We Need to Talk About Mental Health and Travel

This post was contributed by Jeremy Pelletier.


Like all of you here, I love to experience the intoxicating sights, smells, and sounds of a new city. I also appreciate the comforting familiarity of visiting a place, again and again, forming a life-long attachment and second home. The point is that traveling is eye-opening and enriching – but Y’ALL ALREADY KNEW THAT!

Instead, I want to get real here for a minute and talk about mental health. Specifically, mental health and travel – and how both need to go hand in hand. Let me warn you right now that this is not a post about the delights of travel. It’s not about experiencing the amber sunsets over Kealakekua Bay, the open embrace of Reykjavik, or the crisp forest air in Maine. This post is for the traveler who suffers from anxiety. For the aspiring globetrotter with depression. For anyone who wants to (and loves to) travel but whose mental health is a serious barrier to exploring the world.

MontyLov, Unsplash

I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder in my early 20s (and suffered from anxiety far before that).

Anxiety, for me at least, is when anything and everything can be overwhelming to the point that it can be difficult to function normally. 

It manifests itself in canceled plans, irritability, aloofness, constant overthinking and worry, anxiety attacks, fear of HAVING anxiety attacks – the list goes on. At its worst, it is crippling. Your mind jumps to the most disastrous outcomes of just about anything that can happen in any situation. Now imagine trying to plan a trip with all of the things you think could go wrong. What if the car breaks down on a road trip and I don’t have cell service? What if I freak out on the plane? What if my anxiety ruins the trip for everyone? What if I have a medical emergency? What if? What if? What if?

When I graduated from high school (….a long time ago), my parents were going to send me to Europe on an educational tour with a group of other students. We were going to France, Italy, and Greece. We’d stay in Paris and learn about French literature, we would go to Tuscany and experience wine-making (hey, you can drink at 18 in Italy), and we would swim in the Mediterranean after lectures on Greek Mythology.

It was going to be my first big trip and… I didn’t go.

My constant worry about the things that could go wrong eventually led me to cancel the trip. Of course, everyone that went had a great time with no issues. Years later, after I signed up (and paid for) a study abroad course in China, I told myself that this would finally be the time that I would see more of the world.

Spoiler alert… I didn’t go.

In short, my mental health was stopping me from doing what I longed to do.

Eberhard Grossgasteiger

For those of us with mental health issues, traveling can be tough. Left unchecked, it can become a long-term barrier to travel. There were times when I couldn’t see myself going on another trip… ever. Thankfully, I was able to get to a place where I could start traveling fairly regularly, and some of my most cherished memories are from all of those adventures. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a jump-on-the-next-flight-and-throw-caution-to-the-wind kinda guy. Managing my mental health is a balancing act, especially when it comes to travel, and I think it always will be. But I understand that I can’t let it get in the way of living my life. I have, and sometimes do, miss out on some great opportunities because of my anxiety, but I make sure that I am prioritizing my mental health so that I CAN travel as often as possible. This brings me to my next point – anxiety, depression, and other common mental disorders are VERY treatable. Whether by medication, therapy, lifestyle changes, or all of the above, you don’t have to resign yourself to a life of missed opportunities and FOMO. The trouble is only a small percentage of people suffering from mental illness actually seek treatment. I can’t speak for everyone, and I am not a mental health professional, but I do have experience with my own mental health, and I know what works for me.

I will always have down days where I don’t leave my bed for HOURS binging on Netflix – and that’s okay!

But the following tips help me productively manage my mental health and have played a significant role in being able to enjoy far more of the world than I ever thought I could.

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    Prioritize Your Mental Health

    This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said again and again. Shout it from the rooftops. YOUR MENTAL HEALTH SHOULD BE YOUR NUMBER 1 PRIORITY. Manage your stress levels, cut back your professional and social obligations if you need to, take time for yourself, practice self-love, seek professional treatment if necessary, and DO NOT apologize. You NEVER, ever, ever need to feel guilty for taking care of yourself. Have to say no to a friend because you need a day in? Go for it! Need a mental health day from work? Take it (it is a sick day and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

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    Take Care of Your Physical Well Being

    You will read this again and again and again. But it’s true. Eating healthy and staying active are some of the most productive things you can do to manage your mental health. I know that when you are in the throes of anxiety and depression, this seems impossible. But start by doing anything you can, and it will help in the long run. When you take care of your body, you are better equipped to handle situations that can exacerbate anxiety and depression. Staying active also releases feel-good endorphins. Haven’t you seen Legally Blonde? “Endorphins make you happy.”

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    Meditate and Practice Mindfulness

    Bear with me. Practicing mindfulness can significantly decrease the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It provides clarity to a racing and tangled mind. It teaches patience and self-acceptance in a non-judgmental space. It changes the way you think of and react to stressful situations that can exacerbate anxiety (ahem, traveling). And it is relaxing! It gives you a moment of peace so you can recharge and refocus. It is also a great way to get relaxed on a plane! There are tons of free apps and online resources that can walk you through meditation. I TRY to meditate every morning before I start my day. It’s not a silver bullet, but trust me when I say I am SO happy I found this practice.

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    Gratitude

    Taking some time out of your day to reflect on the good things you have in your life can be very beneficial to your mental health. Sometimes when we get caught in our downward spiral of negative thinking, we forget that there are a lot of great things to be thankful for. Jotting down 10 things, big or small, that you are grateful for each day can be a real help to get you out of that negative mindset that is so prevalent with anxiety and depression. This is not a cure, but it is a small and useful tool to help you manage your mental health on a daily basis.

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    Start Small

    Take a small trip in your area and rediscover your own backyard. If you can manage it, take a short plane ride to a new city that isn’t too far. The point is – don’t feel bad about not going on that big trip this year. A trip is a trip. 

    Take some time to build your confidence in traveling.

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    Take It Slow

    When you DO travel. Don’t pressure yourself into seeing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Try and push yourself out of your comfort zone as much as you can, but understand that it’s okay to take it slow. Most importantly, DON’T FEEL BAD ABOUT IT! No one expects you to turn up 24/7 on your trip. Take some you time and go at a pace that is comfortable. I was on a trip to Iceland with some VERY adventurous friends, and I found myself being overwhelmed a few days in. I took a day, grabbed some coffee and snacks, and went to Elliðaárdalur, a nature reserve in Reykjavik, for some R&R. I went for a walk, sat by the Elliðaár river, read a book, and, let me tell you, that alone time was precisely what I needed to recharge for the rest of the trip.

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    Shut Up and Go!

    I kinda mean this ironically, but I’m definitely serious. If booking that trip or planning that vacation is the kick you need to start prioritizing your mental health, so you can experience the world, then do it!

Philippe Toupet, Unsplash App

Now I know all of this is easier said than done – when you’re in the grips of a depressive episode, or your anxiety is to the point that daily life is difficult, it can be hard to motivate yourself to get out of bed, let alone seek treatment. My mental health has been a significant barrier to traveling in the past, but when I take care of myself – knowing when to get help, cultivating good habits, and surrounding myself with support – my mental health benefits greatly and I am able to do more of what I love. If you find that your mental health is stopping you from traveling, TAKE SOME TIME to prioritize your needs, and I promise, you will be able to confidently and passionately see all of the places you want to see! Start taking a couple steps in the right direction and, above all, remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to your mental health.

There is a whole world out there waiting to greet you!


Meet Jeremy:  I’m a geography, language, and beer enthusiast from Hawai’i. I currently reside in Connecticut where I work for non-profit organizations throughout the food, farming, and land care industries. Travel pet peeve: 30-minute layovers. GIVE ME A SECOND TO BREATHE! Keep up with me on IG.

 

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