Our natural inclination is to assume travel will help our mental health.
When we feel down or frustrated with life, we think maybe we just need to leave everything behind and travel the world. Sure, that’s the best case scenario – travel can give you perspective. But more often than not, travel does not solve your problems. You just take them with you wherever you go.
That’s why it’s important to consider how you will manage your mental health while traveling. The fact of the matter is, travel and the loss of a regular routine can actually trigger a flare up of your mental health symptoms. Travel can even create whole new mental health issues. For example, there’s…
- Culture shock and reverse culture shock
- Stress (Too much too fast; unbalanced eating, exercise, and sleep routines; bureaucracy, immigration, waiting at airports/missing a flight; medical or financial emergencies…)
…And probably more.
I’ve suffered them all – and not just during long trips, but even on short two-week vacations (how about family trips amirite?)
So long-term travelers and holidaymakers alike can benefit from preparing “tools” or strategies to stay mentally healthy while traveling. Here are some that have worked for me:
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Strategies to stay mentally well while traveling
Create a “Meltdown Guide” for your travel partner
If you’re traveling with someone, make sure to brief them on what you might struggle with and ways you know that they can help. For example, if you suffer anxiety and/or panic attacks, this meltdown guide has some great actionable tips you can share with your travel partner to get you through a crisis moment. Everyone is different so you might want to put together your own and use this one as a template.
Use Couchsurfing, hostels, and work exchanges to make new friends
Loneliness in and of itself is distressing. Add it to depression, and the two compound each other.
If you’re traveling alone, stave off loneliness by proactively (meaning, before the depression makes you lose motivation) reaching out to new people in the cities you’ll be visiting. I use CouchSurfing to meet and stay with locals and use hostels to meet other travelers. I’ve also done work exchanges where you can stay somewhere for free in exchange for helping out using a service called HelpX.
Use text-based therapy
If you travel often or have found it difficult to commit to in-person therapy, I recommend trying out text therapy. There are a few different companies that offer this service. I’ve been using Talkspace for over seven months now and it’s been invaluable in helping me through periods of depression. I can talk to my therapist 24/7, from wherever I am in the world. (You can read my full Talkspace review here.)
Exercise on the go
Exercise is so helpful when struggling with something like depression, whether you’re traveling or not. Luckily, as I’ve said, there are a lot of articles out there on staying fit while traveling.
I’ve found there are three main forms of exercise that are especially conducive to travel for me: jogging, walking/hiking, and yoga. I’ve done all three while abroad.
You can find a way to walk or hike around most destinations, and same for jogging. I remember going running in my Vans when I was in Istanbul because I needed to clear my head. I didn’t have running shoes in my backpack but made do with what I did have. The bonus? Walking or jogging in a new place is a wonderful way to explore it.
*Tip: I use the compass on my iPhone to find my way around when I don’t have WIFI or a local SIM card. The compass still works without being connected to anything.
Plan to have your own space
This one is great if you’re traveling to visit family. Maybe you like spending time with your in-laws but sometimes it gets stressful and you need a break. It’s hard to get that space you need when you’re sleeping in their guest room. Just stay in a hotel or Airbnb. Trust me, it’ll be worth the extra expense.
Prepare a “toolbox” ahead of time
Physical discomfort can exacerbate any mental health struggles that might rear their head while you’re traveling. Plan ahead by bringing some items that will improve any physical discomfort.
For example, I always bring Mack’s Silicone Ear Plugs everywhere I go because I can be quite sensitive to noise while sleeping (especially snorers in hostel dorm rooms — YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). I also bring an eye shade in case there’s too much light in the room. My travel first aid kit is full of essentials to keep me comfortable so I don’t suffer a mental health dip. Don’t forget to bring more than enough of any medications you take to manage your mental health, as Kennedy Ryan reminds us in this article on how she manages her depression while traveling.
Journaling is a great strategy to manage any mental health issues while traveling. I like to bring a spiral bound notebook with a plastic cover. (Specifically, I’m kinda obsessed with Wilko’s A5 pink notebooks – so much so, I asked my friend to ship them to me from England!)
If you’re traveling alone, you can use WIFI-less downtime to get your thoughts out on paper. A lot of people find morning journaling therapeutic. There’s no better time to start a habit than when you’re in a new environment.
C’mon, you knew this one was coming. I’ve been a skeptic of meditation most of my life, but this past year my therapist started recording 5 minute guided mindfulness meditations for me to try and guys – I’m a believer. It just works.
I recommend giving meditation a try no matter what mental health issues you struggle with. For example, if you get panicky on planes, flying is a great time to plug in your headphones and work through a guided meditation from one of these meditation apps recommended for travelers. Many offer free trial periods or free access to certain meditations before you have to pay to upgrade.
My best meditation tip: try to “see through” your closed eyes during meditation. This is more of a muscular thing than woo-woo thing (you’re not actually seeing through your eyelids), and it helps you focus. You’ll see what I mean.
Bring something from home
If there’s a small object that you find soothing bring it with you on your travels. Or it could be a calming scent like a small amount of scented oil (e.g. coconut oil).
What did I miss – what do you do to stay mentally healthy while traveling?