I have always said that travelling is one of the greatest opportunities you can get for personal growth and fighting (some) of your mental battles. I still believe that is true, especially for shorter periods of up to two months or so. Yet, my perspective on longer-term travelling and coping with mental health problems has changed over the last couple of months.
When I left Berlin in September (5 months ago at the time of writing!), my mental state was stable and I felt ready to take on anything that would come my way. You could hear the world tremble at the prospect. During the ten weeks I spent in Vancouver, I had to accept that I was going to be unemployed for a while and burn through my savings to sustain myself, find ways to keep myself busy, and cope with feeling isolated from my friends. But I still did pretty well.
Vancouver was still very similar to Berlin, and I got to know the city relatively quickly and became comfortable. I fell deeper and deeper in love with the city, which made things a lot easier. Most importantly though, I developed a routine for myself. I would get up early, hit the gym or go for a run, make breakfast, work on projects, go for long walks, and maybe go for a coffee. I built my days around becoming physically healthy and fit – that became my focus and top priority.
Now, with travelling there is no routine, no stability, and no familiarity. I spent the first two months in one place in Chiang Mai, where I was able to go to the gym fairly frequently or for a morning run, manic traffic and scorch-level of the sun pending. I was comfortable there, because I was in charge of managing my physical fitness, almost at the same level as in Vancouver, and because I had been to Chiang Mai three times before and felt pretty much at home there.
More recently though, I am constantly on the move and am bombarded with new impressions and experiences every single day. During February, I visited nine different villages, towns, and cities in Cambodia, which I probably don’t need to say is a world apart from Vancouver, and even the neighbouring Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, that is exactly what I wanted and I love it, but that does not mean that I am good at coping with it. My mental state right now is characterized by insecurity, fear, and instability. What that means is that I am easily irritated, highly sensitive, and crawl back to old patterns and behaviors because that is what I know and what makes me feel safe. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all and come up with a few things that might be useful for other people with similar mental health problems.
Take breaks and plan for stability
It is totally fine if you feel exhausted from travelling and all your adventures. Sometimes all I wanted was to be back in Berlin or Vancouver and see my friends and family. I felt like it all was too much, and that I had reached my limit of adventuring. Going back, however, was not an option for me because deep down I knew that I still wanted to explore more.
What helped me in these situations was a break from the unfamiliar. A night in a nice hotel room with soft sheets and a warm shower. Something that would give me comfort and make me feel a little bit more at home. Another good thing was discarding our original travel plans for Vietnam (my partner, Jon, gets all the credit for this one), which would’ve meant moving to a different place every three days and prolonged periods of bus/train travel. Instead, we decided to focus on only a few cities and to spend more time in each of them. This way I could settle in a bit more, establish some level of familiarity, and feel more relaxed, instead of spending half my time on sweaty public transport here, the comfort level of which makes the National Express seem like Air Force One.
Talk to your family and friends
As always, communication is the key. Talk to your friends and family back home (or wherever), and they will make you feel less alone. Most importantly though, talk to the person you are travelling with. Don’t shut them out, isolation will only make it worse. Only when you open up, can they support you, and maybe even find a way to make you feel a bit better.
It was and still is extremely hard for me to talk to Jon when I am feeling down and exhausted, because we always say that there are so many people out there, who would give everything to do what we do and how lucky we are. And it makes me feel guilty at times. But it is fine to feel that way, just how it is also okay to need a vacation from working.
It is okay if you slip, but do everything you can to get back up
This is probably the hardest one. You’ve worked so hard to become healthy and stable, to whatever level, and then you slip. I certainly have, and I did not see it coming. I reached my lowest point in almost a year. If you have been “well” for a long time, it is extremely painful to find yourself down on the ground again. You forgot what it feels like and what your mind can do to you. Use this as motivation to fight back, don’t let this become normal again.
Acknowledge and accept what you are feeling at this moment and try not to judge it. Do whatever makes you feel better and take care of yourself.
To the person you travel with
(Note though that everybody experiences anxiety differently and this is just my own personal perspective)
Travelling with someone, who has anxiety and other mental issues is extremely hard. It must be bewildering at times how I can seem like a totally different person from one moment to the other. Some situations might seem trivial to others, but, for reasons I don’t understand myself, to me they are not. I see it happening too, it’s like I’m on the outside looking in, but there is nothing I can do about it in that exact moment. My brain goes into overdrive and rationality does not exist anymore. It’s like a spiral and I get caught in it sometimes. When I calm down and finally take a step back, I don’t recognize myself. But in these moments none of that applies, nothing makes sense, except the fear I am feeling.
I wish I could explain exactly how it feels, but my mind turns into a big grey thunder when I try to write it down. Sometimes it is like someone is holding me back and I am paralyzed. I am calm and my mind is completely blank. These are usually manifest themselves as “I don’t care, I don’t want to do this” sort of moments, when in fact I do want to do these things, but my mind has convinced me otherwise, and if that is challenged then that is when I go into defense mode. Please know that this is not me speaking, but I am panicking, and this is my brain’s response.
Other times my heart feels like it will jump out of my chest, I can feel actual physical pain, my thoughts are racing and it’s pure chaos inside my head. This happens when I make a mistake and feel like I failed. Other people think “Oh, I made a mistake, It will be fine.”, but my mind tells me that I am the mistake. I failed, thus I am worthless and unworthy. These situations are especially hard for me, because I learned to handle them under normal circumstances and don’t understand why travelling makes me incapable of dealing with them. My anxiety does not excuse if I snap, but it is the reason.