Today, I wanted to talk about the topic that not a lot of travel bloggers engage openly: loneliness and mental health. I’m pretty excited to share this topic with you, as I come at it from a pretty unique angle: before I began full-time digital nomading as a professional artist and blogger, I actually completed a Masters degree in counseling psychology and was working towards full licensure (a career I suspect I will return to once my travel itch has been satisfied).
What therapists know is this: despite many effective treatments and tools for self-care, research is abundantly clear that the number one factor that supports good mental health is relationships. Even in the presence of a severe mental health diagnosis, people who have abundant social connections and are able to reach out and use support from other people tend to report fewer days of “poor mental health” in a given month than individuals who don’t have good support networks (source). [but there’s good news for introverts, a 2018 study found that getting out into nature canceled out some of the negative impacts of low social connectedness]
So what do we who are travelers, solo travelers, and digital nomads do with this information? If we are away from our friends, family, and community for weeks or months at a time, how do we make sure that we are caring for ourselves and taking care of these relationships so they’ll be there for us when we get back? This article explores some of the ways we can care for our mental health while traveling.
1. Set up Care
The best way to care for yourself during travel is to set out with a plan for how to take care of yourself and access care. If you have a therapist that you’re able to continue meeting with while you’re traveling, via video, try to do so. It’s not always easy to find a private place with good wifi to meet with your therapist while traveling – especially if you travel on a budget, but ask your therapist about their flexibility or availability for meetings in other formats such as phone calls or even text sessions.
2. Set up a Failsafe for Coming Home
Plan in advance how to get the care you think that you might need, and then plan for the care that you hope you won’t need: in other words, what’s your crisis plan while traveling? Who will you talk to, where will you go, or how will you reach out for care if you find yourself in a really dark place?
True for all travelers, but especially for individuals with a mental health diagnosis, plan in advance what the red flags would be that signal to you that it’s time to go home, and go home now.
When we are in a really dark place, we don’t always have the ability to recognize what’s happening for us and make good decisions. Having a checklist, perhaps in your travel journal, of the warning signs that it might be time to end the trip early can help us make that decision if the time comes. Ensure that you always have a way to get home in an emergency (like a backup credit card with a credit limit high enough to allow an emergency flight home).
3. Let yourself miss your friends and family
This one might be counterintuitive, after all, during short-term travel distraction from homesickness generally helps us feel better and enjoy our trip. Here’s the thing, though, distraction only works for so long. After a while, this approach (which was adaptive in the short term) becomes a negative coping skill. The harder we try to block our feelings of missing our friends and family, the less connected we are to our bodies, and the less we are able to deeply engage in forming incredible travel memories.
Instead of trying to ignore your homesickness or longing for friends, accept it. Acknowledge that you do profoundly miss the people you care for and who care for you. Name that those feelings are valid and also name that the same opportunity that’s causing the painful feelings is giving you the opportunity to have an adventure that will change you in a way you could not if you were with them. If you close off your heart to cope with missing them- you’ll potentially miss many new experiences on your journey.
4. Take self-care seriously
I’m so serious about travel self-care that I wrote an entire post dedicated to ways to care for yourself while traveling- covering the entire gamut from reassessing how sleep and water intake impacts your mood on travel days to creative travel coping like developing a travel hobby or curating one-the-road social connection.
5. Take it easy on substance use
Mental health diagnoses and substance use can be a disastrous combination, but add international travel to that mix and it’s a cocktail that no one should risk. To give ourselves and our mental health really good care while we are traveling, it’s best to abstain from mood-altering substances altogether.
6. Take care of old relationships
As mentioned earlier in this article, relationships really, really matter to our mental health and general well-being. Even though you might be thousands of miles away on the other side of the globe, you can still get many of the mental health benefits from connecting via video chat (if 2020 taught us nothing else, it was this).
You might be tempted to spend all your time focusing on doing, going, seeing, and adventuring in your destination- but the time spent back in your hotel room, airbnb, or dorm curled up under a blanket video chatting with your best friend or your mom can actually help you travel better, experience things more deeply, and explore the world from a better state of mind.
7. Engage across language through singing, dancing, or worshiping
This one might be a new idea in your research on mental health while traveling: it’s called “limbic resonance.” Limbic resonance is that feeling of being deeply in sync with other people. It happens when parents hold their children, when lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, and when friends feel really cared for and supported by each other. When we travel alone through countries with cultures and languages that are unfamiliar, we don’t often have access to this limbic resonance that our nervous systems craves. Thankfully, there are other ways to get this need met.
According to A General Theory of Love, a 2000 book on attachment and neuropsychology, limbic resonance can also occur when we move our bodies in sync with other bodies. Activities like dancing, singing, and even things like church services and yoga classes (which often synchronize body movements and breathing) can help brains connect and feel less alone – even across a language barrier.
If you plan to travel alone long-term, seek out these experiences. Places of worship, inclusive cultural festivals, and even Airbnb experiences can be a way to plan and curate these experiences which can increase a sense of well-being, reduce loneliness, and improve mental health symptoms like anxiety or low mood.
Some of us more than others need to plan ahead for potential mental health struggles while traveling. With good planning, a good crisis plan, permission to miss those we love, and ideas for connecting with communities back home and in our destination country, we can set ourselves up to improve the likelihood of us thriving during our trip and experiencing the mood-boosting impacts of travel on mental health.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com