Travel & Mental Health: 6 Reminders
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
This year I had my first experience of travelling properly while struggling with my mental health. I say “properly” because a) technically all my trips fall into this category, as my MH issues are ongoing, and b) I have travelled through a bout of depression before, but not in quite the same way. This was my first voluntary trip that I took whilst really having a hard time mentally.
Involuntary travel?? Let me explain: while I was at university, I had to undertake a lot of fieldwork (60+ days over three years, I believe) - all of which I despised - and included a six-week-long project at the end of my second year. I ended up doing mine on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, a beautiful part of the world, but somewhere that I will always associate with being utterly miserable. There were a lot of factors involved, and I might write a post specifically about my fieldwork experiences, but essentially I was heavily, heavily depressed for the entire duration of the trip, isolated in numerous ways, self harming, and suicidal. So, technically, I have travelled while I’ve been depressed, but if I had any choice in the matter, I would absolutely not have taken part in this trip.
The trip I most recently took, however, involved two nights and three days in the south of France with a friend, in order to see one of our favourite bands play at a really incredible venue – far from the awful situation in which I found myself in Skye. Yet I was still so depressed.
I *cannot* be the only person who has travelled while dealing with their MH, nor the only person who wants to travel regularly despite their illnesses, and I wanted to put down on paper (*screen) some positive affirmations and reminders for the future, should I or anyone else need them. Like a lot of people – MH sufferers or not – validating and accepting myself does not come easily.
It was a pure coincidence that, while packing for and panicking over this France trip, @psychotraveller’s video on travel shaming popped up on Youtube. It was something I really needed to hear at the time, and Aly made some points I honestly hadn’t even considered. It was interesting being able to consider the points she made from, perhaps, a slightly different perspective, and applying some of them to travelling with MH issues. The way I feel as a result of my MH has a big influence on how I go about travelling, especially when I travel solo.
(For those who haven’t seen the video, or who aren’t fully aware of the concept of travel shaming, it refers to travellers being put down – generally by other travellers – for their ways of seeing the world. This mostly involves shaming travellers who only want/have time to see the main attractions and don’t venture off the tourist trail, suggesting they haven’t “seen” a country or a city as a result, but could extend to doing the “wrong” things while travelling, like missing out on skydiving/bungee jumping in New Zealand meaning you haven’t truly experienced the country.)
While Aly describes travel shaming as a sort of attack by one traveller on another, I know that I've felt shame in the way I travel, but only because of my own expectations of myself. Certain mental illnesses incite a vicious cycle of feeling down, therefore being unable to meet expectations, and consequently feeling ashamed of yourself, only exacerbating the initial feeling of sadness. As much as possible, it is important to put yourself first, and to know that is okay and doesn't require justification.
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You set your limits.
This can be applied in all parts of life, but is important when it comes to taking care of your MH while travelling - perhaps less obviously so when solo, but more if you’re with a group of friends.
Your travel experiences should not be dictated by someone else’s agenda. Don’t let yourself be pressured into doing things you aren’t comfortable with, or things you won’t enjoy.
If you don’t want a late and booze-filled night out on the town, or you don’t want to go caving, or a day-long hike seems too overwhelming, just say no. You know yourself better than anyone else, and, while I think it’s a shame to waste time while travelling, it’s just as bad to fill your time with things you didn’t want to do. Skip the night out and stay in with a podcast, or take a shorter - but equally beautiful - walk instead of a full on hike. Experience this new place in ways you know you will appreciate now and in the future.
Schedule some downtime.
Downtime comes a bit too naturally to me, even when I’m travelling, but I can understand why you might put together a perfectly-planned and jam packed schedule of things to see and do, and feel let down when it doesn’t work out as expected. It makes sense not to want to waste any time while travelling, but having some time to take care of yourself is just as important as seeing all these new places.
On a couple of my solo trips I’ve managed to fall into a kind of routine which works for me; I can only really manage an early morning every other day (unless I have a flight to catch/somewhere to be etc), so I don’t expect myself to get up early every day of a trip. Thanks to instagram’s influence, I feel compelled to be up and out at the crack of dawn in order to take the best, tourist-free photos, but doing that every day just isn’t realistic for me. Letting yourself have a lie in while you’re travelling (as long as you don’t miss check-out time or planes/trains/buses) is not a crime.
Don’t overload yourself. It’s important to take advantage of as much as you can, but not to the point where you’re no longer enjoying the trip. Despite your best efforts, you can’t see everything (as much as you’d like to, I know). Exploit the rainy days and empty evenings to recharge and take some time out. I like to use my downtime to take a shower, catch up on instagram, edit photos from the day, and watch some Netflix. I really appreciated and needed this time on a couple of my solo trips, and feeling more relaxed and refreshed the next day made me enjoy getting out and seeing new places even more.
Your feelings are valid.
This is something I struggle with all the time, whether I’m travelling or not. Always keep it in mind that your feelings are valid. Even if they cannot be seen on the outside, they are real, and they deserve to be confronted. If that requires you to cancel plans, take time off work, or sacrifice a couple of travel days, that is okay. Please never feel guilty or ashamed over something you cannot control.
There will always be people who don’t quite understand the situation you’re in – until you’ve dealt with it yourself, it is very difficult to comprehend. Travelling with other people can heighten emotion and tension due to tiredness, excitement, and by being somewhere unfamiliar, exacerbating problems on both sides. Mental illnesses can be just as debilitating as physical ones; you wouldn’t be expected to continue as normal if you broke your leg while travelling, and the same should apply if dealing with an episode of depression or anxiety, for example.
By all means, do the best you can. In general, and I hope the same applies to you, travelling is something I love to do, and actually benefits my mental health; that doesn’t mean you have failed if you are overcome by your illness while doing something you thought you would enjoy. Sometimes episodes come out of the blue, other times they are brought on – either way, what you feel is real, and you should care for yourself accordingly.
I have personally been in situations where I have needed to take time out and cancel plans while away, a decision not taken well by the people I was travelling with as it affected their plans. Already guilty for being unwell in such a way, I was made to feel worse by said people, which of course further increased my guilt. My episode came on very quickly, and the people I was travelling with weren’t really aware of my mental illnesses, nor what they entailed, which didn’t help.
If there is any chance your mental health could take a sudden turn while you are travelling, I would highly recommend you ensure at least one person you’re travelling with is aware of your illnesses and their potential implications before you go, to avoid having to explain everything from scratch if you end up becoming unwell. If there could be serious consequences, letting them know how they can help you in a time of crisis is important too. This applies more for travelling with certain people for the first time, or with people you don’t know very well. The shock and surprise of travelling with someone going through an episode can be quite daunting for people who don’t understand or aren’t aware it might happen.
If you’re travelling solo, you get to call the shots plans-wise, which will make it easier to work around your mental health. In this case, make sure you have someone at home you can contact relatively easily, or even someone on a closer time zone (e.g. when I travelled solo in NZ, I was in contact with family I have in the country, as my dad back in the UK was too far away to be of much help). Locating the nearest hospitals and walk in centres, and making note of relevant crisis lines, might also be beneficial things to do before setting off, depending on what you tend to struggle with. Being in a state of crisis and panic is unsettling enough as it is while at home – please make it as easy for yourself as possible in case this happens while you are away.
Appreciate the moment.
Mental health difficulties can be super distracting, and it’s easy to become worried or anxious over tiny things while in another country – perhaps you’re visiting a stunning medieval castle but constantly reminding yourself not to miss a certain bus, or exploring a National Park while worrying about something happening at home.
I’m really bad at letting go of the cluster of worries I always have whizzing around my head, regardless of what I’m doing. I have a mental to do list and agenda that ticks over second by second, and I’m normally thinking about several things at once.
It’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s important to absorb and appreciate the things around you when you travel – otherwise what would be the point in going? It will depend where you are – I’m sure the bustling streets in India’s city might only add to any stress you’re feeling – but take some time to consciously block out the rest of the world and focus on where you are. Ground yourself, absorb the sights, the smells, the temperature of the air, the sounds you can hear. This is your moment.
For me, there’s one particular place I recall consciously taking a moment to myself, on the shores of Lake Pukaki in New Zealand, which I have mentioned before. We had ten minutes before we needed to be back on the bus, so my internal clock was ticking away with ever increasing urgency, but for a few minutes, I shut out the rest of the world. Having done so, I can take myself back to that moment and remember the view, the breeze, the smells, the sound of the water gently lapping at the rocks. Especially in places as tranquil as that, make sure to take some time just to be.
Your health comes first.
I hope this point always stands, but it certainly should while you’re travelling: your health comes first. Whatever that means – not going out clubbing at night, skipping a sight to stay in and recharge, or going home earlier than you anticipated – your health comes first. While your trip might feel like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the chances are it probably isn’t, and countries and cities will always be there for you to go back to. Even if that isn’t the case, travelling should not be detrimental to your own personal wellbeing.
Thank you for giving this article a read; if one affirmation can help one person, then this post has been a success. I look forward to sharing more mental health-related articles in the future!
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