Coping with Depression and Anxiety While Abroad

(Note: While reading this, please keep in mind that I am not a professional mental health practitioner. These are solely ways that I deal with depression and anxiety while abroad that could be useful for you too. I highly recommend talking with a therapist, or other mental health provider before making any big lifestyle changes, or traveling abroad.)  

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Your bags are packed, you have your passport in your purse, and you are ready to take the trip of a lifetime! You just booked a four week vacation around South East Asia, and can not wait to see the temples in Cambodia, elephants in Thailand, and wear sarongs in Bali. You could seriously not be more excited. You did all your research, looked at beautiful pictures on Pinterest and Instagram for all the cool hidden places you could visit, and you feel confident as hell.

Fast forward a week and you are loving life. You met some great people at the hostel, you’ve managed to pick up a few words in the local language, and your hair finally has that carefree, bohemian look you always wanted. But morning comes, and you feel a strange hole in the pit of your stomach that is all too familiar. “Not now” you think. “Not here, everything is going too great...” But that looming feeling of doom is there nonetheless. You try to shove it down, converse over breakfast, but there’s an undeniable hidden panic, a thick veil of distantness that makes you feel like you are in a completely different world than the person sitting across from you. Your heart beats faster, noises around you get louder and you realize “shit, anxiety’s here.” That hidden panic becomes not so hidden anymore, and rises up from your inside and engulfs you in a feeling of fear, madness, and disconnection. It’s only a matter of time before your mind beats you into a blunder, and the anxiety’s replaced or accompanied with another familiar bully, depression.

This wasn’t on your itinerary.  Pinterest didn’t list this on their “Top 10 Things to Experience in Thailand.” Instagram didn’t show the deep pit of mental illness amidst all the waterfalls, and smiling women in bikinis. Your Facebook friends sure as hell did not share a picture of themselves looking empty or agitated on their trip to Bali last summer. Yet here you are - anxious, depressed, and abroad in an unfamiliar landscape without the comfort of your own bed.

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Alright friends let’s get real. Depression and anxiety are serious soul suckers, nasty mean girls who want to bring you down when you’re feeling your best. But unlike the nasty mean girls from high school, you can’t just get rid of them by taking a plane ride across the ocean. See, like money, travel gets a misunderstood rep. Often times people believe that if they could just get a one way ticket to an exotic place, meet new people, and travel, they would somehow be cured from all that ails them. Traveling is amazing, yes, but it’s not a cure-all fix for the difficulties in your life, including depression and anxiety. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with, because let’s face it, we would all love to believe in the luminous, colorful pictures we see on social media. We would all love to believe in fantasy - that’s the allure of social media platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook. But they are just that - fantasy, an ideal world. I’m guilty too, I certainly don’t display pictures that make me “look” depressed or anxious, but let me tell you a secret you might already know - sometimes the people with the most depression and anxiety in the world are the ones who have the biggest smile on their face. Faces are not always the most reliable feature to display one’s internal landscape. Plus, let’s be real, when I am really, superbly deep in the caves of depression or having a panic attack, taking pictures is the last thing on my mind.

Though traveling brings a radiant light to my soul, I have experienced depression and anxiety multiple times while living and traveling abroad. I have doubled down in panic in the middle of Cusco, Peru, stayed in bed all day in exciting new cities that I wanted to explore, and have felt like joy was thousands of miles away despite being in the most gorgeous landscapes. I learned the hard way that it’s not really a question of if the anxiety and depression monsters are going to attack, but rather when. I have also learned that opposite of what social media portrays, traveling can sometimes spark more intense bouts of depression and anxiety because you are in a new place and are working ten times harder to navigate your day to day life. Therefore, I believe in being proactive, and setting yourself up so that when mental illness strikes, the blow isn’t as harsh. Below are a few tips and tools I have collected that aid me when I’m in a new landscape that could be helpful for you too!

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Tip 1)  Take care of your mental health above all else.

This is your main priority - no matter what. Even if it means experiencing FOMO, losing money, canceling plans, disappointing people, or missing transportation. Likely you already have this mentality back home, and don’t have too much difficulty staying in on the weekend, or cancelling plans. But for some reason when we go abroad it’s 10x harder, because we feel like we “should” be doing, seeing, and experiencing as much as we can. This is true to some extent, but you know your limits. Sometimes it’s worth pushing through and doing something anyway, and sometimes you just need a bed day to reset. If you feel you are at a breaking point, listen to that, slow down, and reconsider what is best for your mental health, and what’s going to allow you to experience the rest of your journey to the fullest.

Tip 2) Keep some sense of routine, no matter how small.

This one took me awhile to learn, but once I did, it made all the difference. Since you will be away from all of your normal comforts, it’s crucial to incorporate at least a sliver of daily comfort into your vagabond life. For me this looks like making sure I stretch and meditate every morning, and journal every night. For you it might mean saying a prayer before bed, making a gratitude list, drinking a glass of water in the morning, or listening to a podcast. Take some time before you travel to choose what routine you want to take with you. I suggest making it something easily portable, something you can access without internet connection, and something that doesn’t require a lot of time or materials.

Tip 3) Load up on meditations, music, and podcasts.

There’s something about listening that helps to keep our minds occupied, and soothes feelings of anxiety and/or depression. If you like to meditate, download some short 10 minute meditations. One of my favorite channels on YouTube for guided meditations is Positive Meditation Positive Energy Magazine. I have at least twenty of these on my phone at all times for whenever I need them. If meditations aren’t for you, stock up on your favorite artists, songs, and albums. Music can often bring us comfort, groundedness, joy, hope, and ease. It is a powerful tool that can connect us back to our true emotions, and essence without much effort. Additionally, I recommend downloading some motivational podcasts if you are someone who does well with words of affirmation. Some of my favorite uplifting podcasts or videos are from On Being, the Tim Ferris Show, Ted Talks, Brendon Burchard and Marie Forleo.

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Tip 4) Pack a "Fun Bag."

When I was little, my family took a lot of long road trips. We always had our regular suitcases, and our fun bags. I realize now that our fun bags, also served as self care kits, full of items that brought us joy, focus, and comfort. This can include anything you want, and you can adjust what’s in it based on your personality and how much room you have. In my fun bag I always have a sketch pad and colored pencils, my journal, essential oil roll ons, books, and a worry stone. Other items you could include are: a coloring book, crystals, yarn and knitting needles, sudoku, a harmonica, slippers, tea bags, or a favorite picture of loved ones or a pet. Get creative, and have fun with it - it’s called a fun bag for a reason!

Tip 5) Schedule time to talk to someone who knows and cares for you.

This is going to look different based on if you are traveling with people, or solo but either way it is doable, and equally important. If you are traveling with your significant other, a friend, or a family member, communicate your desire to schedule time to check in and talk about your mental health. This might sound ridiculous because it seems like you’ll be talking all the time anyway- and though this is true, you might not get a chance to fully express how you are feeling with all the external distractions around you. When Christian and I took our trip to South America, we decided to continue our “walk and talks” that we normally do back home. This just means scheduling time once a week to go on a walk together, and share with one another what we are feeling, experiencing, or anything else that we haven’t gotten a chance to express in our day to day lives.

When we decided to move to Italy, I discussed the possibility of setting up Skype sessions with my Therapist while living abroad. She was more than supportive at the suggestion, and now I talk with her weekly. I have found that carving scheduled time to talk with these two people who know me,care for me, and are reliable, has been extremely nourishing and healing for my mental health. If you have a therapist you are already seeing, I highly recommend talking with them about the option of continuing therapy via Skype, FaceTime, or WhatsApp while abroad. If you are not traveling with someone you know, or you do not have access to therapy do not fear! Talk with a close friend or family member back home before leaving and schedule time to talk with them. Make sure to download the necessary apps, that you know the time difference, and make sure you will be able to be in a place with internet! Even if you don’t have anything “negative” to talk about, it will still be a chance to connect, and share what you are experiencing! Having a person to fall back on in a distant place, can feel like a warm hug in the cold, and to me has proved to be my greatest life line in dark times. So even if this tip seems logistically challenging at first, I highly, highly recommend you incorporate it on your next trip!

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If I could add one last piece of advice it would be to never let depression or anxiety hold you back from traveling and experiencing the world! They might color some of your experiences, but they will not define your experiences. Yes it might mean you have to plan a little extra, communicate more honestly, and rest a little more, but it is sooo worth it! YOU are sooo worth it!  I promise you, the gems and jewels of the world are waiting for you. New friends are waiting for you. New memories are waiting to be made. New food is waiting to greet your tastebuds. New lands are waiting for your unique footprint, your unique laugh to ring through their air, your unique spirit to bless them with your presence. And I know, you are waiting too.

Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever experienced anxiety or depression while abroad? If so, how did you handle it? Which of these suggestions do you think will be helpful on your next journey and why? Share in the comments below!