Traveling with mental illness: what is it really like

Many bloggers don’t often talk about the downside of traveling with mental health illnesses. Too often have they share about how to cope with it and how they overcome it while traveling.

Instead of sharing their vulnerability, several blog posts like that (i.e. “how I overcame depression and anxiety during my travel”) created a false expectation that traveling is supposed to help, or cure, anyone who have mental health problems. It also contribute readers to feel that they aren’t trying hard enough or unable to relate to the bloggers who feel that they aren’t getting any better. Because of many blog posts like this, readers also idealized that escaping their problems by traveling would eventually be resolved, but the truth is: that is not exactly how it works. 

Traveling do have many benefits for mental health but too often have they fail to mention that traveling with mental health conditions can be really challenging, stressful and exhausting at times. Sometimes even quite the opposite for few: traveling helps them to co-exist with mental health issues than staying at home with their usual routines. Everyone deals with it differently, regardless of sharing the same diagnosis.

Because of this, I’ve decided to reach out other bloggers who would like to share their stories about traveling with their mental health condition. Whether it is for you personally or if there is someone who you know, I hope in a way that their story would be helpful for you to know that you are not alone in struggling while traveling.

*Warning: triggers may occur*

Borderline Personality Disorder

Traveling with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Her Travel Therapy

Resources

My name is Kate and I live with borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is a complex disorder with a variety of symptoms that include impulsive and self-destructive behaviour, a deep fear of abandonment, low self-worth, and intense emotional responses. I would love to say that I cope well with my disorder while travelling, but because of the unfamiliar environment and additional stresses, my symptoms can often be at their worst. When travelling alone, I was constantly afraid that my boyfriend was going to leave me, and sought validation from him several times a day. Any fights that we had, I would rapidly cycle through emotions ranging from anger, to abandonment, and coldness. I would often experience splitting, where my brain would start to categorise my boyfriend as a bad person, and try to turn off my positive emotions towards him. This is a common feature of BPD and one that has ruined many of my friendships and relationships.

It’s also hard to avoid self-destructive, impulsive behaviour while travelling. Away from home, I lack the routines that give me stability, and the traveller scene can often be party-heavy with drugs and alcohol. On the one occasion that I got properly drunk while travelling in Argentina, I ended the night hysterically sobbing and threatening to self harm. Any excessive use of any substances rapidly increases the severity of my unstable symptoms.

I cope with my BPD while travelling by avoiding heavy drinking or any drugs, using a journal to let out extreme emotions, and relying on my self-soothing techniques used in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). DBT is a must for when you live with BPD, and the skills learned can be applied to any situation. It teaches you how to identify your emotions, evaluate whether they are appropriate for the situation, and act in ways that are effective and non-destructive. When I am becoming overwhelmed with my emotions, I de-escalate them by focusing on my breathing and calming my racing thoughts. Over time, it has become easier to reduce the emotional severity of my breakdowns and feel more in control.

Borderline personality disorder is a difficult condition to live with at the best of times, and the drastic change in routine afforded by travel can really heighten the severity of your symptoms. However, it is possible to travel and enjoy your life, as long as you commit to practising new behaviours and changing your way of thinking.

Postpartum Depression

As the bird flies - traveling with postpartum depression

I had postpartum depression (and anxiety) from very early on after my son’s birth through to when he turned about 18 months. Now that he’s nearly three I still feel some lasting effects, but I’m happy to say that I have new coping mechanisms (and a great therapist!) to help me manage these. Interestingly, travel has been both a blessing and a curse in my journey with postpartum depression. I took my first trip abroad with my son was he was just under four months, and I had so many fears and worries about it. As we were going to the UK (where I’m from) to see family, it was much easier than I expected and that boosted my confidence – I immediately started planning more travel!. A few months later we went to see friends in France; this was a whole other story. We all barely slept, my son hated being in his car seat, and I also got a chest infection – depression always attacks my immune system! A trip to Italy a month later was a similar story, though we took steps to make things easier (no car hire!) and my partner and I did more “shifts” so we could each have time to relax. At the time, I regretted taking those trips. It crippled any confidence I had about doing what I love – travel –  with my son, and this fed my anxiety and depression. The stress placed further strain on my relationship and I sadly felt more distant from and resentful to my son, which is sadly a horrible part of postpartum depression. My partner and I agreed to put travel on hold for a while, so we could focus on getting me better. I took anti-anxiety medication, rested and began therapy. As part of this journey, I learned to stop blaming myself and I accepted my depression as an illness, not something I had caused. I found great comfort in this TED talk which refers to the opposite of depression not being happiness, but vitality. Eventually, I realised I had something to fight for; I wanted to love life again, and part of that meant travel. But I had to be ready and better for that to really work. If you love running but break your leg, you have to wait for your leg to heal before you can run again. Depression is the same.

It’s never easy travelling with a small child, or with a history of anxiety, but in the last eighteen months we’ve taken our son to Iceland, Australia, Singapore, Thailand (twice!), the Maldives, Portugal, and Austria. Slowly but surely, along with other help and simply being kind to myself, travel with my son has become therapeutic to me – I have memories that will last forever – and it has helped me love life again. 

Orthorexia - Eating disorder

Traveling with Orthorexia, an eating disorder

Pink Caddy Travelogue

Resources

The most helpful resources in her recovery were actually other bloggers who had been through similar experiences and made it to the other side. Several are  RD’s who specialize in eating disorder recovery and fighting against diet culture.

New Moon RD | Immaeatthat | the life of andie | National Eating Disorders

Orthorexia is a fairly new term in the eating disorder world, but it’s becoming more and more prevalent as our society focuses on labeling foods as good or bad – “clean,” organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, pesticide free, labels are everywhere. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating which, on the face of it, isn’t necessarily bad, but when taken to an extreme, becomes an eating disorder.

My orthorexia started out as an innocent desire to eat healthier and become more active.  At least, that’s what I told myself. But the underlying cause of most eating disorders is a need to control something in your life when everything else seems out of control, and I was no exception. I couldn’t change other areas of my life at the time, so I turned to controlling everything I ate. I gradually cut out more and more food groups until I was essentially eating just vegetables and chicken breast and other “clean” foods. I exercised excessively, and would have extreme anxiety if I had to miss a workout.

When you have to control everything you put in your mouth and make sure you get in a solid workout everyday, it has an effect on your travels. It makes it so that you can’t enjoy yourself and aren’t free to experience all that a country has to offer.

My first overseas trip was during this time period. At that time of my life when I thought simple carbs like bread and pasta were evil, Italy was the worst place to go. I did order pasta, but I never ate all of it, and I insisted on ordering a salad at every meal. I felt extremely guilty every time I ate gelato, and never had a single cannoli. We walked over 20,000 steps everyday (which, of course, I tracked) but I still would workout in our hotel room at the end of each day.

I’ve since recovered from my eating disorder, and have traveled all of the world, including Italy, without needing to control my food and exercise. I can actually enjoy different foods now without counting the calories or needing to know the ingredient list. I eat everything in moderation; I know now there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food. I learned that there’s actually freedom in losing control. But the recovery process took years.

My advice for anyone currently struggling with an eating disorder is to get help. This will look different for everyone – for me, it involved connecting with other people who had a similar story but were farther along on the path to recovery. I didn’t really believe I had an eating until I  began talking to people who had the same experience as me. Some of their blogs are linked below. For others, a therapist will be the best route. But living your life being controlled by your food isn’t actually living, so pursuing recovery is 100% worth it.

Panic Disorder / Panic Attacks

Traveling with panic attacks / panic disorder

While living abroad in Asia I got hit with my first panic attack. It was totally unexpected, I was actually driving to a really nice waterfall just outside of Bangkok at the time.

Suddenly my brain went into overdrive, heart pumped hard, and I could not breathe. It was one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had. After the panic attack I was left in a state of fear, constantly worried about another one happening. This fear builds, increases stress and ultimately leads to further panic attacks. The condition is known as panic disorder.

As someone who has generally been quite a carefree person, developing panic disorder is a terrible place to be. I went searching for any and every cause. Blood pressure tests, scans for cancer, blood sugar levels, irons levels, until eventually I came to terms with it all being in my head.

My days were overrun with the fear of further panic attacks. I stopped driving, and went out less. Sometimes the best part of the day would be getting back into bed and throwing the blankets over my head. There I knew it would be safe if another panic attack were to hit.

Acceptance is the start of a new beginning. If you don’t accept it, you’ll never get over it.

Typically, the doctors will prescribe anti-anxiety medication. While effective at reducing the anxiety, this really only masks the real issues. The more effective path is self help. I found self help through the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. This goes into the effectiveness of meditation as cognitive training. Practicing mindfulness meditation effectively rewires your brain, it unscrambles the mess of signals firing off everywhere and straightens our your thought process.

Meditation can be difficult to start practicing though. I found that joining a local mediation group such as the Little Bangkok Meditation Centre in Bangkok was exceptionally helpful. Here you’ll meet other people working on overcoming similar issues; panic disorder, anxiety, and depression. Sharing your experience and hearing of others success is truly motivating in your recovery.

It was a long two year uphill battle, but I gradually overcame panic disorder, without ever taking one anti-anxiety pill. I now meditate daily, just 15 minutes each session. It not only keeps my panic attacks at bay, but also clears my thought process and reduces stress for a better quality of life.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Traveling with Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is not what most people think it is. Many people might think that OCD sufferers have trouble when travelling because of hygiene and disorganization issues, and while this may be the case for some people with OCD, there are so many other ways that suffering with obsessive compulsive disorder can make travelling difficult.

I have OCD, and I’m not at all pedantic about cleaning. I’m not bothered if the radio is on volume number seven and I don’t have to have my bookcase in alphabetical order. I suffer from intrusive thoughts – I often think I’ve done or said something that I haven’t, and believe it to be true – that I give myself a very hard time about and then repeat compulsions over and over again to get some form of relief.

I understand that for someone who doesn’t suffer from OCD, this sounds unbelievable. If you know you didn’t do something, then why do you think you did?. My only explanation is this is how an OCD brain works. Scientists think it’s due to a fault in danger receptors – it’s a brain condition that makes sufferers constantly think but what if?

Travelling both helps and hinders my OCD. Often, when I’m first meeting new people, it flares up and I’m constantly thinking I’ve said something hurtful to them. I often leave social situations with compulsions to return and speak to said person again, to make sure that I haven’t done so.

My checking OCD also plays up a bit when I have all of my worldly possessions on me – I’ve had to return home early from places before to check that my locker in a hostel dorm is secured, even though I can clearly remember locking it some hours before. And there’s no way I can have as much control as I do at home – if I’m staying in a hostel or hotel, I can’t check that all the hobs have been turned off in the kitchen or that the place is completely secure.

While this thought is sometimes unnerving, it can actually be reassuring as well. OCD is often focused on blame – the sufferer thinks that if something happens it will be their fault. When it’s impossible to check things, the blame gets removed and the OCD is lessened. For my other aspects of OCD, I find travelling very much like jumping in the deep end.

I often struggle with the symptoms at first, but because I am constantly having to be in these scary situations and am not able to remove myself from them like I am at home, they do get easier over time. So much so that, when I returned from a year in Australia, my OCD was the best it has been since I was diagnosed. OCD never stopped me from travelling, and I learnt how to travel with it, which I will carry on doing until the blissful day when I am cured.

Further reading for OCD – this is important for sufferers and people wanting to know more about this condition and why it’s not all about keeping things clean.

Social Anxiety

Traveling with social anxiety

Live Less Ordinary

Resources

Actually I do follow memes on the disorder, simply because it is good to know how many others suffer from it, yet we still have a sense of humour about the scenarios we each go through.” SA Memes | SA Resources List

I find that social anxiety will always depend on the surrounding environment, only I never realised this early on, and travel was a bit of a desperate attempt to escape my normal life in a suburban British society. And while I knew travel would throw me into terrifying situations with social anxiety, I was also facing similar all the time back home. So taking the leap was terrifying to begin with, and I still remember my voice trembling on the flight to Thailand, and the sheer fear on the first days in a completely alien country. But this ended soon enough. As there were no forced social interactions, no obligatory pints at the pub, and I could walk around streets without worrying about bumping into people I was avoiding. Meanwhile the local interactions awkward as expected, with the culture difference, but they were also interesting and intriguing and I became more engaged.

Because of this I have always been drawn to big cities, where I can easily get lost, and explore, and it’s just live my life by myself. And while it did feel a bit like a cop out and running away from my problems, it otherwise made my life infinitely easier and more enjoyable in the long-run. But there are parts of travel that are harder the others, like in close quarters on flights, buses and trains. And this was easier through independent travel, rather than following Lonely Planet, ‘social travel’, and just the traditional travel trails.

Another nightmare of mine is hostels, and instead I travel in short spells in comfort, then find short-term rentals to cut costs on longer stays. But a couple of years ago I forced myself into a hostel, as a challenge of sorts, while I had an apartment to run back to at any time. And once in the dorm, and settled, the anxiety was replaced with an odd sense of adrenaline. As it is almost always the fear of these situations, than the actual interactions that held me back in life.     

So it has been over 15 years since I first travelled solo, and I have now covered a good 50 countries, although my year is generally split between Europe and Asia with my now wife. And I only owe my current dream life to having jumped on that flight to Thailand in the first place. But Japan would be our preferred destination these days, which is partly because of the reserved local environment, and just how people keep to themselves. This is also the first time I have shared my social anxiety, which you will find with many introverts, as we have no desire to talk about it. At the same time, it is good to know that others suffer from the same condition, and while I want to say I have overcome it, this changes with the environment around me. 

I’m not sure if I am the person to give advice, considering I may have run from the problem, but speaking to two local GPs I was only given the advice “to take a walk in the park”. At the same time I found my own confidence in following individual passions and interests, which made me more engaged in social interactions. Instead of what was expected by those around me. 

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) / Depression

Traveling with depression

My personal experience

Resources

These resources are only for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community since we all have such all such a limited resource available for us. 

National Deaf Therapy | GLAD Mental Health Outreach | Deaf Counseling Center 

Unlike before how I usually love keeping myself busy every single day during traveling, it’s different now. Visiting a lot of attractions in one day or even couple days straight is already exhausting and overwhelming. There are some days where I just don’t want to go out and explore. I’d lay in bed almost all day and just not feeling motivated. Being unproductive didn’t help me because I feel like I have no sense of purpose of my life but that is just negative talking that I have been battling against my mind. There are some days that I just feel that I want to cry, even though I couldn’t sometimes because of feeling apathetic to overwhelming emotions that I’ve lost control. Additionally, it’s not just depression that I have to cope with, it is also with anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sometimes, I feel that I shouldn’t have anyone to travel with me, because I’m afraid that I’m affecting their travel experiences or dragging them down with me. However, I know that whatever I think, I’ll become, as they say. Positive affirmation can be challenging when you don’t even believe it yourself. As you can see, I haven’t really be handling it great as I should be but I know I’ll get there if I just use my support system and do what worked for me lately. I don’t take medication nor seek treatment during traveling, because as a Deaf traveler, it is very difficult to find a therapist who know American Sign Language and provide services internationally. So, I have taken notes what have been helping me. I’ve been trying to accept I have to deal with my depression by talking with someone, journaling, listening to music, mediation, working out three times a week and try to go outside that I know that would make me smile, like meeting Deaf people or even drinking bubble milk tea. While trying to take care of myself, I feel better about exploring days out and ensuring that I’ll have a rest day or two when needed, and I’m still practicing on listening to what I need. 

Traveling with depression isn’t easy, and maybe at some points you’ll feel like you shouldn’t be feeling depressed when traveling, but you see, you are a human being. You’re a normal being with feelings that still need to be nurtured yourself, every day whether you are traveling or not. Don’t beat yourself up and believe that you deserve to be stuck into the black hole. And It sucks but no one can help you get out of that black hole but yourself. We can have all the support, but we have to help ourselves too. We have to start step by step, just somewhere slowly but surely you’ll find your own ways to cope with depression.

It isn’t always easy to talk about mental health due to the stigma around the world but speaking it out is a start to share how common it is, even in the travel industry. Traveling do have many benefits but it is crucial that you are aware of your own emotions and needs, and most importantly, to seek support. And remember, anything that you read that implies traveling cures their depression, anxiety or whatever, every person have their own journey. And you are not alone.

Are you also traveling with a mental health condition?

What is it really like for you? Do you have or find any support system while traveling? Or are you traveling with someone who have a mental health illness? Share your thoughts/feelings in the comment below! 

Hover the image on the left, you can repin this post to destigmatize mental health because mental health matters too!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Wow, thank you so much for compiling and sharing. I have acute anxiety and there are times on the road where it catches up with me and we have to work together as a family to make sure things don’t unravel. Thank you for bringing awareness to the many things people face. [hugs]

    1. [hugs!!] thank you for sharing that, Rob! It can be tough but hang on there! I’m happy to hear that your family is so supportive and work it together with you. <3

    1. thank you for reading! 🙂

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