I've touched upon it a little before, but when you travel for any length of time there's a huge pressure to be having the time of your life, to savour every last minute and to just be, well...happy, all of the time. In reality it's impossible for anybody to enjoy every single moment and there are always going to be low points, but when you throw in a mental illness and being thousands of miles from home in a strange country things can get very difficult very quickly. The topic of mental health is one that I don't often see discussed within the world of travel blogging, and it's certainly not a conversation I've had with anybody I've met on the road so I thought I'd open one up myself because I know that there are plenty of travellers out there who suffer too.
Today I'm sharing my experiences with mental health issues and the tips I have for managing them when travelling. I'm not going to insult you with the 'just choose happy' approach because I know you're not suffering because you're not trying hard enough to stay positive and it's offensive and harmful to suggest otherwise. Similarly none of these tips are life changers, but they might make life a little bit easier.
This post is mostly going to focus on depression and anxiety as I can share my personal experience of both, but as there are plenty more out there and it's important that we have these conversations, I'd love it if you shared your own experiences and tips in the comments.
I'm not going to go into a huge amount of detail here, but I think some background into my mental health is important. Looking back I suspect I've suffered from anxiety and depression for a while, but it's only in the last few years that I've got an official diagnosis* and started to receive the appropriate help for managing both. I take a combination of 40mg citalopram and 10mg diazepam and though my depression ebbs and flows, I experience anxiety constantly.
I think I summed up depression quite well when, on our recent trip to Quilotoa in Ecuador, I said to Tom, 'I know this is a beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime moment, but I just can't find it in me to appreciate it. I just want to be at home, in bed with all the lights turned out.' I don't often feel emotional when I'm in a depressive state, it's just a constant numbness that makes finding the motivation to do the smallest things like brush my hair feel like an impossible task. Like I said though, I don't suffer from depression constantly.
Anxiety on the other hand is something I'm literally never free from. I have constant heart palpitations and sky-high blood pressure because I just can't calm down. Though I have the tendency to dwell on small issues and turn them into huge problems in my head, more often than not I couldn't actually tell you what it is I'm worrying about. The pit of dread in my stomach just never seems to go away. The best way to describe it is that it feels like I'm constantly being chased by something, even when I'm doing something as simple as watching TV. And if I'm not being chased, I'm on edge wondering when the chase is going to start again. Fortunately I very rarely suffer from panic attacks and the fear doesn't keep me awake at night, but I think that's mostly because I'm so exhausted from a full day of a racing heartbeat, pacing up and down and all that blood being pumped around my body.
Despite all of this though, I'm still able to travel very successfully and I've gained a lot of happiness and knowledge from my time away and largely that's thanks to the coping methods I've found over the years. Like I said before they're definitely not a cure and they probably aren't going to work on your worst days, but they're a good starting point.
Travel isn't the cure - travel bloggers are really good at making you think that once you buy that RTW plane ticket all your problems will disappear, but you need to realise and accept that it won't before you even start contemplating travel. Managing your mental health when travelling isn't really any different from managing it at home, but you're still going to have to do it.
Depression =/= ungratefulness - this is so important to remember, as people will always make comments such as 'you can't be that depressed if you're travelling', 'what do you have to be depressed about?' or, worst of all, 'some people have it much worse'. It's hard to shake that feeling myself sometimes, but suffering from an illness beyond your control isn't ever something you should make you feel guilty or ungrateful and you shouldn't feel like you have to hide yourself from the world until it goes away. If travel is what you want to do you have just as much right as anybody else to do it. I know I have a great life, I just struggle to see it sometimes.
Keep a journal - Tom and I both kept journals of our time away (until Tom's got stolen on a bus in Colombia, but more on that another time...) and I make sure I only ever write about all the amazing things we've done. I find it really useful to look back on when I'm having a 'write off' day. Speaking of which...
It's okay to write your day off... - sometimes I just can't face a full day of exploring and it's absolutely fine to take the day off and just do nothing or quit in the middle of the day if things aren't going to plan. My favourite thing to do is just take my laptop to a coffee shop - it makes me feel like I've at least done something even if that something is just dick about on Twitter for five hours. It's okay if your biggest achievement today is getting out of bed.
...but try and stick to a routine - travelling long-term has ruined any semblance of routine I once had. I couldn't even tell you what day it is right now. But much as you're going to struggle to stick to a routine anything like the one you're used to at home, at least try to give your day some structure. Get out of bed, eat a good breakfast, drink plenty of water and take your meals at a regular time at the very least.
Make sure you have enough money - travel is stressful and you don't need money troubles to make it even more worrisome. Set a budget before you go and take a little bit more than you think you'll need. Also make sure you have some money to come back to after your trip.
Have a plan in mind - nobody is saying you have to stick to it, but having a rough idea of where you want to visit, when you want to visit and how to get there will make life so much less stressful than just trying to wing everything. Make sure you're not spreading yourself too thin though, exhaustion isn't conducive to enjoying your travels.
Stop comparing yourself to others - stop worrying that everyone else is having a better time than you and concentrate on just enjoying yourself. If you're struggling, read through the journal from point three to remind yourself of all the amazing things you've seen.
Push yourself, just not too hard - I really hate all those 'jut say yes' campaigns going round at the moment, because it's so important to look after yourself and learn to say no to things you're not comfortable with. If you feel up to sitting in the common area of your hostel and speaking to new people that's great, but don't feel under pressure to go out clubbing with them every night, especially if that's not something you'd do at home. Only you know your limits.
Take enough meds with you - going back to the very first point you'll still have to manage your illness when travelling, so as well as making sure your jabs are up-to-date and you've organised travel insurance, go to your doctor and get enough medication to last the length of your stay too.
*If you think you might be depressed or suffering from an anxiety disorder, please don't self-diagnose. It's so important to see a doctor and get the right treatment. By self-diagnosing you're contributing to the stigma of mental health.