah Barrett, PhD, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of social work and a psychotherapist in private practice. For more information on her book PAINTRACKING and for access to its free online tracking tool, visit