Road Trip Panic Attack at Minuteman Missile NHS

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When you hear “National Parks” do you think “Nuclear Missile”? 

Yeah, me neither! 

Outside the gate where Minuteman Missile was hidden underground
Entry to the D-9 Minuteman Missile site.

I was surprised to find that our epic road trip would pass America’s first Cold War national historic site. Minuteman Missile NHS couldn’t have been located in a better place. The park’s South Dakota units are located just off Interstate 90 highway on the very same offramp as Badlands National Park. The situation looked ideal for our family, right? 

Surprise! Road Trip Panic Attack

Me and my six children stand at the entrance of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center. It's not obvious from the photo, but I was right in the midst of a panic attack.
Nice family photo, not-nice feelings inside. A road trip panic attack may not be obvious externally.

Nope. Five minutes into our visit I was struck with a panic attack. Everything seemed ok on the outside. The kids were navigating Cold War politics in their Junior Ranger booklets, Jennifer was learning a side of US history that she’d never known, but I was feeling seriously threatened for no explainable reason

@dinkumtribe Why I’m talking about anxiety. #mentalhealthmatters #anxiety #anxietytips #dinkumtribe_anxiety ♬ original sound – dinkumtribe

In this post we will take a good look at anxiety, family travel, and how to handle a road trip panic attack.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional, and this post is not meant to substitute for professional medical or mental health treatment. I am sharing my personal experiences and suggestions that I have found helpful in dealing with my anxiety and with a road trip panic attack.

And if you’re looking for ideas to cope with mental health challenges during long-term travel, our friends at Television of Nomads have some excellent tips on traveling with depression and anxiety.

My Missile Scare

To be clear, my anxiety had nothing to do with Cold War or the US Military. As with a lot of anxiety, the source had more to do with my past than my present. 

My family traveled a lot when I was a child, and I often enjoyed it. I’m in this industry largely because of my childhood travels.

However, there were many times when travel was terrifying. We weren’t in bomb shelters or war zones. In fact, bystanders wouldn’t have noticed the danger at all. Everything looked great on the surface.

My grade-school age son stands in front of a display at MInuteman Missile NHS.
My son is a lot like I was when I was little. Sometimes the reminders are uncomfortable.

Another Abuse Post?

Words like ‘narcissist’, ‘abuse’, and ‘trauma’ are big words nowadays. Abuse conversations are all over the internet, partly because they’re trendy but mostly because they’re timely. Topics are relevant because they meet a real issue or need.

People are openly reexamining the parenting strategies that were acceptable and even encouraged when we were kids. And yes, it can get excessive. But the fact is that there’s no getting around the awful reality of “Boomer narcissism”. 

Both of my parents are narcissists with a capital N. They wanted what they wanted, and would repeatedly use verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse to get their way. It’s really ugly stuff to say, but true nonetheless. 

@dinkumtribe Narcissistic personality disorder requires a professional diagnosis. However, understanding narcissistic behavior is something that can be helpful and validating for survivors of narcissistic abuse. @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe #NoContact #NoContactWithFamily #ToxicFamily #ToxicFamilyRelationships #DysfunctionalFamily #SpiritualAbuse #EmotionalAbuse #ReligiousAbuse #EmotionalManipulation #MentalAbuse #AbuseRecovery #childhoodneglect #traumatok #traumasurvivor #childhoodabuse #childhoodtrauma #healingtrauma #narcissisticparent #narcissistsurvivor ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel

Define “Abuse”

Let me clarify something: Family travel is tough. If you haven’t blown a fuse and yelled at your vacationing children, then you should probably run for President. In a healthy relationship, we lose it, we screw up, then we honestly apologize and grow.

My family situation was not typical. My parents depended on manipulation, passive-aggressive tactics, and cruelty to get their way and get their kicks. I’m not exaggerating here. It took me decades of my adult life to learn that trustworthy people DO exist, and that love does not equate to control. 

Vacations were a place where my parents could play their games at full blast. They ran the show, there were lots of goodies, and they could toy with my hopes and desires. They didn’t know how to handle their emotions and had no space for mine.

Is it “Normal”? Asking the Right Questions

“But isn’t it petty to criticize parents for ugly family vacations? Weren’t they just doing the best they could?” I would have wondered about these questions before I became a parent.

If we are are the parent then we are the responsible party. It’s up to us to govern ourselves and adjust our plans for the sake of ourselves and our children. So let’s ask the same question using different words: “Is it ever justifiable to abuse children?” 

My three boys stand in the parking lot at Minuteman Missile NHS. My oldest son is pointing up in the sky.
Children are children. It is never appropriate to blame a child for our own difficult feelings.

My parents struggled under the difficulties of life and the complications of travel. However, they repeatedly chose to take out their stress on me, play games with my head, and blame me for our family troubles.

Worst of all, they consistently refused to take any ownership for their actions. Every day I danced the dance and hoped I would get what I needed, or at least not get hurt.

@dinkumtribe When two people have completely different reactions to the same conversation that they’re both in, it’s often a sign that there is manipulation or abuse going on covertly. @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe @dinkumtribe #NoContact #NoContactWithFamily #ToxicFamily #ToxicFamilyRelationships #DysfunctionalFamily #SpiritualAbuse #EmotionalAbuse #ReligiousAbuse #EmotionalManipulation #MentalAbuse #AbuseRecovery #childhoodneglect #traumatok #traumasurvivor #childhoodabuse #childhoodtrauma #healingtrauma ♬ original sound – DinkumTribe ADHD family travel

Our Original Plan

Our stop at Minuteman Missile NHS was a scenario that was familiar to the travel terrors of my childhood. Jennifer, the children, and I had made a point to find out what every family member was hoping to see and do. We’d taken time to hear from everyone on what was the one thing that they definitely wanted to experience. 

My one thing was Badlands National Park. I want to hike the trails and explore the park, not simply drive the road and snap a picture. Minuteman Missile NHS was tempting but Jennifer and I decided to leave lots of time for Badlands National Park

We had reservations in the Custer so we knew that we’d only get an afternoon to explore the park. So we settled on leaving the nuclear warhead for another trip, so we could get the most out of the Badlands.

Plan B

My excitement had been building for days and now we were actually here! We exited the highway and saw the small Minuteman NHS Visitor Center when Jennifer asked me “Do you think we could just stop in for a short visit?” She hadn’t realized that the Cold War missile site was literally right next to Badlands NP, and so she felt the need to reassess our plan.

I felt torn. Our time was limited, but Badlands was just next door and the visitor center was pretty small . . .

Alert! Alert!

We walked in the doors and and all Hell broke loose in my head:

How could they pack so many exhibits in this building?

Why do they kids have Junior Ranger booklets?

This is going to take hours!!! 

I actually had nothing to worry about. My wife is the safest person I’ve ever met, and us adults could easily have given our kids a half hour taste of the Cold War era before moving on.

Unfortunately, none of that gets through when we’re in the middle of panic attack. In my mind I was nine years old, losing out again, and having to pretend that I feel fantastic about it . . . or else.

All Clear: 3-Step Plan for Disarming a Road Trip Panic Attack

Jennifer and I enjoy a selfie in front of beautiful ridges of Badlands National Park. After recovering form my road trip panic attack, we still had a wonderful day!
We had a fantastic day at Badlands NP and Minuteman Missile NHS, in spite of my road trip panic attack.

Jennifer and I have been besties for twenty three years. This wasn’t our first rodeo and we were soon back to enjoying our vacation.

Here’s a three-step plan that we use when anxiety interrupts the road trip.

Get Outside

Too many sensations, activities, and options quickly amplifies the anxiety that you’re feeling. Road trips are full of sights, sounds, decisions, and actions. When anxiety strikes, the road trip needs to go on pause, especially if you’re the parent.

Jennifer and I brought all of us out of the super-sensory visitor center. Then we talked over things in the parking lot as the children played in the air-conditioned van. 

@dinkumtribe Anxiety tips series, part 1 : what are grounding exercises? #anxietyrelief #anxietytipsandtricks #grounding #dinkumtribe_anxiety ♬ original sound – dinkumtribe

Get Talking

It usually takes time to pinpoint what’s going on when we’re dealing with a road trip panic attack. A surface cause may come up really easy: “We stopped here, and now there’s no way we’re going to make it to Badlands NP.”

The root issue is harder to come by, but much more important: “It feels like I’m not going to get what I hoped for and that it will be all my fault.” Jennifer knows how to listen and ask open ended questions. Her desire to listen and understand were critical to helping me to calm down.

Me and my children look over a set of displays explaining the Delta-09 Missile Silo at Minuteman Missile NHS.
I genuinely enjoyed Minuteman Missile NHS because I’d been able to identify and work through the anxiety that hit me.

Get Going

Anxiety is paralyzing, but appropriate action can break its hold. Once we had discussed the matter, we began to brainstorm ways to make the scenario work well. My tunnel vision expanded and I realized that there were more options than “losing out on Badlands NP”.

Jennifer wisely gave me the simple task of getting our bumper sticker and National Parks mug. The action was mundane enough to get me moving without stressing me out. In only twenty minutes we were on our way to an afternoon of great family travel.

The Visitor Center shelf displays a variety of Daneen mugs created for Minuteman Missile NHS. My hand holds beautiful blue mug.
Red or Blue? Small decisions give a good start for moving back into the present.

Anxiety is unavoidable, especially in family travel. Fortunately, a road trip panic attack doesn’t have to hijack your valuable family vacations. What anxiety hacks do you use when you’re traveling with your family?

© Copyright Brian A. Warren, 2022

Collage at Minuteman NHS
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Collage of images from Minuteman Missile NHS. Road trip Panic Attack.
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About the author

Brian Warren is a native of California and has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and several other countries. He's husband to Jennifer, Dad of six children, and taught middle school history for several years. His special interests include craft beers, the American Old West, and geology. Brian is also an online marketing specialist and cofounder of Dinkum Tribe, a website dedicated to healthy, happy families. Feel free to send Brian a message at [email protected].


  1. Oh Brian I feel your pain…so glad you also have a fantastic partner to help you through it…my kids are grown but we still try and do ‘holidays’ together ha ha now that is challenging as there are 11 of us all and growing…

  2. I never experienced that and I hope I never will, but it’s good to read and be aware in case it does. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. I appreciate you highlighting the psychological challenges involved in travel, thank you. Your tips are excellent and useful! I am so glad you have a safe and loving partner, there is unlimited growth available for both partners in a safe relationship.

  4. I suffer from the panic issue as well, and I can totally feel what you are trying to put here. Anxiety is indeed unavoidable. It is great that you shared so many tips here.

  5. Thanks for sharing this real and personal side of travel. It is very real and not talked about enough. Love the tips you shared at the end!

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