MENTAL HEALTH AND TRAVEL: 14 PEOPLE SHARE WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE
Preparing to embark on a travel experience may elicit feelings of excitement, giddiness, or joy. Alternatively, it might also arouse anxiety, fear, and overwhelm. For those of us who live with mental health conditions, travel may intensify our challenges, but it often times also helps us learn how to more effectively cope with them.
Throughout my life, I’ve experienced severe bouts of depression and suicidal ideation. Some of my deepest periods of darkness have happened while living abroad. Because people tend to idolize and idealize the travel experience, many of us feel an isolating pressure to keep our these kinds of experiences to ourselves, making it even more challenging to cope with our mental health abroad. The reality is many of us are going through similar challenges. In an effort to create more transparency around this topic, I asked others about their own experiences managing mental health while traveling or living abroad.
Travel as Escapism
For some of us, the desire to travel may begin with a deep-rooted desire to escape our lives, our problems, and oftentimes, ourselves.
“Travel for me had been a way of pushing off any attempt to deal with the deeper issues that have been troubling me for a long time. I probably spent too much of my 20's thinking that the overused travel maxim "Not all who wander are lost" applied to me, and reading epic travel books like The Motorcycle Diaries, Into the Wild, or On the Road. All of it made me think that travel would bring clarity and meaning to my life, but it didn't because there was no greater purpose guiding my travels. I was, in fact, very lost.” —Matt
For those of us who are running, we eventually realize it’s not really possible. We can’t escape our problems, least of all ourselves. In fact, travel most often brings us face-to-face with our own pain and darkness in ways that are even more jarringly intense than we might have experienced them back home. For some of us, this ultimately allows us to better cope with our mental health, and what was once escapism becomes a powerful coping mechanism.
How Mental Health May Impact Our Experience Abroad
“Isolation is my downfall, and travel can be notoriously lonely. When I first moved to China, I didn’t know anyone, I couldn’t speak or read the language, and I really didn’t know anything about the country or culture. In case you were wondering, that’s a recipe for disaster, and I spent the first three or four months hating myself and regretting my decision.” —Andrew
For some, it’s actually the experience of being abroad itself that triggers or brings out challenges with mental health. The pressures of navigating new surroundings and expectations, along with the possibility that you may be far from any type of support system can bring rise to unanticipated feelings and situations.
“The first sign realising that something was wrong with me was the feeling of being really SAD, and I couldn't explain why. That period of time I was studying in the Netherlands, and the academic pressure at the university, along with other problems back home made me not to be able to concentrate anymore. That sadness started turning into depression. I couldn't sleep, couldn't think straight, and I started ‘breaking’ slowly. I couldn't understand what is happening to me, maybe because I didn't know myself as well as I thought.” —Contributor who wishes to remain anonymous
The novelty and break from routine often provides a welcome distraction from our issues with mental health, but it’s also that same lack of familiarity and stability that forces us to face them.
“I find that my anxiety can really sneak up on me when I travel. Sometimes, I can almost forget that it exists, because the excitement of the new sights and sounds distracts me, and I get swept up in the hustle and bustle of it all. That break from routine, however, can also spurn on the tightening chest and lightheadedness, and that complete sense of ...overwhelming. I feel the best way to describe my own anxiety, is just that: feeling overwhelmed; feeling both claustrophobic and alone, like my surroundings are pushing in around me, pulsing and growing louder and more incoherent with each moment.” —Giordana
Can Traveling or Living Abroad Worsen Mental Health?
“Yes, mental health—like other facets of health—does better with routine and following a ‘treatment’ that works. With travel and living abroad, you are often facing the unpredictable and, in the very least, changing your schedule often to accommodate flights, hotels, plans, etc…” —Leilani
“Travel does a pretty good job at keeping my depression at bay, but it brings out a lot of social anxiety in ways that I never really feel at home. It's returning from a trip that does me in. If I come back and realize I'm not really a better or wiser person, I can go into a spiral of self-loathing that can bring the depression back with a force.” —Matt
“I definitely find that my depression worsens when I feel alone/when I am traveling by myself. I think it's mainly because when I'm alone, I really get into my head and often deal with ‘shame spirals’ when there is no one else to talk to.” —Leah
A big challenge for those of us managing our mental health abroad is feeling we have to present a facade for those back home...
“One of the biggest issues I face when I am away from family is the constant need to project an image of stability and happiness. I have to make sure that everyone thinks everything is alright. I just can't stand the sorrowful looks, or the saddened tones of friends and family if they realize that everything is not as great as I make it to seem.” —Mustafa
“I fear that if express anything but pure joy and satisfaction that they'll worry about my well-being as I’m half a world away from them. Would this make them feel helpless? Would this cause them to withdraw their support, causing me to slide into depression even further?” —Lauren
The pressure to maintain appearances isn’t just for those back home…
“I think the biggest challenge for me is putting on the act - the act that everything is fine and you feel fantastic to be exploring the globe, especially if you're traveling with someone. It's like the more they ask ‘are you okay?’, the worse it makes you feel. They point out that you aren't smiling in pictures or that you haven't finished your food.” —Kay
Guilt About Mental Health Issues While Abroad
We oftentimes feel the necessity to hide what’s truly going on because we feel guilty. We know the privilege we have, and we’re hyper aware that so many people wish for the same opportunities to travel or live abroad. This may make us feel guilty in admitting that we find the experience difficult or unfulfilling.
“I feel guilty. Because in my head, anyone would dream of being in my shoes. The fact that I can't seem to enjoy where I am and what I am doing adds to the mess and makes me feel even more miserable.” —Mustafa
“It is a privilege to travel as a black woman given that most black people don't even have passports. So when I find myself complaining or in a miserable mental state while abroad I feel the weight of my ancestors in a sense. Like despite all they went through so that I could travel freely as a free woman, here I am dismayed while showered in opportunity. I feel guilty for not enjoying places more, knowing that countless others around me have never and may never get to do so.” —Janay
But not all of us feel guilty. Some find empowerment through the process as well...
“I almost feel as if I should say that yes, I do feel guilty about my anxiety/depression when I travel, because I know so many do. They might feel guilty for wanting to cry into some McDonalds in their room instead of being out exploring and trying the local cuisine, thinking about the privilege they have that allows them to travel in the first place, and what constitutes misusing it. I completely understand that, but I don't necessarily feel the guilt myself. If I'm being honest, the fact that I am constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone while struggling with my mental health and having a chronic pain disease to boot, makes me think... that I am one badass bitch. Basically, if I need to take some Ativan, or lie in bed for a few hours, or have a good cry, it's because I am tough as hell. I am proud of not letting my brain pain stop me from experiencing the world from a different angle. It's a scarier angle, but for me, a rewarding one.” —Giordana
“I can't say that I feel guilty for having an awareness of the areas that need to be improved in my mental health simply because I see them as opportunities for personal growth. I've learned a great deal about myself through experiencing episodes of anxiety and depression which, in my opinion, is a win because I become aware of the triggers that could send me into those episodes.” —Jasmine
Traveling or Living Abroad Can Also Help Address and Improve Mental Health
“Honestly, I’d still be living in denial if I’d never started traveling. In a weird way, travel exacerbated my issues by isolating me from people with whom I could talk, but at the same time, it forced me to confront those problems that I had been burying.” —Andrew
“I think living abroad in Chile really caused me to deal with my depression a lot earlier on than I would have otherwise. Being in a different culture, with little to no friends, and far away from my family brought all of my issues to a head. Although this was one of the most difficult periods of my life, I'm glad that it happened because I am now making moves to cope with my depression instead of fighting it or feeling like I can deal with it on my own.” —Leah
“Travel, without fail, humbles me and helps me put things into perspective. I learn so much about myself through learning about others and experiencing new cultures. While I need friends and family for support, living abroad puts you in a place where you have to figure some things out on your own, to create a strong, independent foundation, and I think that's really important.” —Leilani
“I think travel broke down a lot of illusions I had about myself. That, in part, led to my depression, but it's forced me to reconsider and rebuild myself in a way that I'm becoming proud of. It also forced me to recognize that the world wouldn't change me, but that I had to change myself.” —Matt
“Traveling helps me take the focus off of myself, and not be quite as self-centered. It helps me not to stagnate, and wallow. It helps me to understand the world a little better, and people a little better. It shows me time and time again, that my problems (especially my problems as a cisgender white woman) are microscopic in the grand scheme of things, and it teaches me how to take care of myself. It reminds me of what I enjoy doing, which is easy to lose sight of at home. It gives me both hope, and good memories, which aid in my recovery.” —Giordana
Preparing to Manage Mental Health Abroad
For many of us, knowing how to prepare in advance of time spent abroad can help to more easily manage some of the challenges presented abroad that we may not necessarily face at home.
Gabrielle Morton, a Navy Combat Veteran, licensed social worker, and mental health advocate, gives the following advice:
“The overwhelming stress of travel can exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety or depression if not careful. I mean, who has time for a panic attack at the bottom of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, right? In order to stay grounded while traveling, you have to be aware of your sensitivities and triggers. Preparing in advance includes knowing your limitations and boundaries, such as traveling alone or in a group, destination travel time, lodging, safety, transportation, tours/groups of people, and proper allocation of your energy. Creating a checklist such as this one can help lessen any travel anxieties you may have.
Before the trip
Where am I going? When? (Time of year? Is it busy? Do I need to avoid large tourist crowds?)
How long am I planning on visiting?
Do I have enough medication to last?
Who is my accountability/check-in person back home?
How will we communicate? WhatsApp, FaceTime, etc?
Read up on the culture of where you are going to lessen any social anxiety.
Create a Mood Kit (suggestions: playlist, herbal oils for mood/anxiety, and a journal)
I recommend adding binaural beats to your playlist to help with grounding
During the trip
Daily check-ins with your person—Be honest about any mood changes
Check in with yourself. Listen to your body, and that fire playlist!
Go back to the hotel if need be, but make sure your person knows, too
Be aware of your surroundings. If you feel overwhelmed, find somewhere safe to sit and do some deep breathing
At the end of the day, grab your journal and write. This helps with processing and regulating your emotions
Schedule time to decompress before jumping back into your routine, even if just a day
Recharge by spending time with someone good for your mental health
Take a bath with an herbal blend that promotes relaxation
The biggest takeaway from this is preparation, even if plans change. Traveling can seem overwhelming, but can also be very rewarding. Developing a mental health maintenance plan that isn't location dependent will be beneficial for all of your travel in the future.”
Some individuals also make arrangements to remain connected to their mental health counselors at home while traveling.
“I have started a counseling program in which I see a therapist in person when I'm home and have sessions via Skype when I'm traveling.” —Leah
Services like Talkspace, an online therapy provider, will match you with a licensed therapist based on your needs, allowing you to access help anytime and anywhere.
Supporting Loved Ones Managing Mental Health Abroad
It’s important to be aware that it may be hard for an individual struggling with mental health to voice their feelings or needs. I was struck by the overall response following Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in which people were encouraging us to reach out if and when facing those kinds of thoughts. For me, that demonstrated people’s lack of understanding around many mental health conditions. We usually don’t reach out because we don’t want to burden other people with our problems. We oftentimes feel a responsibility to deal with it on our own.
“You could tell them what's up and potentially ruin their fun and experience for them as well, or you could try to just suck it up for twenty more minutes until the tour is over. Deciding between those options is always the hardest for me.” —Kay
Individuals may want or need different types of support based on their condition or personal preference, but there seems to be a general trend among us—we crave human connection and validation.
“When I am abroad and start to feel as though I am having a mental health episode, I need to have sunlight, rest and to surround myself with those I care about, whether it's virtually or in-person. I would like people to support me by just being there and being receptive to my needs. I may need physical comfort in the form of a hug or emotional support if they are able to provide that at that time. Mostly, I just want someone to listen.” —Monique
“Many times I find myself unable to get out of bed and, in these moments, phoning a friend from back home and being vulnerable about how I'm feeling helps. I make sure to call the friends who will not only validate my emotions/feelings but offer a perspective different than my own, not to contradict me, but to help me see the situation from another point of view. —Janay
“Loved ones can help by not asking questions that force me to think or decide. Instead of asking ‘What food do you want?’ and making my mind race, they can say, ‘I'm going to get you some tea and a snack. I'll put an advil next to you in case you want it.’...Being told I am loved, and that they will be as close as I need or give me my space is very helpful. The worst is when I feel like I've ruined someone's day by being nonfunctional, so I also appreciate it when they can still get out and I don't feel like a burden.” —Kristy
“The external guilt comes from my family, as they seem to point that I must not miss them because I make an active choice not to come back to the US to visit them, instead of supporting my decision and my desire to spend time abroad. ...I would rather have them be supportive of my decision even if it is not what they would personally choose for their life. ...sometimes all I need is validation to help pull me from a dark place compared to feeling alone and misunderstood.” —Lauren
I’ve also had people share with me that their family pressures them to come home when they’re facing mental health challenges abroad, and I can understand why they might find that a beneficial solution. But it’s also important to acknowledge and accept that we have a mental health condition whether we’re at home or not, and for some of us (not all!), coping with that is actually easier or more productive for us away from home. The experience of being abroad may fulfill needs we have that are also beneficial to our mental health. And, for some people, “home” may be the most toxic place of all.
What we most want from others is simply acceptance. Accept how we feel, even if you may not understand or agree. Love us where we are and as we are. Mental health conditions often manifest themselves in ways that appear illogical, which is why I believe it’s a perfect opportunity to establish a connection based on the heart.
Power in Openly Sharing Experiences with Mental Health
“Things I have viewed as weakness and struggle can actually be a gift to help me connect and help others.” —Elise
“I believe in the power of sharing stories and the strength in being vulnerable. Our experiences are what humanize us and let others know that it's normal to have human experiences.” —Jasmine
“I've also come across countless other female travelers dealing with similar struggles and this has gone a long way to making me feel like I'm not alone in suffering with depression. I've found that sharing about my depression on my Instagram has helped me to feel like I don't have to always pretend to be happy on social media.” —Leah
“I felt extraordinarily alone until a few friends of mine opened up about their experiences with mental health with me. And when I first shared my struggles with depression publicly, literally dozens of people who were very close to me reached out and said they'd gone through something similar. It made me wonder if maybe the reason we're all so lonely is because we just never talk to each other about real things. Suffering alone is horrible. Suffering together is weirdly nice.” —Matt
We're on This Journey Together
“Coping with and overcoming mental health struggles is not easy or simple, but it is achievable and there are always people out there (hi!) who are willing to be an ear to listen or have a story to share to help others realize what they can do. Don't be ashamed or embarrassed of your struggles.” —Elise
If you’re living or traveling abroad with mental health conditions, you are not alone. Many of us experience similar circumstances, and I hope connecting with others who are open and honest about their mental health journey will encourage you as you navigate your own. While these stories cover various types of experiences, they don’t represent them all. If you’d like to share your personal experience, please feel free to do so in the comments below. We would love to hear your story…
APPRECIATION FOR THE CONTRIBUTORS
I appreciate each and every person who contributed to this collaboration and who shared this piece of themselves with transparency and bravery. Thank you for being part of this with me.
+1 Contributor who wishes to remain anonymous
I’d also like to recognize my friend Gabrielle Morton for offering her advice on managing mental health abroad. Her work is so important.
Gabrielle Morton, a Navy Combat Veteran, is a social worker, public speaker, and mental health advocate. She has an undergraduate degree in Counseling Psychology, a Masters in Clinical Social Work, and additional training in Trauma-Informed Care. Gabrielle specializes in treating women with complex trauma and intimacy issues, and individuals with severe mental illnesses such as chronic depression, anxiety-related disorders, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Her ongoing advocacy work includes providing psycho-education to communities of color on the importance of their psychological well-being. She remains transparent about her own mental health journey as a way to show others that healing is not a linear process.