There are a lot of great things about traveling, especially traveling solo – the freedom, the new experiences, the people you meet along the way. But it’s also pretty challenging if you have mental health issues like anxiety or depression.
How do I know? Because I have them too! Here’s my full guide to how I manage my mental health while traveling abroad and alone.
Keeping a Few Routines
When you’re traveling or living abroad, one of the greatest pleasures is that you’re out of your daily routine, which might have become a bit stale and boring. But routines aren’t always dull – sometimes they’re also really helpful in keeping your mental health on an even keel.
My anxiety can get bad when I have way too much novelty and stimulation and lose touch with the things that ground me, for example. So I stick to a good bedtime routine even when traveling and staying in hostels or hotels: a relaxing shower, a bit of a stretch, lavender oil on my silk pillowcase, getting into proper pajamas, and doing a sleep meditation.
All of this helps keep some stability when I’m staying in a different bed every few nights. Plus my anxiety gets worse when I am not sleeping enough (and it also gives me insomnia which makes it hard to sleep, such a fun cycle!), so having a way to help myself fall asleep is important.
Your own routine could be something else, like a daily writing habit or a mealtime routine, but the key part is to choose something you enjoy that keeps you grounded and reduces stress.
Building in Time for Rest
When traveling, you just want to get out and see all the sights, eat all the food, meet all the people – there’s no time for rest! Sleep when you’re back home! But especially when you’re traveling long term, for a few weeks or months or even a year, that is a recipe for exhaustion and travel burnout. And that’s not good for your mental health.
Instead, try building in some downtime to your traveling schedule. When I was traveling the world for a year, I would pick a few days to book an Airbnb and get some rest and just chill and read and get plenty of sleep without the pressure of sightseeing. Taking regular naps is also awesome and something I highly suggest.
Both my anxiety and depression get significantly worse when I am tired, so rest is really important for me. And while I occasionally feel bad about missing out on other things and can get hard on myself for needing more rest than other people, at the end of the day I’m still having an amazing experience in a way that also keeps me healthy and (relatively) sane.
Sticking to Healthy Habits
I notice a big difference in my mental health when I let my physical health slide. If I’m not drinking enough water, eating plenty of nourishing food, and getting good sleep. That means I can’t always go out every night, and I need to eat vegetables instead of decadent local treats all the time.
It’s about finding a balance so you don’t miss out on things you really want to do, but you also don’t go overboard and find yourself in a bad place mentally. While I’d love to have a breakfast of a huge sugar-covered donut and two espresso freddos every day when I’m traveling and living in Greece, that combo is a recipe for a big sugar high and then a really fun anxiety crash. So I treat myself once in a while when I’m feeling good, and stick to Greek yogurt and fruit the rest of the time.
Exercise also makes a huge difference in both my anxiety and depression, and is probably my most important tool for managing my moods (including my body image issues). I’m not a gym-goer these days, but I do find it easy and fun to stay active while traveling. I do a lot of walking, which I absolutely love – I once walked all the way across England to close out my year of travels and it was pure heaven, and helped me sort out my life a bit too.
And I go to yoga classes wherever I can. That’s how I spent a lot of time when I was sober and in Southeast Asia, replacing all my nights out with morning yoga. Activities like that are also a good way for a shy person like me to meet people without going to a bar, which is a nice change of pace sometimes. Plus, yoga has been a huge help with my anxiety in general, so staying consistent with my practice is great. I even have a travel yoga mat I take with me in my tiny backpack because it’s that important to me.
Having Someone to Talk To
I have been very fortunate to be able to afford therapy – it’s so expensive, at least in America, and finding the right therapist is no small feat either. But nothing has been able to help me handle my mental health challenges like my current therapist – no amount of vegetables or walking or yoga could come close.
And now I can still do my therapy sessions while I’m traveling and living abroad, thanks to the new popularity of Zoom sessions. It’s not quite the same as being on my therapist’s very comfortable couch, squeezed cozily into my favorite corner, but it’s much, much better than nothing.
If you can afford therapy, I can’t recommend it enough. Everything else I do helps me keep my anxiety and depression at a manageable level most of the time, but therapy has helped me get to the root issues and helped me make progress towards healing those as well.
Why I’m Talking About This
Mental health is still a really stigmatized and often shameful thing to talk about, even though we’re certainly getting a bit more open about it. And I’ve seen the damage that can do first-hand.
In my early twenties, I worked in the fundraising office at McLean, a psychiatric hospital. It’s the top one in the US and also has a long list of very glam patients – Sylvia Plath wrote the Bell Jar about it, Frederick Law Olmstead designed the grounds during a stay, and James Taylor started his career there. Literary luminaries aside, working there showed me how much stigma there still is around mental health conditions and also how common they are.
Being open about my own mental health challenges is just my small way of contributing to a future where we can have open and honest conversations about them. Plus, sharing stories about the things we struggle with tends to make us feel less alone as we realize so many people have the same challenges. I hope this blog post has done just that.