Travel. Travel. Travel. It’s more than a trend, more than a hashtag and more than that sultry, sun-drenched photo of an instagram model in Ibiza sipping from a bottle she’s being paid to promote.
Humans as Wanderers
Travel is — according to public consensus, common sense and science — food for the soul. It’s the human race getting back to its exploratory roots. It’s the hands-on, kinesthetic, holistic education we crave. After all, there is evidencethat humans existed for hundreds of years as wanderers. It was only between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago that we made the switch from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a domesticated, agricultural one.
And since then, we have become rather comfortable leading sedentary lifestyles. To the point where a life of travel draws surprise and sometimes condemnation from others. Switching to a nomadic lifestyle has the potential to disrupt what our bodies and minds have become used to over time. It’s a change of pace, habitat, and routine that has to be taken very seriously. And one of the most important aspects to consider is mental health, and the effects that long-term travel can have on it.
So what’s the connection between mental health and a nomadic lifestyle?
The Sadness of Stigma
The truth is it’s hard to say. Mental health issues are extremely common — with studies estimating that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.But somehow, they are still heavily stigmatized. Nine out of 10 people with a mental illness suffer from discrimination and stigma. Sadly, we still hold warped ideas about what it means to be mentally unwell. When we think about mental health we picture “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” instead of the daily plight of depressed or anxiety-ridden friends, neighbors, and siblings.
As you might guess, it’s not easy to find people who are very vocal about mental health. Even more so, you’re not likely to find an article on panic attacks or obsessive compulsive disorder while scrolling through a travel blogger’s photo gallery of the Maldives. The travel community is a positive, vibrant space so, hypothetically, it would be hard to promote the travel lifestyle alongside an open attitude about mental health issues.
But the question remains. How does being on the road affect mental health? Furthermore, how can you travel and explore while keeping their mental wellness intact? Let’s take a closer look.
Real Talk from Real Travelers
Professional psychotherapist and remote worker Aaron Dutil explains in this article that digital nomads are particularly susceptible to anxiety, isolation and other negative states because they are so often by themselves and unsure of their plans for the next day. (However, Dutil still encourages people to go for the digital nomad lifestyle).
Some brave travelers have had the courage to open about their own mental health experiences despite the stigma. Jessica Schlauderaff, author of the blog “Life Lived Here,” describes some of the mental difficulties she encountered such as anxiety and uneasiness during a travel program. She also speaks of the “keep-it-secret stigma” she faced when she admitted to friends on the trip that she was homesick. Schlauderaffadds that it’s hard to write about these doubts because she loves to travel. Nevertheless, she was unsure if long-term travel worked for her.
Sam Applebee — entrepreneur, writer and digital nomad — discusses his “burnout” on the road and even claims that long-term travel takes away from a person’s essential lower levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (like food, water, safety and intimate relationships). He recommends that remote workers update their previous formulas for self-care. Sam has started a health pledge to break the stigma of mental health for digital nomads.
Accepting problems & striving for wellness
But do not fret, explorers! This is by no means the squashing of your dreams of world travel. The most important shared trait of the writers above, is that they all encourage people to try to both overcome, and come to terms with mental health issues, and to continue a life of travel and adventure.
Yes, some digital nomads experience mental health problems. If you think about it, this makes sense. As mentioned previously, one quarter of the world’s population will deal with these issues at some time in their lives. And it’s also true that long-term travelers can be more prone to illnesses such as anxiety and depression because of their lifestyle choices. While this is not information to be taken lightly, it is also important to recall that mental health is an aspect of our lives which will always require attention and care, regardless of location. Where you are traveling is far less likely to impact mental well-being as opposed to the self-care and routine that you keep up with.
Here are some ways nomads can look after their mental health on the road:
- Double up on self-care.
As Sam Applebee mentions in his article, the nomadic lifestyle leaves some things up in the air which were probably set in stone before traveling. You have to do more than simply get enough sleep, eat right and exercise. Giving yourself space to reflect and meditate is essential. If you’re normally a very hard worker, consider taking more time to relax, walk around and soak in your surroundings. You’ve earned it.
2. Work hard on relationships.
When you’re on the move it can be tough to keep in touch with family and friends, but it’s important that you carve out time for loved ones to avoid feeling lonely or isolated. Try to make Skype or Facetime calls a regular part of your travels. Plus, chances are your mom will be relieved to see you checking in more.
3. Try traveling with loved ones.
Of course, solo travel is one of the most empowering experiences you can have and everyone should do it. It’s amazing. Nevertheless, if there is someone in your life that also loves to travel, it can’t hurt to buddy up. Even if it’s just for a stretch of the journey. If this is even a remote possibility, give it a try, because traveling with friends is incredibly fun.
4. Make sure you are doing things you love.
This one may seem a bit obvious but hear me out. If you are working remotely, your work is still a big part of your life. And the same thing goes for work in the 9-to-5 cubicle as well as a temple in Indonesia. If you love what you do, it will be rewarding and fulfilling. If you hate what you are doing, it could sour your whole nomadic existence. No job is worth damaging your mental health, so don’t take a job on the road that you don’t enjoy.
5. Take advantage of the experience.
A study from a USC professor of psychology shows that engaging with other people and cultures gives one a stronger sense of self. Other studies show that travel can help you be more creative, confident and happy. Engaging with others on your journey and celebrating the cultures around you will provide you with great emotional and mental health benefits in the long run.