Travelling is exciting, and challenging, and wonderful. It can be life changing, it can be commonplace, and it can totally change your perspective. And for me, it has a long and complicated relationship with mental health.
When I was growing up, I would travel every summer back to Russia to stay with my grandparents, leaving the day after school ended and coming back right before it started. While I am grateful for this change in perspective and the ability to see the world from two different cultures, what it meant for me as a kid was that I never got to hang out with my friends during the summer, and always missed that part of American culture. So, in the beginning travel for me was: commonplace, sometimes tedious, sometimes isolating.
As I grew older and morphed into an awkward teenager, these trips changed for me. I often felt trapped on vacations with my family, and it triggered my anxiety. As a young woman with intense control anxiety, the feeling of being stuck on family vacations with no access to my friends or life at home felt isolating and depressing. I would become moody, withdrawn, and angry.
When I was in college and the years following, travel became an escape- I suddenly realized that I had the power to change my life drastically by changing the geographic location. Instead of dealing with interpersonal relationships, confronting my struggle in academics, or seeking therapy, I would leave- forcing myself into new situations. It was addicting, and so much easier than staying put.
I use all of these examples to illustrate something that isn’t talked about enough- the idea that depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles don’t stay quietly at home when we leave to travel, but rather sneak into our luggage, wake us up in cold sweats the day after we leave home, or often are the reason themselves that we have left. Confronting those issues on the road is a whole other conversation, but it can be hard when you are suddenly thrust out of your regular daily structure, and may not have access to regular therapy, medications, or support systems you had in place before leaving. Additionally, the stress of travelling with family, travelling for work or school, or the pressure that you’re “supposed to be having a good time” can leave you feeling drained, guilty, and wishing for the normalcy of every day.
With that in mind, here are 3 tips I have found to be helpful when dealing with mental health on the road:
- Don’t feel guilty for being on your phone. Your family, your friends, and your travel organization will likely encourage you to put down your phone and fully experience where you are. They might say that your phone makes you disconnected, less able to engage with the people around you, and stuck in your own world. They are right- partially. While all of these things are true, for someone whole is struggling intensely with travel anxiety, homesickness, or plain old depression, being on your phone can be your anchor to stability- that app that helps your curb your anxiety, the regular Facebook posts, and texts you’re sending to your friends are often a really good way to keep in touch with everything that is important to you. And if the older generations try to shame you for constantly being attached to your phone? Ask them how important reading the news is. When I travel internationally, my phone is the only way I can keep in touch with news and important events back home. It’s my equivalent of the 6 o’clock evening news.
- Write things down. When I’m travelling, I often find myself overwhelmed by life-changing experiences, bursts of inspiration, or crippling loneliness and the feeling of being lost. These emotions can be hard to access when you’re back the rhythm of the everyday, so write them down- it also helps you remember the day’s events and process everything that’s happened. Bonus points– write things down in the notes of your phone or dictate to your voice memos- you probably already have your phone on you, anyways, and there’s less chance that you’ll lose it.
- Take time for yourself. At home, therapy can be immensely useful because it is a set time, once every week/ two weeks, when you talk about your mental health and nothing else. When you suddenly don’t have that, it can de-center your sense of stability. Take the time for yourself, on a somewhat regular schedule, and assess how you’re feeling. Give yourself and your health the time of day.
Hope these help, and remember, as always, play around and see what works for you! Everyone is different, and everyone’s experiences are different. The most important things are to be honest with yourself about the things you need, and to give yourself the permission and time to take care of yourself.
Good luck, and go get it!
June 2, 2017
Cover photo: Julie Slotnick