Traveling the world makes you vulnerable. Besides all the joys and beauty, the meeting of new people and increasing your world knowledge, you also put yourself out there on the line, sometimes without even knowing it.
I was in my hotelroom, all comfy and ready for the night when I suddenly had to evacuate because of a huge fire next to my room, when I opened my hotelroom door I actually stared info the flames. Due to the hotelstaf handling things very well and taking good care of me, I thought I came out allright. Until a few weeks later in my short term rental the fire alarm went off………
The whole hotel fire and evacuating had been a more traumatic experience than I ever realized.
What is trauma to me might not be trauma to you
In general trauma, wether emotional or psychological, is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security. It often involves a thread to life. But less dramatic you can say that any situation leaving you feeling overwhelmed can be traumatic. Even if it doesn’t involve physical harm like the hotel fire-evacuation did. I mean: Nothing happened to me, I’m safe. But I did not feel safe and apparently I haven’t been feeling safe in my subconscious. And I only realized that when i noticed my emotional and physical response to that fire alarm going off in the middle of the night in my apartment.
So my subjective emotional experience made it traumatic to me.
I felt frightened and helpless, although I kept a clear mind all through the rushing out of my hotelroom with all my possessions. I crashed later int he evening, realizing I probably had escaped death.
What events can cause trauma?
Like I said: What is traumatic to me, might not be traumatic to you. Some people get an adrenaline rush out of such things as running down hotel stairs in the middle of the night.
But mostly it is agreed on that such one time events can be very traumatic.
So what can cause trauma when traveling?
natural disaster like the tsunami in Thailand in 2004, or being in the middle of ann all destroying typhoon
violent attacks like being robbed or raped or beaten up
accidents like car crashes, bus accidents etc.
undergoing surgery in a strange country,
being seriously ill being far away from home
traveling in an unstable and unsafe environment
but even a humiliation or a deeply disappointing experience can lead to trauma.
Usually when traveling an event will be traumatic when it
it snatched you out of your comfort-zone
you were not prepared
you felt powerless to prevent it from happening
it happens more than once
You are easily targeted by trauma if you are under a lot of stress or have traumatized before, like in childhood
What are the symptoms of emotional or psychological trauma
As the parameters for a traumatic experience are different for every individual so is the respons to a traumatic event. And there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ response. Every one feels, experiences, sees, hears and responds in a different way, so the one thing you should not do is judging yourself on your reactions.
After the evacuation I was sitting in a nearby bar guarding my luggage in the, what seemed to me , complete chaos of fire trucks, aid workers and other hotel guests and I felt the extreem urge to cry, my body started shaking and although being in a tropical climate, I felt stone-cold.
Let me sum up the long list of possible emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma:
Shock, denial, or disbelief
Anger, irritability, mood swings
Guilt, shame, self-blame
Feeling sad or hopeless
Feeling disconnected or numb
Confusion, difficulty concentrating
Anxiety and fear
Withdrawing from others
Insomnia, nightmares or flashbacks
Jumpy and racing heartbeat
Unexplainable aches and pains and muscle tension
And these symptoms usually last from a few days to a few months. They will fade in the past as you process the trauma.
But even when you’re feeling better over time, you may be troubled from time to time by flashbacks or memories in response to triggers, like I had when the fire alarm went off.
I had to cope with the loss of my sense of safety and that took a lot longer than I expected. Due to the constant traveling I had obviously oppressed the feelings and emotions. And the emotions I was dealing with when I let processed the whole thing felt like grief.
How to overcome trauma all by yourself?
You are in a strange country, no home, no real comfort zone, I mean: my comfort zone includes socks and a soft woollen cardigan or blanket, I can’t even start thinking of doing that when the temperatures are around 40º C.
Being a stress counselor I grasped around in my knowledge on the subject to do some self-healing
Let me share some tips with you.
1. Get your nerve system to unstuck again
One thing I did not do after the incident was to get moving. Trauma disrupts the body’s natural equilibrium, it freezes you in a state of fear and flight response. Your nervous system gets “stuck.” As well as burning off adrenaline and releasing endorphins. Now by going to bed and not being able to sleep I skipped the exercise and movement that could have helped my nervous system to become unstuck again.
So my advice: if possible: get moving.
Instead of focusing on your thoughts, distract yourself while you exercise by focussing on your body and how it feels as you move. Take a brisk walk, go for a swim, shoot some hoops, walk your Tai-Chi routine or if all of that is not possible: Dance, move to music and feel your body while doing so.
Feel the wind in your hair, the breeze on your face, feel how your feet touch the ground, feel your shoulder joint move………exercise for at least 30 minutes to reset your system.
And repeat doing so all during the next few days.
2. Don’t withdraw from others
Now I find this advice very controversial for, as for me, I sometimes need to withdraw from people when things get too intens. But it might be wise following a trauma, to connect to others face to face. Talk about the event. It will help you heal.
And if you feel you do not want to talk about the trauma, don’t. Like I said before: there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ behaviour as no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ aftermath. But it is important to have someone to share your emotions with and your feelings.
Now when you travel alone, this might be difficult.
Calling someone back home might not give the right respons since they will be either overwhelmed with joy you are save, or preoccupied with their own worries about your safety.
Maybe there is a fellow traveler you can share your feelings with? What I do is I just talk. Without any shame. People don’t know me right? And I probably won’t see them again, so I just talk. Whenever the opportunity pops up and I feel the urge to talk about the event, I do.
If you are in real trouble finding someone to talk to, walk into a church and talk to a priest, I’m told that they make very good listeners.
Many people who have experienced trauma feel disconnected, withdrawn and find it difficult to connect with other people. If that describes you, you might just want to go to a quiet place and shout. And I mean real loud. Scream! To the universe and make it feel that you are alive and safe. That way you make yourself feel you are alive and safe.
3. Take back control of your over-reacting nervous system
No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your system and calm yourself.
Focus on your breathing.
If you are feeling disoriented or upset, a quick way to calm yourself is through what people would call: mindful breathing.
Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.
Sensory input. (Here comes my soft blanket) Does a specific sight, smell, feel or taste quickly make you feel calm? Do it. I got this tiny little cuddly teddy bear that has such soft fur, it replaces that woollen blanket and helps me to get back in touch with myself and calms me down. Some people find it very calming to pet an animal. Is there a cat café nearby? Go there. Do you like the taste of chocolate ice-cream and doe that comfort you: eat it.
Like the smell of a special flower of shower gel: Smell it.
Staying grounded.To feel in the present and more grounded sit on a chair, firmly put your feet on the ground and your back against the chair.
Focus on how your body touches the chair, feel the shape of the chair against your back, feel your feet on the ground, feel the energy of the earth flow into your body and strengthen your legs. Look up and see your surroundings, focus, this is where you are and you are safe.
Please do allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it.
Don’t hide it or put it away in that deep dark place in your soul, it may pop up unexpectedly and by then you don’t even know whats bothering you or where it came from. Let your emotional intelligence toolkit help you to restore your soul and mind and maybe even your body.
4: Take care of your health
A healthy body increases your ability to cope with stress from a trauma.
Get your regular sleep
Avoid drinking and drugs
Eat a well-balanced diet
Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace.
Again, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here and you cannot set a time. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from an expert.
Lets hope it doesn’t come that far. For me it didn’t. A few days of cocooning and some tears, a few days of being totally selfish and taking good care of myself helped me overcome the unsafe feeling that was lingering in the back of my mind and stopping me from enjoying my journey through the Philippines.
Now, for me it is time to face the world and open the windows of my soul again.
Have you had a negative experience and feel the need to talk to somebody about it? Maybe we can interact in chat-time, email correspondence or do some face-time.
Jeanette, a Dutch female nomad, started to travel the world at the age of 17. Walker of beaches, shell searcher and iPhone photographer. Writer and owner of two websites
Currently, she lives in Mexico.
She is an emigration coach and works online.