The Importance of Mental Health Abroad

by Jackie Peterson

Travel can open your eyes to the world by introducing you to new cultures, new foods, new people, new ways of doing things. It can be magical, exciting, breathtaking and even life-changing. Often, on wistfully inspirational travel blogs, articles will encourage you to ‘just go,’ to head out into the great unknown right this moment so that you don’t miss out. Life isn’t complete until you travel, they tell you, and you must do it before you get locked into a job or a family or old age.

“Your life is fleeting, and your youth will pass even quicker,” writes Lauren Martin for Elite Daily in a piece titled ‘The 16 Reasons You Need To Drop Everything and Travel Right Now’ – one of many online articles with similar titles.

“You are too young to be settling for the nine-to-five,” the article continues, “and there should be nothing holding you back from doing what your innermost urges tell you. So stop whining to all your friends and be the adult you claim to be; buy yourself the next ticket to anywhere.”

The problem is, being “the adult you claim to be” isn’t such a simple matter, especially for those with mental illnesses, diagnosed or not, holding them back.

“Stop whining,” Martin wrote. “There should be nothing holding you back.”

Well, for those dealing with depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD or any other of the many invisible illnesses in the world, ignoring everything holding them back isn’t an option. The real test isn’t breaking free and traveling despite a mental illness. It’s encouraging yourself to travel with your mental illness. Encouraging yourself to learn to practice self-care, to know your limits, to understand that you may not be able to see a million tourist attractions in one day on two hours of sleep. And to remember: That’s OK.

Meghan Barwick, a 24-year-old woman who recently spent two years traveling through different parts of Asia and Australia, has plenty of advice for travel newcomers. She recommends reading, “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton.

“My favorite quote from that book is when he said he forgot that, when he traveled, he had to go with himself,” Barwick said. “So, any time you travel, you’re not leaving your problems behind. You’re not leaving your personality. You’re not going to this magical land of palm trees where everything is excellent. You’re going with yourself, so that means all of your anxieties, all your fears, they’re coming with you.”

So, how can those of us who suffer from depression, anxiety or any other mental illness make the most of travel? There’s no way to temporarily hit the snooze button on your mental illness and it could pop up and merrily insert itself into your expensive, long-awaited vacation at any moment. So, how do we prepare? How do we make sure we can still enjoy our experiences abroad?

Well, biting the proverbial bullet and heading into the unknown might help more than you’d think.

For some, travel is the best kind of therapy, according to Dr. Roberto Biella, who has been a practicing psychologist for 10 years. His main practice is in Brussels, Belguim and he keeps a private practice in Milan, Italy. Dr. Biella is also affiliated with the European Institute of Psychotraumatology and Stress Management in Milan. His patients are often expatriates who speak English, French or Italian.

“We have to debunk the myth that all expats suffer from culture shock,” Dr. Biella wrote in an email. He believes that only those who have previously undergone a “critical life event” are at risk for a more difficult adjustment to life abroad.

Frequent traveler, freelance writer and social media manager Ashley Laderer agreed. Diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), she finds that her anxiety and depression lessen when she’s traveling.

“When I’m at home, it’s easier for me to dwell on things and easier for me to get caught up in feeling badly and then I get stuck in that,” she said. “When I’m traveling it’s easier for me to kind of snap out of it, but that’s not to say that I don’t have problems when I’m away because I do. I just feel like when I’m home, they’re worse.”

Even with GAD and MDD, Laderer feels that travel is the best way to deal with her anxiety. Like Dr. Biella, she believes that many anxiety sufferers could benefit from facing their fears and packing their bags.

“I think feeling that fear and doing it anyway is a really good way to help with your anxiety,” she said. “And for depression, I think that getting out of your normal routine and getting out of the bed you’re in every day can help you have a new perspective.”

For those who want to try their hand at traveling with a mental illness, Dr. Biella recommends preparing accordingly by speaking with your therapist about the upcoming trip and making sure you have some self-care strategies, like breathing exercises, in your repertoire.

“Traveling is not harmful if we build safety around us,” Biella wrote. “Safety comes from the people we trust in, sound organization of travel, and learned self-control [both mental and physical.]”

Laderer, who often writes freelance articles on the subject of mental health and travel, said she finds journaling to be a helpful way to work through anxiety or depression symptoms on the road or at home.

“Putting my thoughts down on paper helps me distance myself from [depression and anxiety],” she said. “Like, I’m getting it all out and kind of getting it out of my head by getting it onto paper.”

Laderer also uses an online therapy program called TalkSpace, where users can virtually work with their therapist five days a week.

“At first, I was a little leery because I was so used to going to therapy in person,” she said. “But I really grew to like it because it’s so convenient and because if I’m in the heat of the moment, having an anxiety attack or a depressive episode, it’s so easy to go on [to TalkSpace] and type things or use voice memos. You can even do videos, but I usually do voice memos.”

Laderer travels fairly often, though she only started about two years ago. “I like to think I’m making up for lost time,” she wrote in an email.

Dr. Jacqueline Kiefer, a San Diego-based psychologist who has been practicing for 14 years, does have a few words of caution for those with fingers hovering over the ‘book now’ button.

“My first advice is to hold off on planning travel until symptoms are stabilized,” Kiefer wrote in an email. “In other words, I do not recommend planning travel if someone is currently having frequent panic attacks and/or their anxiety is not being treated.”

However, Dr. Kiefer said that her patients who travel more tend to know their limitations and manage their own self-care, so they don’t often need extra sessions or support from her.

One thing Dr. Kiefer, Barwick, Dr. Biella, and Laderer all agreed on was that if someone isn’t feeling well while traveling, they shouldn’t feel bad about taking a day off. Laderer said she does this often, giving herself more time to journal and maybe watch a movie. Dr. Kiefer said that people often come home exhausted because they pack their itineraries so full that they don’t allow for any downtime or rest days. Dr. Biella wrote that if someone feels off-balance, they should limit themselves to a comfortable area around where they’re staying, whether that’s the inside of their room or the block surrounding the hotel. Once their balance is restored, they can start exploring again.

“What I always tell myself is, it’s OK to be not OK,” Laderer said. “Before I started traveling, I thought everything was so scary — flying was scary, buses were scary, hostels were scary. Everything.”

Even if it seems daunting, travel might be a good way for some to find themselves and make a little peace with their mental illness. Remember, though: You’re traveling with yourself, not an idealized version of yourself.

“If you’re going to travel, you have to commit to the fact that it’s going to be hard all of the time,” Barwick said. “But it’s also going to be amazing all of the time.”

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