Stress, anxiety and depression aren’t things you’d generally associate with taking a year off to travel around the world. In fact for many people it probably sounds like the perfect cure for stress and depression; just leaving everything behind and setting off for distant new places. And for some people it may be. But personally, I view mental health the same as physical health; if you board a plane with a broken leg, it’s not magically going to be healed by the time you land. A holiday might help distract you for a few days, but the underlying issue will still be there.
Ash and I are acutely aware of our privilege and of how fortunate we are to have the opportunities we have. If anything, this has been reinforced during the course of our travels by visiting so many countries and by meeting so many people who (purely through circumstance) may never have the same chance to travel as we have. Even today, international travel remains out of reach for the vast majority of people around the globe, and it’s important to remember this when visiting different countries and meeting local people.
For those who do have the means to travel, I strongly recommend it. I’m a strong believer in the famous quote;
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”Mark Twain
Travel is an incredibly worthy pursuit, it exposes one to different people, cultures, values and (for me at least) fosters a sense of universal empathy and appreciation of our common humanity.
With that said, there seems to be a tendency in Western Culture to consider travel as a miraculous cure-all. It’s not. Life on the road, for all it’s many virtues, is still life, and every life has ups and downs. Travel presents new challenges, stressors and causes for depression, yet all too often it’s not talked about. Our culture already stigmatises mental health and reveres international travel, and daring to combine the two is almost considered taboo.
This article hopes to change that, by discussing some of the most common travel stressors and mental health triggers so that travellers aren’t completely taken by surprise when their journey turns out to not be all sunshine and roses.
Organising Your Own Travel
Ash and I are big fans of independent travel. Though we have joined tours on this trip (notably Africa and Oktoberfest), we organised about 90% of our travel and accommodation ourselves. This gives us complete choice and flexibility, with the downside that we are fully responsible for every aspect of our travel plans. If something goes wrong it’s entirely on us, and solely our responsibility to fix it. This has lead to more than a few stressful periods.
Even before we left Australia we were forced to change our initial flights and accommodation into Ukraine because of a last-minute Visa change to Ukranian laws. This left us several hundred dollars out of pocket and scrambling to find a new destination only a week before leaving.
On two separate occasions (in Jordan and South Africa) we were left stranded without anywhere to stay the night after dodgy accommodation providers fell through at the moment we were supposed to check-in.
In Croatia we accidentally drove an unnecessary 900km to the wrong resort, and in Egypt we spent 8 stressful hours stuck in an airport (and had to pay an additional $1,000) because it turned out we weren’t eligible to board the Charter Flight we had booked.
Though with hindsight we can now look back and laugh at these things, at the time they were stressful and upsetting as hell. Put together they needlessly used up a chunk of our travel budget, made us feel stupid, frustrated and spoiled at least a few days of the journey.
Travelling independently is a double-edged sword; high risk but high reward. In our opinion it’s worth it, but you should be prepared for the inevitable stuff up and take steps to ensure it doesn’t take too high of a toll on your bank balance, relationship or sanity.
Constantly Being Around the Same Person
If I had still done everything I have on this trip, only without Ash, it wouldn’t have been half as special or enjoyable. There is simply nothing better than sharing amazing places, sights and moments with the person that you love. And honestly if it wasn’t for Ash then there’s a fair chance I would now be stranded somewhere in Eastern Europe because I’d lost my wallet, phone and passport…
Some people say that you don’t know a partner until you live with them. That’s true, but long-term travel with a partner is next level. Since leaving, Ash and I have spent an average of around 22 hours a day together. The only times we aren’t next to each other are when I go for a walk or to the movies, or when Ash goes shopping (plus one night in Vienna when we were forced to get separate dorm rooms, and a night in Africa when I slept under the stars and the mosquitos got too much for Ash).
When a couple lives together each person still goes to their own jobs, still hangs out with their own friends and has their own hobbies. Long-term travel isn’t like that. It’s living together magnified by 1000x. You are with each other constantly, often sharing stressful times and unglamorous accommodation. You have far less stories to tell each other, as the other person was always there as well. Small quirks are compounded to become annoying habits. You see the good, the bad and the ugly, and it’s naive to think this doesn’t put pressure on a relationship.
A strong relationship (as I like to think Ash and I have), can usually adjust to reach a sustainable dynamic. Being comfortable with silent co-existence, still making time for special dates and making new friends on the road all help. Ash and I are definitely stronger because of what we’ve shared together, but it’s important to be aware however that long-term travel can sometimes be make or break for relationships.
Homesickness Affects Everyone
I remember my first backpacking trip. I was eighteen and spending Christmas alone in London for the first time. I had no friends or family around, and on Christmas morning I opened a Christmas card and package from my Mum and Dad. I cried while reading the card and opening the presents. Suddenly everything hit me; just how far away I was from everyone I loved. How long it had been since I had seen any of my family or friends, the small things that I missed about Australia.
Today technology makes it easier to keep tabs on everyone back home; to message and contact and even video-call our loved ones. Compared to when my mum travelled throughout Europe in the 1980’s, when her only means of contact was postcards, we are completely spoiled when it comes to international communication. However the rise of instant globalised communication also has a downside.
As much as it allows us to chronicle our travels to our friends, we are equally reminded by our friends of just how much we are missing out on. We see parties, camping trips, engagements, festivals, births and everything else celebrated by our loved ones which we would normally be a part of, but can’t be. Now I’m sure that if you asked anyone at these events whether they would rather go camping or see the Pyramids, or go see their favourite band or the Northern Lights, the answer would be obvious. But all the things that are going on at home without you build up, and it can sometimes seem that everyone else is moving on with their lives while you’re not.
Culture-shock also plays a huge part in this. The more exotic and different a location is from home, the further away from comfort and familiarity you feel. For us this was most evident in Iran; a culture where Ash was required to cover her hair while in public, people always defer to the man in conversations, and we couldn’t even get a beer at the end of a hot day. Iran was an incredibly fascinating and friendly country, but the sheer difference between Iranian and Aussie culture made us distinctly aware of just how far from home we had come.
Homesickness can affect anyone at anytime. It’s not necessarily a sign that you aren’t enjoying the trip, it simply means that you also have things that you enjoy and miss back home.
This can be the biggest mental health factor affecting anyone embarking on long-term travel, it certainly is for us. Unfortunately, it’s also one which is very rarely spoken about. Generally this is because it sounds like the height of first-world problems “Oh woe is me, I’m travelling the world for a year.” It can come across as unbelievably arrogant, complaining about something that is a dream for so many people.
And this is actually one of the hardest parts of travel fatigue, the guilt. You feel that you shouldn’t be sad, you’re living the dream. You feel that you should be appreciating every moment of this once in a lifetime opportunity, and you wonder what is wrong with you that you can’t enjoy something that others would give anything to experience. But this is bullshit. Don’t fall into that trap.
Stress, anxiety and depression don’t discriminate. You can be depressed while homeless, and you can be depressed while eating caviar on one of your nine super-yachts. For me, saying you can’t be depressed because others have it far worse than you is no different to saying you can’t be happy because others have it better than you; mental health isn’t relative.
In part, travel fatigue is a combination of all the factors we’ve mentioned above. It’s where everything, the incessant planning, the constant presence of your travel partner, the homesickness becomes overwhelming. But it’s also more. It’s sleeping in a new camp ground, hostel or hotel (and/or a new country) every three or four days. It’s eating out so much that restaurants become the norm. It’s making a new friend and knowing that you’ll likely never see them again.
Travel fatigue is insidious. It creates monotony out of something that by definition shouldn’t be monotonous. It makes travel the only routine in your life, when nothing else is routine. It’s the same steps in different locations. Seeing the sights, eating and drinking, then packing up and starting the whole process over again.
There’s no stability, no familiarity, no feeling of home. As soon as you get used to a place you leave. It gets exhausting and over time you feel that you’re simply going through the motions; doing “traveller” things out of an abstract sense of obligation rather than genuine desire. Travel fatigue ruins what should be incredible experiences; every attraction, historical site, and “must-see” local spot and view point blends into one until you get to the point where you say “Meh, I don’t really care about another Egyptian Temple, another gorgeous river, another local festival – they’re all pretty much the same anyway.”
This isn’t healthy, in fact feeling ambivalent about potential new experiences defeats the entire point of travel. And you become painfully aware of this; hence the guilt that you’re not appreciating, or even worthy of this incredible opportunity that you have. But like any mental health issue, travel fatigue is not a conscious decision. It’s not your fault and it shouldn’t be something to feel ashamed about, despite the natural instinct to do so.
When first planning this article my original intention was to put together a list of stressful travel issues, followed by my suggestions on how to avoid them. Identify the problem, then offer the solution. The more I wrote however, the more I realised that while this may have been solid travel advice it was too superficial.
Of course there are strategies that can help minimise these factors; careful research and an adequate financial cushion, giving your partner space and being comfortable doing your own thing, calling home once every week or two and telling yourself it’s ok to have a lazy Netflix day every so often can all be useful. But I’m not an expert, I’ve gone through each of these and all I can say is that there is no easy fix. And providing an easy fix isn’t the point of this article.
So much of what people see of travel nowadays is overly glamourised; you’re only ever shown the beautiful, exotic, romantic side of travel, designed to attract likes and induce jealously. Travel can certainly be all these things, but there’s more than enough of that online already, and far too little devoted to the other side. The side of stress, uncertainty, anxiety, self-loathing, depression and overwhelming guilt for feeling all these things in the first place.
Long-term travel is absolutely worth it for anyone who has the opportunity to do so. The good times are worth the bad times a hundredfold, and even the bad times still create valuable memories and life lessons.
But as a travel blog I consider it our duty to discuss as many aspects of travel as possible. It’s wholly disingenuous and patronising to show only the good parts, and to pretend that there aren’t unique challenges that come with long-term travel. We need to acknowledge that while fantastic, travel is not a miracle cure to all of our problems, and can even present a few new ones.
One of the single best travel tips I can offer, is that it’s ok to not feel ok while travelling.