How I Adapt to My Mental Health When Travelling

Published on 7/21/2023

I can present quite the paradox. I absolutely adore travelling. I worked at a travel company for five years, which let me do plenty of exploring and visiting new places. I spent each day writing about road trips, destinations and tips for getting more out of your holiday.

However, I also struggle a lot with my mental illness, recently returning to therapy due to an intense depressive episode. I’m quite an introvert who loves the comfort and routine of home.

As you can guess, those two things can be quite hard to combine. I love going travelling to new places or visiting friends and family scattered across Europe, and yet I also have to look after myself as I run ragged far easier.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn to adapt to my mental health when travelling. I had to stop pretending that I could travel the way that other people do, and instead recognise my needs.

1. Communication

My friends are all aware of my struggles with mental illness, but even so, I sometimes have to clarify certain things when we’re travelling. I need to mention if I’m feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or anything else. I’ve found that open communication is so important on group trips, as even people who don’t struggle with their mental health might need certain things.

I used to bottle it all in, or worse, I’d vent to someone and not communicate it to the group. But I’ve found that this never ends well. The most important way I adapt to my mental health when travelling is to open that line of communication. Remember that by doing this, you’re also opening the space for when they need it.

By now, my friends know me well enough that they can pick up on my cues. But they don’t have to assume what I’m thinking, I know it’s up to me to highlight it to them.

I also had the experience of travelling with someone new, a coworker I was just getting closer to. I realised how long it had been since I had been around someone who didn’t know about my mental illness and how it impacts me, so this proved a new challenge. I don’t think you have to detail your entire history or share anything you’re not comfortable with, but I do think it helps them if you clarify what you need from them.

2. Alone time

I’m a bit of an introvert at heart, and so I find that on trips with friends, I can struggle with never being on my own. I love spending time with them, but I’ll find my mood lowering and feeling overwhelmed by the smallest of sensations. I’ll also start to get more anxious.

I’ve learned that it’s up to me to carve out this alone time. It doesn’t have to be hours, but just some time with my own thoughts and some silence. I have to ask for this as my extroverted friends won’t think of it on their own. But I’ve found as soon as I say that I need a moment alone, they’re so supportive of it. Just because they don’t need something themselves, that doesn’t mean they don’t respect that you do. And if not, you need to find better friends!

This alone moment can be offering to go to the supermarket and get whatever supplies we need. It can be going for a little walk. Reading my book beside them with no talking. Or putting in my headphones to listen to music for a while. Set the boundary so that the people you’re travelling with can respect it. You’re not being antisocial, you’re just taking a moment to recharge.

3. Comforts of home

I recently wrote an article about how to pack more in just your hand luggage, and I admitted something that travel enthusiasts are never meant to say: I’m not a minimalist, far from it.

Part of the reason is that there are certain comforts from home that I like to bring when travelling. There are things I could definitely leave behind, but they help me to feel at ease when I’m away.

I like to bring my full skincare routine because for me, skincare is a form of caring for my mental health. It’s the routine of it, the calmness it brings as I follow each step. Even if I feel tired or overwhelmed, I’ve found that carrying out each step with help to calm me down and focus on the sensations.

I like to bring my Kindle for that alone time we discussed, and for a distraction when I need it.

I bring my sweatpants so that I can get cosy in whatever Airbnb, hostel or hotel I’m in.

It’s those small things that bring comfort to you, and those deserve a place in your luggage. Consider the small parts of your day that bring you joy or peace, and make sure to include them in your trip. For many of us that struggle with our mental health, the complete change in routine can be difficult when travelling. So consider which parts you can keep the same, and which are worth the change.

4. Sleep

My friends like to joke that I’m a baby when it comes to my sleep. They’re not wrong, I definitely feel the impact of a poor night of sleep. It makes me feel more irritable and prone to anxiety, as well as a general low mood.

When travelling, I really try to ensure that I’m getting enough sleep. This might not work each night, but overall is definitely possible. And worst case, I’ll sneak in a little nap! Nothing beats a post-beach or shower nap.

This allows me to enjoy the rest of my time more and not struggle with my mood. To maximise this, I bring my Drowsy sleep mask and earplugs. The sleep mask is expensive, it was a gift from my sister who knows how badly I need my sleep. I will say that it works incredibly well, but I’m sure you can find cheaper alternatives. Even if you don’t usually use such items at home, it can really help when you’re in a new and unfamiliar location.

5. Priorities

It’s tempting with holidays to feel like you need to do it all. I think Instagram and other social media platforms have worsened this need. It feels like everyone else is managing to tick each box during their trip, and so you need to as well.

But I’ve come to recognise that my needs are different to theirs. Not to mention that they likely aren’t doing it all either, as social media is such a small snapshot of reality.

When it comes to caring for my mental health when travelling, it boils down to priorities. I have to focus on what’s important to me, and perhaps the people I’m with.

I love sightseeing, exploring and museums. I’ll gladly spend a lot of the day out and about. I also plan in stops at cafes to ensure I don't exhaust myself too quickly. I know that I can’t do this with a hangover and a few hours of sleep after a night out. I’d rather enjoy my days to the fullest than go out for cocktails until 2 am. And for others, their priorities might differ, and so they should follow those.

Looking after your mental health when travelling is about recognising your priorities and embracing them. What is actually important to you, and what are you doing because you feel you should?

You decide what makes a trip good, not your followers on Instagram. So be selective in how you spend your time on a trip, and don’t assume you have to tick every single box.

This is also in choosing the length of a trip. I’d love to travel for months on end, but I think I’d struggle too much with it and end up isolating myself. So I go for shorter trips, close to home. I love how easy it is to take trains around Europe, and if you’re flexible, you can get great deals. I also adapt my behaviour when I get home. I don’t plan anything for the days after my return, just work. This ensures that my trip doesn’t feel like a hassle or something that could overwhelm me, as I have the time to adjust to returning home.

Caring for your mental health when travelling centres on getting to know yourself. That’s something far easier said than done. You need to be honest with yourself about what you need. It can feel embarrassing to admit that I really need a minimum of seven hours of sleep to avoid feeling depressed and anxious, but denying it doesn’t change the fact.

To get the most out of your trips, don’t try to get the most out of your days.

Instead, allow yourself to enjoy the moment and sensation without treating things like a chore. Keep asking yourself, “Do I want to do this, or do I feel like I should?”

My best trip in 2023 has been two and a half weeks in Greece, where I spent about nine full days on the beach, reading books and listening to podcasts. That was absolutely heavenly, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.

Make travel work for you and ensure holidays always remain something you enjoy rather than dread.

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Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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