The past week was Mental Health Awareness Week here in Australia. I know, this post is one I should have published last week, but I honestly couldn’t find the time, or energy, or headspace. And since this post is literally about looking after your mental health, you kind of just have to give me that one!
Several of my loved ones have taken their own lives, and right now here in Australia we’re experiencing higher levels of mental distress because of the drought. Oh and you know what? I’m going to also mention here the hundreds of would-be Australians experiencing what amounts to torture in offshore detention because it feels wrong not to. Many places in the world are experiencing some pretty gross things (*cough* Kavanaugh *cough*) and this kind of stuff has the potential to be really detrimental to our mental health.
Obviously, mental health has been in the global news a lot this year because of some high-profile deaths, such as that of Anthony Bourdain, but I do feel the discussion is starting to wane a little as everyone gets over that shock. But it’s really important that we don’t stop talking about this. Whether it’s triggered by the awful stuff we’re experiencing or witnessing, or whether its simply chemical imbalances in our brain, we have got to start looking after ourselves and each other.
So let’s talk.
With that in mind, I want to open up a little about my own struggles and be real with you. Because literally anyone in the world could experience mental distress or illness at any time. While environmental factors can make some people more prone than others to mental illness, mental illness itself doesn’t discriminate. It’s found across socioeconomic statuses, cultures, races, religions, languages, lifestyles… everything. Being a white, middle-class, educated woman in a part of the world that has an excellent health system makes me extremely fortunate when it comes to seeking help. But it doesn’t make me immune.
I also want to talk about my experiences in relation to travel. I’ve experienced poor mental health that inspired me to travel, I’ve experienced poor mental health on the road, and I’ve experienced travel as a healing mechanism for health issues. I’ve also experienced working in the tourism industry while trying to navigate many of these things.
Traveling to get away from toxic influences
We all experience toxic bullshit in our lives. It’s human nature. But some of us seem to have some sort of radar for it, I dunno. I think I used to be one of those people. I’m not anymore… funnily enough, when you become good at recognising red flags and dysfunction (thanks, Psych degree!) you also become good at staying the hell away from it!
Anyway, there was a time in my life when I did not have this skill. I was bouncing from drama to drama, always feeling drained and scared and generally awful. I had no self-esteem. No self-worth. No real capacity to make healthy, well-informed choices.
What I did have, however, was a maxed-out credit card… and a ticket to Europe.
The thing I found after that trip, though, was that running away felt so good. So good, in fact, that I did it again the next year and ran myself into mega-debt. This was the point where I realised running away was not the solution (well, it ain’t so good if you don’t have the $$$ to back it up). Sorting out my life and building something to run towards was what I needed. But I would never have had that realisation without breaking away and traveling when I did.
Traveling to broaden your horizons
I learned so much that first Summer in Europe. Strength, independence, and actual life skills… they were built in spades. I navigated tricky situations, both physical and social. I endured loneliness and frustration and even a tiny bit of heartbreak (though saying that now just makes me laugh!). Yep, I made good decisions, and I made some, erm, not so great ones. I met truly interesting people and saw incredible, inspiring places.
There are many things I look back at now and mate you know I feel super cringey. But what’s the point in feeling embarrassed about it? I was a 19-year-old girl, from one of the most isolated places on Earth, exploring this huge cultural melting pot for the first time. Mistakes were gonna happen.
But that knowledge you build comes home with you. You share it. And you use your new-found resilience to tackle all the shitty little things in life that make you go nuts. Suddenly, you realise that what once made you panic is now just a minor annoyance.
Traveling through grief
2009 was the worst year of my life. I was 20, living out of home in a sharehouse, working part-time… but feeling directionless, apathetic and just completely lost. I felt “stuck” in this weird relationship (the kind where two people are completely wrong for each other and they just keep fucking each other over in this perpetual cycle of toxicity – fun!) and yeah… life was just generally bizarre. A few other big things were happening too, but this is the internet. Anyway.
Then my auntie and uncle died in a car accident.
Many of you will (unfortunately) know the feeling of losing someone very close… like there’s a before and an after and nothing in the after is ever really the same. And you just want everything to go back but it can’t. And it’s a cliche, but you wake up every day thinking it was a bad dream but it’s real. Not long after this, and my second jaunt to Europe from which I came back well-and-truly skint, I finally broke up with that boyfriend (but not in a mature way, I was a fucking disaster quite frankly and I would never want to date 20-year-old me). Anyway. Toxic as the whole thing was, it still really hurt.
At this point, I just sort of gave up. Life just seemed so dumb. I fell into a fairly full-on depression. I would (eventually) get up and put the kettle on, but then I’d sit down and stare at the TV and hours later realise it wasn’t on and the kettle had gone cold. At one point my friend was coming to my house in the morning, getting me showered and dressed and driving me to uni. I actually just sort of stopped functioning. This lasted a few months, but there were moments of clarity where I would sort of look out on myself and see what was happening and feel genuinely terrified. In one of these periods, I managed to get to the doctor, which led to real help: a lot of medication and a lot of therapy.
I got to a point where I could see a future again. And that meant I could plan trips again. My parents, I think, recognised I was starting to get to a better place, and for my 21st they gave me a bunch of money for a holiday. I was going to use it to go to Egypt. “No!!” they cried. “You have to use it to go somewhere really relaxing and peaceful.”
So at the start of 2010, a girlfriend and I jetted off to Fiji for two weeks and I’m not kidding, this trip changed my life. Here I was, feeling lost and broken and vulnerable, in this absolute paradise. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was positive. With the help of my friend, I got involved. I laughed until it hurt. Snorkeled (and got really good at it). Made a whole bunch of new friends. Danced and flirted with boys. Explored and got involved in a new culture. I was me again, only a better me – a me I’d never actually been before. Me, but more confident and happy and worldly.
Fiji was (and still is) my happy place. I love it so much I got married there. But this particular experience, for me, is the essence of just how good travel can be for your mental health.
Mental illness while traveling
Traveling is so good for the soul. But it can also bring stressors that we wouldn’t necessarily experience at home. New situations that put us out of our comfort zone can be really exciting, but when things go wrong it can be really hard to keep plodding along.
When you’re dealing with existing mental health problems, those stressors can be magnified.
A few times, I’ve experienced flare-ups while traveling. Especially when I’m traveling solo or with people I don’t know (which, prior to my husband, was quite a lot). And definitely as a backpacker: it’s hard to retreat into a safe space when you’re sharing a dorm with a dozen other people! It’s definitely no fun at all.
But I do think traveling can be a really healing experience. Obviously depending on the situation, sometimes there’s no cure, but having experienced flare-ups overseas? That gave me the confidence to know that, if I can get through an episode in Croatia, or on safari in South Africa, I’m sure as hell strong enough to get through it back home. And I think that’s where a lot of resilience comes from: learning through experience that you know how to pull through.
There are some practical things you need to do if you’re traveling with a mental health condition. These include taking plenty of medication (if you use it) and carrying a doctor’s letter confirming its prescription. The Smartraveller website has some good advice here.
Hot tip though: please please please, check your travel insurance policy to see whether mental health problems are covered overseas.
Practicing mindfulness while traveling
Ever just sat on the beach, or on top of a mountain, and felt really, deeply at peace? Like you could think your thoughts, and feel your feelings, and just be? That, in its essence, is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is all about letting your thoughts and feelings and physical sensations happen. It’s about being aware of them without trying to interfere. And then being mindful of exactly what they are, why they occur, and then letting them go.
Anxiety is a really good one for practicing mindfulness. I often find myself paranoid about things (particularly relationships with people) and I get really worked up. A panic attack is sometimes the result.
When I’m practicing mindfulness, I’ll say to myself “okay, I feel nauseous. I feel like I’m going to vomit, and my heart is racing, and I think something really bad is about to happen. I feel like I’ve let someone down, and they’re not going to want my friendship anymore.” I’ll acknowledge the physical sensations, and the predictions I’m making, and why I’m feeling that way. I’ll sit with it a minute and tell myself it’s okay to feel whatever I’m feeling. But then I’ll actively talk myself through the situation. “Can I change what has happened? No. Could I talk to my friend, address what I think has happened, and apologise? Yes. Is this worth getting so worked up? Probably not.”
Where I think having a handle on mindfulness comes into its own is just how handy a tool it is for daily life. While it’s super useful during an episode of panic, it’s just as useful for handling other forms of stress. Which you’re gonna get when you’re on the road.
Think of the stress you feel when a hotel has screwed up your reservation, or you missed the last train, or you’re starting to run out of money. I know I tend to make shitty decisions in this kind of scenario because, you guessed it, I panic. But employing mindfulness techniques can really help to calm down and be able to solve the problem.
Here’s a really good article about how to get started in practicing mindfulness.
Also, if you want a professional opinion on why travel helps, I found this little post on Psychology Today about it.
So let’s keep talking mental health.
You know more about my story now. I’ve experienced struggles since, and I probably always will. But I have the tools in my mental toolbox to better deal with it. So much so, that I’m inspired to follow a career in mental health and help other people who’ve gone through the same thing.
Keeping this discussion alive helps to break down barriers and remind us that there’s no shame. Experiencing mental health problems is so common and if we helped each other more, and supported each other more, there might even be a little less of it going on.
Experiencing mental health issues can also be quite limiting. As we keep this conversation going, let’s keep this in mind. My hope is that anyone out there who reads this, and experiencing mental health issues, might be a little more inspired to give traveling more of a go. It honestly might not help. But it really might, too.
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Roberto Nickson (@g)