By Patrick Bailey
Professional Mental Health Writer
April 28, 2019
Hey Millennials: Long-Term Travel Is Bad For Your Mental Health
(Here’s How To Fix It)
I should be clear; long-term travel is incredible. It is one of the best things anyone can do for their personal development and offers lessons and knowledge you will never get in the classroom. But these incredible insights and paradigm-shifting experiences come at a cost; long-term travel can be awful for your mental health. That is, if you don’t do it right.
I’ve been out of university for 5 years now, and have spent 3 of those years abroad traveling. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from travel is just how important it is to take care of your mental health, especially when you travel long term.
Below I’ve compiled a list of things I’ve learned along the way that will help you keep your cool while you travel. To keep things simple, we’ll look at the importance of physical health, of your relationship with yourself and some potentially useful apps to crack open when you’re on the road. So before you buy that ticket to Bali or pop down to Patagonia, here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Physical Health
Physical health is the key to mental health when you travel long term. How do you keep a good head on your shoulders without solid shoulders to rest that head on? It’s tough. Your body is the vessel that takes you on these adventures, so you have to make sure to keep the wheels greased and the chains lubed. Below are some of the things that help me do that.
Limit You Alcohol
When you’re traveling long term, you frequently run into people that drink every night of their trip. While it can be easy to fall into this pattern, it is a recipe for a mental health disaster, not to mention the liver damage from alcohol you sustain.
If you choose to drink, pick your nights and stick to them. Maybe it’s once a week, maybe twice, but make sure you don’t let yourself fall into the habit of partying with other travelers every night of the week.
Watch That Diet
Ah yes, everyone’s four-letter word. When traveling, you have to remember that this is your life now, and that your life can’t be filled with junk food. It is easy to think, “well I’m traveling! So I’ll spoil myself!”
This doesn’t work if you’re on the road for 6+ months. Make no mistake, your mental health will suffer from a poor diet. Ditch the fried foods. Lay off the sweets, and don’t get those cheap and MSG-filled snacks at the mini-mart. Prior to traveling, do some research; if healthy greens aren’t popular in the country you’ll be visiting, bring a healthy greens supplement that will bolster your mental health.
The same advice you hear at home, “drink plenty of water”, applies to traveling as well. Moreover, our ability to handle stress significantly decreases when we’re dehydrated, meaning minor issues can turn into major mental health disasters. Staying hydrated and avoiding sugary drinks ensures your brain is ready to handle anything that comes your way.
Even if you don’t normally exercise at home, it’s time to get into the habit. Traveling is hard on the body and ultimately the mind, and a lack of exercise makes it even harder. No gym? No problem. Here’s what I do in my hotel room or on the rooftop of my hostel to exercise and keep my mental health in top shape while traveling.
- Bodyweight Workouts- Things like bodyweight squats, pushups, lunges, sit-ups and planks are all great tools in your arsenal.
- Sandbags- If you’re in the developing world, rice bags (southeast Asia) or corn bags (South America) are probably somewhere to be found. Grab one, fill it with sand and sling it over your shoulders to add an extra kick to your bodyweight squats and split squats.
- Fitness Rings- Rogue Fitness Rings are an incredibly versatile tool for travelers. Ultra-compact and lightweight, you can find workouts for every body part imaginable using these rings.
- Local Sports- I picked up surfing when I lived on the Pacific coast of Mexico, tango dancing down in Buenos Aires and Muay Thai kickboxing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Every place has an area-specific physical activity to offer, and it’s a great way to blow off steam and make new friends.
2. Relationship With Yourself
Long-term travel is unique because you are just about the only constant in your hectic life. As such, you are forced to develop an intensive relationship with yourself, so get to know yourself and treat yourself well.
Many young people travel on a limited budget and “until the money runs out”. This can lead you to pinch pennies and strive to be the ultra-budget backpackers who pride themselves on saving $.30 on accommodations.
Remember: treat yourself. Every once in a while, take yourself out for a nice meal, get a nice hotel room or book a nicer-than-normal hostel. Even if it means cutting your trip shorter by one day or two, treating yourself tremendously impacts your mental health when you’re traveling long term.
Long-term travel leaves you with a lot of time with your own thoughts on busses, trains and boats. If those thoughts are populated with negative self-talk it will be nearly impossible to maintain healthy self-esteem, which is devastating to mental health.
Away from everything comfortable and familiar, you’ll get to learn what kind of person you are by your reaction to uncomfortable situations. You’ll learn what you like and don’t like in other people and, in turn, what you like and don’t like in yourself. You’ll really learn how you like to spend your free time and what your own interests are.
But in order to do this, you have to listen. Listen and observe yourself, almost as a third-party would, and you’ll learn so much more about the person you are.
Now more than ever, “there’s an app for that”. App stores are chock-full of free mobile apps that can be mental health lifelines when things get too chaotic (think a 20-hour bus ride next to cages packed with chickens) or apps that help you live more in the moment. Here are a few apps I’ve used over the years that have helped me out in a pinch and have helped me get more out of my long-term travels.
Headspace is an amazing app for when you need a moment to yourself on a crowded bus or in the middle of a hectic city plaza. It’s a meditation app that has specific practices for things like flying, panic attacks and helping you cope with the general feeling of overstimulation that results from traveling.
Have you ever picked up an adult coloring book when you need a mental health lifeline? They’re amazing. And while it can be highly inconvenient to pack a coloring book replete with a full set of colored pencils, Colorfy is an app that lets you color just like you would in an adult coloring book, on your mobile device. This is actually the app that I used to help get me through the 20-hour chicken bus fiasco.
Identifying patterns and triggers is key to your mental health when you travel long term. Pacifica helps you track your mental health throughout the day to help you identify what helps and what hurts your mental health. You feel great after going for that run and drinking lots of water? Do more of that. You feel terrible after a night full of beer and fried food? Do less of that.
When I’m stuck in a rut and my mental health is suffering, I use Happify. It’s an app that helps you overcome negative thought patterns through different tracks that act as mantras; they are aimed at improving your self-esteem, mitigating stress in stressful situations and a plethora of other positive things.
More people than ever aren’t living in the moment when they travel; they’re trying to capture the perfect image for social media and show everyone else how amazing their lives are. This is a mental health nightmare, as traveling is all about living in the present. Moment is an app that constantly runs in the background and logs your social media usage. It encourages you to put your phone down and live through your experiences instead of through your phone.
Long-term travel is one of the best things young people can do to explore the world around them and better understand themselves. By adequately preparing for travel and using the right tools, you can get all the benefits of long-term travel without any of the side-effects.
Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoys writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.