For many people, travel represents the very best parts of life. Exquisite cuisine, marvelous people, seeing the wonders of the world and drinking in the best of the planet’s climates — yeah, it doesn’t get much better than that.
However, the very same group of people also experiences the exact opposite side of traveling too. Think: missed flights, unexpected delays, unforeseen and unprecedented expenses — the many things that get lost in translation, or lost in our own anxiety.
The truth is, to travel exists in both of these camps at the same time, especially if you choose to travel solo. Like the ancient Chinese medicinal concept of yin and yang, one must experience darkness in order to recognize and appreciate the light. They’re simply inseparable, unable to exist without one another; and some adventurers note that the concept travel deeply supports the aphorism ‘nothing good ever came easy.’ With travel, comes many of those ‘good’ benefits: you develop your independence, broaden your worldview and enhance your creative spirit, all of which are proven to help improve and maintain a stabile sense of mental health.
If you are already prone to mental health conditions or have a diagnosis from a doctor, travel isn’t always sunshine and roses. Well, it never really is, but when you also have a pre-existing mental health condition (like Generalized Anxiety or ADD or Bipolar Disorder or whatever else might effect your day-to-day functioning), the complications of travel can have an increased effect. Of course, when you have a mental health condition, it’s often suggested that we develop routines and practices help manage our experience as a humans, and the stimuli we encounter — practices that tend to fall to the way side, or are challenged entirely, when traveling.
You might find yourself without sleep for 24 hours, or unable to locate a warm, nourishing meal, or you might be place in the designated ‘party hostel’ room when you specifically requested one that was quiet and tranquil. Travel has this knack of removing all routines and limitations from our days, which can be incredibly self-expanding, but can also be quite triggering.
Yes, you can be a traveller with a mental illness. In fact, I would venture to say that you should be a traveller if you have a mental health condition — for all it’s worth, travel does help improve mental health, but it does not come easily. For people who call the world home, to not answer the call of the wild would be akin to shirking off happiness itself, so here are some mentally-sound practices that will have you feeling as if you are on a wellness retreat, all the time.
Rest Your Mind — Sleep and Meditation
Missing sleep can be one of the key causes of some of our least favorite mental health symptoms. Sleep acts as the body’s ‘reset button,’ and it necessary for most of us to get the bare minimum number of hours a night if we want to entertain any hope of functioning at full capacity the next day. However, when you’re traveling, there can be a myriad of reasons that sleep might evade you. Snoring hostel mates and fluctuating time zones tend to be the most frustrating of these occurrences — so protect your sleep at all costs. If you want to avoid sleep medication (with which you run the risk of dependency), an eye mask and ear plugs are about to become your new best friends. If you can create a dark and quiet environment, even if it’s just for yourself, your change of falling asleep is much higher. If you’re a delicate sleeper, consider splurging on private accommodations. Still, if you’re still tossing and turning all night, perhaps just lean into it — crank open that laptop and send out and email or two, or read a nice, long chapter in your book. Take it easy, distract your mind from the guilt of not sleeping, and you’ll be yawning in no time.
If sleep isn’t the issue, then we might find fault in our overactive minds. For this, meditation is a great medicine. Meditation is best practiced daily, but it it’s also a useful tool whenever you are overstimulated or in a situation where you need to calm your thoughts. When you find yourself on that crowded bus, turn all of your inward and outward focus on your breath. Trace the path of your breath in through your nose, past the back of your throat, into your lungs and, finally, feel the fullness as it fills your belly. Then, follow the same path in reverse as your breath exists your body, and repeat! Unless you are in a safe location, it’s best to practice meditation with your eyes open.
Be Grateful For The Moment — Yoga and Music
Honing in on the present moment can be a panacea to stress and anxiety. Mindfulness seems like such a simple action, but it has a powerful impact! Some people say that depression stems from living in the past, and anxiety from living in the future — so if you’re perfectly settled in the present, there is no need to worry about the past or the future. If you’re 100% focused on the present moment and doing your absolute best in any situation, then the future takes care of itself — and you can be assured that you’re crossing your t’s and doting your i’s.
…and worries about the past? Well, appreciating every moment and being grateful for the subtle beauty of the now is a great way to blast through limiting mindsets and guilt over the past. Yesterday is over, so why let it strip today of its beauty?
There are certain ways to hone your mindfulness so that it comes more easily to you in your everyday life. The first way — you guessed it — is yoga! The practice of moving through poses while engaging in meditation prevents you from focusing on anything but the present. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s reassuring to know that you have an instructor there to guide you back to the present if you become distracted. It’s often said in yoga classes that you “practice on the mat for life off the mat,” and it’s so true! Yoga class is like a lesson in life, and you’ll find many similarities between how you face problems in yoga and how you face your every day problems. It’s never too late to start a yoga practice (yoga classes on youtube are super accessible for anyone), but if you want a deep dive, maybe give a wellness yoga retreat a go.
Music is another grand way to be grateful for the beauty of every moment, every musical note, every shake of the hips and every emotion, happy or sad. Get you favorite tunes playing and sometimes you’ll find that stress and anxiety just slide right off.
Challenge Your Limits — Surf, Adventure and Thrill Seeking
I am convinced that presence and mindfulness are the elixirs to a happy and healthy life — and this dynamic plays out again, but in a different manner. Adventure and thrill seeking exists in the same vein as yoga and music, but made for a person who needs to push their limits in a more endorphin-rushing sort of way. The person who feels alive when their heart pumps hard and blood rushes through their body — the person who likes to feel their prana (energy) move through every cell of their being, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
This is where surfing comes in… and hiking and zip-lining and rappelling, or however you prefer to get up and moving, but there is something particularly moving about activities in the ocean. The ocean is the elixir of life, with the power to control entire climates, and it’s fascinating how humans have developed simple technologies that allow them to harness such influence — and so often, for no reason other than to simply feel it. Just a simple board is all that’s needed to make wave and surfer a solitary, energetic force. Learning to read the movements of the ocean is like learning to read a new language, and constantly being humbled by mother nature is refreshing in the best way. When you finally do pop-up on that wave and skim across the surface of the water as if you were Poseidon himself, well, that’s where you discover a wellspring of self-love and self-respect.
The thumping of your heart is just a physical sensation to bring this self expansion down to a more tangible, digestible level. Though surfing and adventuring is a great way to connect with yourself and the source of your power, it’s by no means your only option. For some, just getting up and moving makes a huge difference.
Some Things You Can Control, Some You Can’t — Create Routines
Routine, while traveling? I know, don’t laugh, but hear me out here.
The truth of travel is, no matter how much you prepare, you always run the risk of losing control of things. That’s why travel insurance exists, because you can’t possibly predict all the ways that your plans will eventually go wrong! It’s a fact of travel and, if you wish to do so, it’s a fact that we must come to terms with.
However, that does not mean we’re entirely at the mercy of the universe’s whims! Though things will certainly happen to us, we don’t have to give these random circumstances power over our health and happiness. Maintaining a positive and grateful point of view is the first part of it, but also take comfort and solace in the small things we can control. Simple things, like washing your face with warm water before bed, or stretching when you first wake up in the morning. Carry your favorite crystals or mementoes around with you. Have a favorite go-to meal that you can find in any grocery store, in any country in the world. These small routines become a delight and, most of the time, cannot be interrupted by forces great than thee.
If You’re Open To It — Make New Friends
Solo travel presents us all with a very common, shared experience: loneliness. Humans are social creatures and, most of the time, benefits greatly from contact with other people. Whether it’s family or friends, or the simple smile of a stranger, who hasn’t felt the residual inner warmth that lasts long after your companions return home?
Of course, many people prefer being alone (isn’t this why we solo travel in the first place?) but, if you’re finding yourself craving a conversation and cordialities, the first thing to do is recognize it! By sitting with your loneliness and figuring out exactly what it is your mental health needs at that moment, you can make a statement to seek out and gift yourself with that very thing. Do you want a friend? Well, there’s plenty of potential friends out there, free for the taking if you so choose!
I suppose some lucky people just have new friends approach them out of the blue, but that’s never been the case for me — so, I had the be the one to bridge the gap. Practice having ‘small talk’ conversations and stay brushed up on current events… or ask a local about what’s been going on, and use it as an introduction! You’d be surprised at how fascinated people often are with the idea of a solo female traveler, so do be shy. People want to know you and hear your story!
Milieu is important, here. Hostels are renown for their ability to connect travelers (for better or for worse), but so are retreats, jobs abroad and freelancing (or just drinking a cappuccino) from a coffee shop. You can even use technology to connect with travelers, via specific apps or facebook groups. The opportunity to meet and befriend people from other cultures is one of the main beauties of travel. Sharing a deep belly laugh with a person who is unlike yourself serves to remind us how we’re all human and we all have a deep, inherent, implicit value — and, because of that, the world immediately becomes a better place.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Down Days — Embrace Being Alone
If you are a person who thrives from being alone, then this is a part of yourself that you must embrace! In fact, being on your own is often the best part of solo travel. You don’t have to wait to calendars to align, there’s no need to accommodate for more than one diet, and you alone make your priorities! Does that sound like a veritable travel heaven, with no one to please but yourself?
At times, our sense of being alone isn’t so… willing. If it’s one of those days that your mental health keeps you in bed when you’d rather be out exploring, the most important thing is to not force yourself into uncomfortable situations. It’s perfectly okay to indulge in a Netflix binge or to order delivery food and eat it in bed. There’s nothing that says your have to absolutely be out and doing something every day, especially not at the expense of your happiness. It’s not a waste of money or time — it’s essential. There’s always tomorrow!
If you’re still in a funk that you want to break out of, try journaling to get your thoughts and feelings out on paper. Know when to ask another person for help, even if it’s just a listening ear from someone back home. If you feel down or that you are in a crisis, it’s easy to find a doctor or therapist who might be able to help. If you have travel insurance, it’s possible that your costs will be covered.