Many travellers who suffer with depression expect it to disappear as soon as they pack a bag and head off to explore the world. So many sufferers put their illness down to the mundane stresses of daily life that upping sticks and escaping them seems like the obvious cure. Travel can seem like a brilliant way of taking your mental health into your own hands, a daily agenda of exciting activities, gorgeous scenery, and amazing weather seemingly the perfect antidote. Unfortunately, as I recently found out, it isn’t usually as simple as that.
When I set about planning a five-month trip around Asia, it was partly because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and partly because it was something I felt I really needed at that time. I have suffered from depression for years, and have tried everything from counselling and mindfulness to medication. Somewhat naively, I really did feel that my mental illnesses would be ‘fixed’ by a big trip away. The upsetting reality was that whilst the problems quietened down for a while, they emerged again – only this time, more frustratingly, for no apparent reason.
I remember sitting on the balcony of a private bungalow at sunset on the island of Gili Air in Indonesia – absolute paradise by any standards. However, as I sat watching a beautiful sky turn from blue to pink to black, I was gasping for air and shaking, mid panic attack. All I could think was, “If I can’t be happy here, will I ever be?”
Whilst the majority of my trip was filled with laughter and excitement and happiness like I’ve never felt before, the lows were still there. One of the biggest problems I struggled with was guilt for feeling sad while on my dream trip, an experience so many others would wish to have. It took me a while to realise that you’re not being ungrateful by feeling down, and that I needed to make the most of how lucky I felt when I was having a happier time. You can’t control your mental health and you’re not in the wrong for struggling even when you’re living the dream!
So, if there is no way to entirely avoid ongoing problems with depression, the best you can do is make every effort to learn to cope with it. The most important thing to remember is that you have to look after yourself, no matter where you are in the world. Here are a few tips that I picked up along the way and followed to make sure that I still had the time of my life, despite having a few bad days!
1. Rest days
Sometimes you just need to take a break from adventure and have a rest day. Whether you lie on the beach and read a book in the shade, have a gossipy Skype session with your mum or snuggle up in your hostel bunk and binge-watch your guilty pleasure TV show, be sure to take some me-time. It’s not selfish to put yourself first and you shouldn’t feel guilty.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that my rest days included buying out a Japanese 7-Eleven of all of their chocolate, climbing into my bunk and weeping along to About Time for the millionth time. Sometimes, it’s got to be done!
2. Keep a journal
Keep a little journal as a way to get your head around how you’re feeling every day, and to track what things are helping or inhibiting your happiness. Start with questions such as “what am I grateful for today?”, “what made me happy yesterday?” and “what am I looking forward to today?”, and make it the first thing you do in the morning. Even if you only give yourself five minutes a day, you’ll get in the habit of starting the morning with positive thoughts.
If this isn’t your thing, you could keep a travel journal where you do no writing at all but stick in all of your tickets, receipts and pictures. It’s nice to have a project as a distraction when you’re not feeling great, and you’ll always have that big book of happy memories to flick through when you need a little cheer up.
3. Plan ahead
Make exciting plans for your return home. No matter how much of a home bird you are, the ominous return from your trip can be hard – whether you’re away for a week or a year. Plan your first meal at home, what you’ll do when you see your best friend again, even your next trip away – anything to prevent you dreading going back to reality.
Towards the end of my trip, one of my main anxieties was the fact that I’d be unemployed and broke when I returned home, so keeping an eye on available jobs made me feel reassured that I’d be okay.
4. Look after yourself
Keep taking care of yourself. Whilst it’s easy to slip into a routine of partying every night, sleeping for a few hours and starting your day with the hair of the dog, it can cause both your physical and mental health to deteriorate rapidly. Whether it’s an occasional yoga class or a daily run, a little exercise will release endorphins and improve your mood, as well as increasing your energy. Easing off partying and calling it a night early a few times a week will work in the same way and make sure you’re not a grumpy dorm buddy!
5. You’re not alone
Realise that you’re not the only person in this position. Whilst my grin-studded Instagram page is a reflection of 80% of my travels, it isn’t a totally accurate depiction. I wasn’t going to post a selfie of my tear-stained face in amongst the rest of my panoramic beach selfies. Although people don’t often shout as loudly about the bad times they’re having, they are still having them! Everyone misses home or feels down sometimes and you’re not crazy or ungrateful for feeling the way you do.
Now that I’m back home, I realise I could have down more to take my own advice. As I plan my next trip, I will slow down and take care of myself. When I look back, I hardly ever remember the hard times, which makes me realise it was silly to worry that my down days would overshadow happy memories.
If I’m ever in the same position again, I’ll try to feel less guilty for being down and instead focus my energy into getting through it. Sometimes, depression will creep in when I least expect it, but now I know I am always capable of recovering, no matter how far I am from home.
You can also read our tips for travelling with anxiety, written by a cognitive behavioural therapist.