Traveling with Bipolar Disorder

It’s summertime! This is usually the time of year everyone goes on vacation. I love to travel. The reason I work and earn money at all is so I can go new places and experience different cultures and vistas. Unfortunately, because I have bipolar disorder, I have to be careful when I go on vacation, because travel can trigger my mania.

Like everyone who struggles with bipolar disorder, my sleep wake cycles are very sensitive. Most people experience jet lag and time change adjustment challenges, but when my body clock doesn’t match local time, that’s a recipe for danger. A disruption in my circadian rhythm, even a tiny one (like daylight savings) can throw me off balance.

Even if the time change isn’t too different between destination and arrival points, the non-stop partying and drinking on vacation can be dangerous for me too. I don’t drink much, but even a little buzz can sometimes trigger a hypomanic episode. If I’m in an unfamiliar place drinking unfamiliar drinks, with unknown alcohol content, it’s hard to gauge just how much I can drink without getting too drunk (and thus, hypomanic). Other countries, and hell, even other states often have different regulations for alcohol content and formulation in drinks. I don’t know what to expect when I’m trying a new drink. Yeah, I could just stick with Budweiser everywhere I go, Lord knows everyone has that. But I want to try the local beer, or wine, or whatever. So, it just seems a bit less fun and less adventurous when I have to relegate myself to drinking the same things I can get back home. It’s why I refuse to eat at American restaurants when I’m out of the country. I will say though, I’m vegan, and I couldn’t care less about trying local cuisine, unless it’s vegan. I don’t abandon my ethics when I travel. The solution I’ve found is this: almost every place in the world has their own local “basic” beer. It’s usually a watered-down, cheap, low-alcohol beer you can find in all the bars and restaurants. I find whatever the local brew is and once I’ve tried one (and I know it’s innocuous) I just stick with that. Then I save money while enjoying something local. And the local “basic” beer is usually pretty tame—i.e. I can have two or three in an evening, get a slight buzz, and have a great time while being safe.

What makes traveling fun is doing new things. The problem for me is that the disruption in my normal routine can create instability in my brain, because my surroundings are different from what I’m used to. I take my meds around the same times every morning and evening. When I’m on a trip though, it’s not as easy to do that. If I’m sitting in a speedboat, holding on for dear life as we skip along a tropical river, it’s not like I can say “Oh hang on, stop the boat, I need to pull some medicine out of my bag swallow a few pills.” So, I often forego taking my meds until I find a good time, and that alters my medication schedule. However, on my last trip, my solution to this was just carrying two days worth of meds in my purse and setting a timer on my phone, so I took my meds about twelve hours apart each day, once in the local morning and once in the local evening. I found that worked pretty well for me. I can always dip into a bathroom and take my meds in there, if it’s something I feel I need to do in private.

My boyfriend and I went to Iceland in 2018. The thing is, Iceland is in the middle of the north Atlantic ocean smack dab between the USA and Europe. It’s only a four-hour time difference from the east coast of the States. It was a slight adjustment for me, but I managed to reset my body clock within the first two days. It helped that our flight left the east coast (Boston) around 10 PM local time, and it arrived in Reykjavik at 6 AM Iceland time. So really, it was only a four-hour flight and a tiny time change. When we got there, we just drank some coffee and started our day, having had a few hours of shut-eye on the plane. No big deal.

I’m going to Japan in August of 2019. The time difference isn’t just a few hours. It’s eleven! Half a day! And I’m nervous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m over the moon that I get to visit somewhere I’ve not only never been, but a place that’s so vastly different from the U.S. I’m sure the trip is going to be wonderful. I hate to have any reservations about a trip of a lifetime like this, so I have to formulate a plan ahead of time. That way I can ensure my stability to the best of my abilities. Hah! That rhymed!

I take my sleep hygiene VERY seriously because of my mental illness. The last thing I need is an episode on a trip. It’s not like I can hop on over to my doctor’s office when I’m on the other side of the globe.

So, what’s my plan for making sure I get enough sleep on my travels? Well, funny you should ask. I have a multi-pronged approach!

White Noise

I have to have my white noise machine to sleep. It’s a Dohm and I love that thing. Unfortunately, I can’t travel with it. I actually tried when my boyfriend and I went to Ireland in 2016. It’s the kind that plugs into the wall. I had a travel adaptor with me but whoops, I forgot (I should’ve remembered the time I did this with a hair dryer) that the voltage is different. I plugged it in, and I heard a whiirrrrrrrrr! Buzz fizzle pop! And then it stopped. And it smelled like it was burning. I quickly unplugged it and threw it out. You’d think I gave up after that, but nope! I need my white noise. So now I travel with this cute little monkey. It’s battery operated and I can actually hang it on doorknobs and stuff because it’s for baby cribs. I just carry extra batteries with me and a little screwdriver (it’s okay to travel with the screwdriver because it’s really small and short, it looks like a little pen). And for me, the soft humming noise of an airplane engine is just as good as any white noise machine, so when I’m trying to sleep on a plane, I just let the ambient sound lull me into slumber.

Sleeping Pills

Benadryl and melatonin to the rescue! I take melatonin quite often. I take the 5mg tablets when I’m going through bouts of insomnia because well, we all know what happens when you mix insomnia and bipolar disorder: chaos! But Benadryl is my other go-to. I’ve found that if I can dedicate a good 8-10 hours and I’m okay with waking up groggy, a standard Benadryl tablet works great. If I need to be alert and I only have 6-8 hours of sleep time, I use the liquid (kid’s) version. It’s much milder and it wears off pretty fast. I plan to take melatonin as my main sleep aid when I’m on my trip, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try Benadryl the next night. Two interesting side notes on Benadryl: (1) Doctors and even my actual psychiatrist have straight-up recommended Benadryl for me as safe, non-habit forming, non-side-effect risk, and just generally safe to use as a sleep aid. (2) Did you know that the active ingredient in Benadryl, diphenhydramine, is the active ingredient (that makes you sleep) in Unisom and even Tylenol, Advil, and Aleve PM and even the Theraflu nighttime formula? Yep, the thing that turns these over-the-counter drugs into sleepy-time pills is diphenhydramine. So if you don’t need to poison your liver with unnecessary NSAIDS,  just take good old Benadryl.

Eye Masks

My eye mask is one of my best friends. I cannot sleep without it. I joke that my eye masks are like my bird hoods. If you cover a birdcage with a blanket, or you put a hood over a bird’s eyes (even though I’m very much against doing that because it’s mean to the bird) the bird will go to sleep. I’m like birds, I guess. I actually have quite a few eye masks because I’ve tried a bunch in my attempt to find one I love. Lately, I’m really liking compression-style eye masks, because they softly not only cover my eyes but gently push my eyelids closed, which for some reason really helps me stay asleep. The compression gives me a sense of comfort too, kind of like the thunder shirts people put on dogs for separation anxiety. My two recent faves are the Unimi 3D Contoured Sleep Mask and the IMAK Compression Pain Relief Mask and Eye Pillow. I also love the Bucky 40 Blinks eye masks. They come in lots of fun colors, and they contour around your face, so no light gets in.

Travel Pillows

Finally, sleeping on the plane. I hate hate hate those u-shaped neck pillows with beads or soft foam or anything that has a lot of give to it, because they provide zero support. My head just flops over to one side and then I wake up. Argh! I’ve found two alternatives that both work well. One is much less embarrassing-looking than the other. As long as you’re okay sitting four inches away from a stranger blowing up a travel pillow like a silly fool. The MLVOC Inflatable Neck Pillow is one you blow up (you don’t need a bike pump) and it’s a nice velvety soft but FIRM air pillow that you can blow up to be hard enough to have no give, so your head will stay in place. And now for the one you won’t want to use when you look at it, but if you can put your dignity in the cargo hold with your bags, you’ll thank me. Yes, you’ve laughed at the pictures of this in Skymall magazine. Yes, it looks like a weird sex toy/medical device gone awry. But it works. It’s the homesky Inflatable Travel Pillow.

Wish me luck! I hope my arsenal of tools will help keep me stable and happy (but not too happy) on my trip, by allowing me to get enough sleep. Adequate sleep is incredibly crucial for my stability. If you’re traveling halfway around the world, or even if you’re just enjoying a staycation, remember to be cognizant of your routine, sleep, and medication schedules. Then you can enjoy your time off without putting your mental health at risk.

For some more useful info on traveling with bipolar disorder,
check out these helpful articles:

12 Travel Tips for People with Bipolar Disorder

Sleep Disturbance: The #1 Reason Travel Triggers Bipolar Disorder Mood Swings

Mayo Clinic Q and A: Prepare for jet lag before boarding the plane

Do you have any tips to share? Please feel free to comment below!

PS – nothing in this article is endorsed.
I don’t get any credit for referencing any of these products.
This is all my opinion and my opinion alone.

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Melissa Nix
3 years ago

Thank you for writing about your life with bipolar. I am so very sorry that you lost your father to this disease. My family had been ravaged by if because of shame and denial and misinformation. My grandmother was bipolar, as are two aunts, one uncle and one cousin—those are the ones in my family who have been diagnosed. My Aunt Debbie, who has bipolar 2 with psychotic tendencies, just massively overdosed. She may not pull through. Thank you for writing so openly and fearlessly about this diseas

Sierra E Freund-Chaudhary
3 years ago

Hi there! Ahhh someone that I can relate with. I’m still new to my Bipolar diagnosis and welp.. I’m still trying to accept it. I just lost my father to suicide at the hands of major depression, and likely an undiagnosed Bipolar disorder. I was getting him help, but not quickly enough. Where can I find your book? This may be helpful in getting to a place where I can process my grief without unhealthy triggers. Cheers to you for creating a safe space where you lead a thrive tribe!