Some aspects of travel can be wonderful, like exploring the unfamiliar and experiencing new cultures. Other aspects can be difficult, particularly when mental illness is involved.
When I was younger, I hated being away from home. Sleepovers with friends or vacations with family were scary and stressful to me. I did not like to stray from my comfort zone.
As I got older, my travel anxiety lessened and I learned to enjoy my time away. Being out of my comfort zone benefitted my mental well-being – I became fond of encountering various cultures and experiencing life elsewhere in the world. Particularly, my first solo trip to Europe did wonders for lessening my anxiety.
I was nervous – I was travelling across the ocean and away from the familiarity of my home, my culture, and my family and friends. But the moment I got off the plane, my fears began to fade and I became fascinated with a culture so different than my own.
Travelling with anxiety is not as easy for some, but it is not impossible. Giselle*, a 19-year-old student, wanted to see the world and aimed to overcome the struggle of travelling with anxiety and depression.
“Travelling with mental illness taught me to be outside of my comfort zone and rely on myself,” says Giselle. “(When I travel), I can develop more self-confidence and independence, (and see that) my mental illness doesn’t define me.”
Giselle encourages people with mental illness to travel.
“It is a way to push the limits of your comfort zone while getting to know yourself better, which is extremely important when dealing with mental illness,” she said.
But there is a difference in travelling for pleasure and studying abroad.
“I think nowadays, there’s a societal pressure innocently placed on young people growing up in the West to travel while you’re young, a feeling only intensified by Instagram and Snapchat,” says Ary Maharaj, current grad student at the University of Toronto.
Maharaj experienced a depressive episode while in Western Europe through the Woodsworth College’s Summer Abroad program in 2013.
“I tried to push myself to go out and ‘not waste’ the time that I earned through hard work, but quickly realized that it wasn’t bringing me any joy.”
Yoel Inbar, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, said taking semesters in new places can bring life experiences and personality development together, especially when social relationships are a factor.
“There are some benefits to travelling, especially for longer periods,” Inbar said.
Inbar referenced a 2013 study that tracked university students that studied abroad short-term (one semester) and long-term (one academic year). It examined how the experience influenced positive effects on the “Big Five” personality traits – a psychology theory that identifies five core traits that define an individual.
The study found that travelling increased the trait “Openness,” which includes creativity, willingness to try new things and abilities to tackle new challenges. It also found that “Agreeableness,” which includes empathy and interest in other people, increased. Decreases were found in “Neuroticism,” which includes anxiety, stress and mood swings.
These positive influences increased the longer students were abroad.
As Inbar said, a major factor in the positive influences was social interaction and support. Social interactions during travelling benefited both personality development and mental well-being. Travel left a lasting influence – daily life experiences after returning were connected with the experiences learned through their travels.
“Travelling can be a nerve-wracking experience,” Giselle concludes. “But it shows you that mental illness can’t stop you from achieving your goals.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
Read below for some tips from Minds Matter Magazine’s Ary Maharaj for travelling with mental illness:
Find a bathroom
Sometimes with anxiety, social or general, you need to know where the closest bathroom is, a plan for where you’re going next, and an escape route from every situation. Many of us have gotten used to either having data in our home country, or at least know the locations of popular places to get free Wifi (McDonalds, Starbucks, libraries).
In many countries, this safety net may not be possible! Thankfully, even if we don’t unlock our phone, many providers have made it possible to download offline maps. One such app is MAPS.ME, which I used in Western Europe to download maps to my phone beforehand. This particular app allows me to keep my location services on without using data, and also allows you to search the area for key amenities like big tourist attractions, restaurants, and bathrooms.
Don’t forget to care for yourself
When I travelled to Central Europe in Summer 2014, I had a bad depressive episode. It was my first major trip away from home by myself, and although I was really excited in the lead up to going, when I arrived, I also felt so lonely.
I took two nights to stay in and do what I’d normally do back home to self-care: watch some YouTube, read a book, and drink some tea. That, coupled with some breathing, reflection of what I was going through in the moment, and some daily gratitude (three things about myself and three things about my environment) really helped me forgive myself for what I was going through. I then kept up my gratitude exercise (and paired it with daily pictures on my phone!) for the rest of the trip, which I’m thankful for now. The tip: know what your self-care routine is back home and try your best to incorporate it wherever you are!
-Ary Maharaj, Operations Team Lead