We all know that Instagram and other social media platforms work as a trap to make us believe that the whimsical, dream life exists. While getting on a plane may give you a direct flight to a destination of your choice, it doesn’t mean you’ve bought a ticket to instant happiness. Prioritizing mental health while traveling is essential.
Both of us make a conscientious effort to stay in touch with our emotions, thoughts, and wellbeing, yet we both find ourselves in moments of sadness and loneliness. Through our travels, we’ve come across moments that have made us want to cry, scream, or just sit and do nothing.
Mental Health While Traveling
Research shows us that travel can have a hugely positive impact on one’s mental health. However, it’s important to understand that life on the road introduces its own unique challenges. With this in mind, learning to take care of your mental health while traveling should be a priority. While each person is unique and responds differently to various triggers, there are a few practical steps to take that will help you to take care of your mental health while traveling.
Disclaimer: Neither of us is a psychology professional. We simply hope that some of the lessons that we’ve learned will have a positive impact on someone else’s life. While we can’t offer scientific research, we can share moments from our experience, and how we managed to work through the challenges that we encountered.
Potential Mental Health Triggers And Optional Solutions
Each international destination that we’ve visited has gifted us with culture, experience, and intense joy. Scattered among these elated memories were challenging moments that pushed us further than we initially expected. Here are a few of the triggers that adjusted our mental state – and how we dealt with them.
Low Blood Sugar Levels
- Trigger: Being ‘hangry’
- Solution: Pack snacks and use Google Translate
The state of being hangry is not given the attention that it’s due. While it may be temporary, the words uttered in a state of starvation can have many longer-lasting effects. Survival mode kicks in and makes way for snarky remarks, fatigue, and a serious loss of patience. Confusing a “bad day” for a badly nourished one is an easy mistake.
While living and working in South Korea, we did a fair bit of exploring in the mornings because of our working hours. When it was time to grab a meal, we’d spend hours trying to figure out what we were about to eat. Unsurprisingly, the menus were all in Korean, and picking a spot to eat became a big challenge. It was a trying time.
This is just one instance of many difficult moments that pushed our patience to its limits. Since then, we’ve started packing easy snacks and downloading Google Translate. This allows us to subsidize our hunger until we get to a restaurant or cafe where we can translate the menu.
- Trigger: Claustrophobia
- Solution: Find a space for yourself
Claustrophobia can rear its ugly head in a variety of ways. When you’re traveling to a destination that has a slightly higher exchange rate then you’ll have to adjust your lifestyle in various ways. One of these ways may be renting a smaller space than what you’re used to.
If you’re not working at a co-working space during the day then cabin fever can become a reality. We’ve had our fair share of anxiety, frustration, and agitation that has been prompted by a lack of space. It has led to arguments, a lack of motivation, and a general mood of gloominess. We learned that splitting up after lunch and going to work at different spots kept us out of each other’s hair.
In addition, the change of scenery did wonders for lifting our mood and we had something to chat about when we reunited at the end of the workday. This routine was put into practice on a daily basis when living in Rio de Janeiro where our flat was the size of a shoebox and our surfboards took up half the space!
- Trigger: Having unrealistic or uninformed expectations
- Solution: Keep an open mind and embrace the situation
This is a big one for travelers who see idyllic pictures of a destination and expect the same perfection in reality. In most cases, the dream translates to a degree but the world is unpredictable and you need to be prepared for anything. For example, we planned a trip to Chile without reading up about the political situation beforehand. What we learned upon arrival was that the country is going through serious civil unrest and during our stay, we found ourselves caught in a tear gas storm.
Needless to say, this wasn’t on our agenda. However, we had an incredible time in Santiago. We explored the history and culture, toured the graffiti art, and made some awesome friends.
Doing your research on various aspects of a city’s lifestyle can reduce a lot of stress that could trigger more serious mental health challenges, or even put your life at risk. If you do find yourself in an environment that doesn’t align with your expectations, you can choose to embrace it or make the decision to leave. But don’t sit and sulk, hating every moment. Life’s too short for that.
Lack of Community
- Trigger: Lack of social structure
- Solution: Using apps and call home
We have an interesting habit of traveling to places that don’t speak English. It’s very exciting and makes for some fascinating (and confusing) moments, but it can also be very lonely. Luckily, Ollie and I can spend long periods of time with just the two of us. We can have a conversation about almost anything and very seldom run out of things to say – yet we still miss community and experience moments of loneliness.
When you travel for long periods of time you lose a sense of connection to loved ones. Friends, family, and even your local gym buddies go on with their lives and assume that you’re doing the same. In many instances, you can create a new community in your current destination, but language barriers and cultural differences can still leave you feeling misunderstood or lacking in a social structure.
Bali was the first destination that we visited that spoke our home tongue and it’s crazy to see the difference in the number of connections that we made.
There are some very useful tips to help you connect with people that don’t speak your own language and combat loneliness while traveling. There are certain websites, such as meetup, that introduce you to like-minded people and help jump-start a connection. This is a great way to meet people abroad. You can also make routine Skype dates with your family and friends back home. Make an effort to stay up to date with the lives of your loved ones, and they’ll do the same for you.
- Trigger: Situations that are out of your control such as a global catastrophe
- Solution: Trust your gut and play it safe
This is a big one. With coronavirus limiting travel in a major way, we’ve found ourselves feeling despondent and agitated on a regular basis. But nothing can quite compare to the immense stress and panic that we felt in Chile when we had to make a decision on whether to return to South Africa or “wait it out”. We spent two weeks frantically jumping between plans, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear.
Hindsight can be hilariously cruel.
There may be times when the situation is out of your control and leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Over a long period of time, this can have a really bad effect on your mental health. For our two weeks in Valparaíso, we were highly strung and tense.
In the end, we trusted our gut and returned home. It was the best decision that we could have made. Human instinct is often reliable and in stressful situations that are out of your control, it can help to draw up a list of pros and cons and look at the situation in a logical sense.
- Trigger: Feeling physically weak
- Solution: Prepare for the inevitable
When your body is weak then it is particularly difficult to keep your mind strong. For us, exercising gives us a major endorphin kick and when we’re man-down for a period of time then we struggle to keep a positive mind frame. We’ve noticed that our mental health takes a serious dip when we’ve fallen ill.
Falling ill with food poisoning in Morocco was probably the worst situation we’ve ever found ourselves in. We were immobile for days on end and started feeling extra-gloomy as we hotboxed ourselves in a sweaty room. In moments like these, there’s not much that can lift your mood. But we had our first aid kit to help us through the first battle and it did give us peace of mind.
In the future, it would have helped us tremendously to have prepared better. Small actions like keeping cash on hand for a taxi, pinpointing the nearest hospital, and stocking up on everyday medical supplies can be a saving grace for both your body and your mind.
- Trigger: Being out of pocket in a foreign country
- Solution: Use apps to budget, be aware of hidden costs
While some people can accumulate debt without batting an eye, spending money that I don’t have stresses me out. As a freelancer who doesn’t earn a consistent income, I’ve had to learn to budget very carefully. When money is tight, I become ruled by anxiety and stress. The weaker value of the South African currency also means that we have to be especially strict with our spending.
Being stuck in a foreign country without any money is a scary thought but can happen quite quickly. There have been several instances where we’ve mapped out a budget and been caught with our pants down as hidden costs munch into our savings. You can also underestimate the cost of lifestyle expenses (such as rent, food, etc) in a place that you’re unfamiliar with.
Luckily, there are ways to avoid being in this stressful situation. There are several apps that are very useful in monitoring expenses and tracking overspending. We use the TravelSpend app and it’s alerted us about frivolous spending on several occasions. If you travel a lot then it may be in your best interest to switch to a bank that accommodates travelers’ needs. This includes no withdrawal fees and no foreign transaction fees.
Activities To Improve Mental Health
The above triggers are all specific instances that we’ve experienced. There are also certain activities that you can do on a regular basis that will help maintain your mental health without any triggers.
- Exercise – this is a very important habit for us which isn’t always easy to incorporate on a daily basis. We’ve found several effective solutions to staying fit while traveling
- Meditate – take time out to reflect, ground yourself and check in with where you’re at
- Journal – this habit is not only great for documenting your travels but also for working through thoughts and feelings
- Carve out me-time – which is especially important when traveling with a buddy or loved one so that you don’t wring each other’s necks
- Call home – it’s amazing what good a little bit of love from home can do
Travel Is Good For The Mind And Soul
At the end of the day, life is full of ups and downs and each moment deserves to be embraced for what it gives us. Tough moments give us lessons and good moments give us memories. Travel has had one of the best effects on our mental health. The opportunity has broadened our perspective, taught us patience, introduced us to friends, and given us space for expression and discovery.