Leave Anxiety Behind on Your Family's Vacation

Pack a Suitcase with Strategies to Enhance Your Mental Health

Family walking on beach together
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Tis the season of the family vacation, but if you struggle with an anxiety problem (perhaps generalized anxiety disorder or another type of anxiety disorder), then you know that it’s often hard to head out the door and leave your worries behind. Even if your anxiety isn’t typically too much to handle, the intensity of family togetherness can, for some people, be a tipping point.

Whether you’re using your time away to visit colleges with your teenager, play in the sand with your toddler, explore a new city with your partner, or reunite with your extended family, it’s worth packing some healthy coping strategies alongside that extra “just-in-case” outfit.

What might you throw in the mental health suitcase?

Expectation Management Guide

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Any occasion when the family gets together is an opportunity to practice radical acceptance of what “is” rather than what “ought” to be. Longstanding family dynamics are unlikely to be undone, or reinvented, on your trip. Vacation is typically more like a relocation when it comes to how family members will get along; the scenery may have changed, but the players have not.

To make the most of the family vacation experience, focus on any elements of the time together for which you feel grateful. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to get a break from daily chores like laundry or washing dishes, or the chance sleep in while relatives entertain your kids. Maybe it’s having time to have a longer conversation with your partner about the future, or to reminisce with your parents about the past.

You might also try to tune into your immediate surroundings during a moment of gratitude. Are you glad for the feel of hot sand under your feet? For the smells of new cuisines on a foreign city’s streets? Or for the sound of crickets being broadcast against a starry nighttime sky?

An Activity Plan

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Of course, the here-and-now will not only be full of the positives – that’s part of what makes it real. If what’s really happening for you on your vacation is tough going, try to put the most energy into those things that are within your control to change.

Do the things leading up to the time away that will help you to relax, to put you in a good mood or keep you from being overly critical or anxious.

While on vacation, make a plan to be active, rather than passive, in the face of certain stressors. You cannot, for example, control a family member’s insensitive comments. But you can thoughtfully consider if and how to respond to insensitive comments. You cannot always control your anxious thoughts, but you can keep track of them, try to learn from them, and challenge them or take steps to solve those beliefs that are truly solvable worries.

A Map of a Healthy Escape Route

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Much of the time, the tension on a family vacation can be understood as a normal byproduct of putting related but different people of varying ages, with unique likes, dislikes, and temperaments into a “togetherness incubator.”

To create some space for yourself (mentally or physically), add some relaxation in for yourself each day. You might even get the family on board with these kid-friendly relaxation exercises. Look for ways to meet your personal vacation reinvigoration goals, whether that means seeking out opportunities to be physically active or culturally active (perhaps by listening to music, reading, or catching up on a favorite TV series).

If the environment you’ve landed in is truly toxic, consider which supportive person you might be able to call for sympathy and perspective and, if necessary, takes steps to cut your trip short. Remember not to rely on alcohol or drugs as an escape; these substances tend to make anxiety worse.


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Sure, vacation can mean the “same old, same old” with your family members, but it need not mean that for you. Write a new story by asking:

  • How can you fill your time off with novelty – with new adventures and new types of family experiences?
  • Are there some fears that you might face?
  • Is there some way that you might play with re-writing your vision of yourself, your internal narrative?


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When all else fails, remember to breathe. After all, taking care of yourself is going to help not only you, but your travel mates as well.

You can get your oxygen fix in a number of ways including a regular relaxation or mindfulness practice or impromptu belly breathing exercises. Giving yourself time to breathe on vacation might also mean planning an itinerary mindful of the dangers of over-scheduling, or modifying an existing plan that is simply too much.

Unpack the Mental Baggage Afterwards

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Taking care of your well-being is well worth it, and it’s most likely to happen if you start packing your mental health suitcase in advance of your journey.

Ask a trusted friend what they do to manage family trips, or invite them to offer some perspective on how you might approach your trip given your particular circumstance. If you are in treatment for anxiety, mention your upcoming vacation and your concerns about it to your clinician so that you can get additional guidance on strategies to test out.

Then, after your vacation, take some time to reflect on how it went. Again consider "unpacking" the mental baggage from your experience with a trusted confidante or clinician. If your luggage is a little messier than it was at the start of your trip, do not despair; instead, identify ways to use what you've learned to prepare for your next journey.

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