How Going Travelling Has Improved My Mental Health
When you live with mental health problems, life can get a bit tricky at the best of times.
Understatement of the day, I know.
I used to be scared of travelling. Not because of going away, that I used to pine for more than anything. The adventure. The sun. The freedom. I was scared because I didn’t know how I would cope with having mental illness as well as being on the road in a completely different continent to home.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and OCD in 2016, but I’d been living with them both for a long time before my medical records actually said so.
Before seeking help, I was really struggling. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing could be explained by these conditions.
I didn’t realise that the traumatic intrusive thoughts that came into my head on a regular basis were because of OCD, and I definitely didn’t understand that the almost daily panic attacks that I was experiencing were because of an anxiety disorder.
I found life a bit of an effort, which is a tough cookie to chew when your default is one of positivity.
I wanted to feel happy and grateful for my life. But thanks to mental illness it was a bit of a battle.
Towards the end of 2017, almost a year and a half after my “official diagnoses”, my mental health was still causing me almost daily distress.
I had a good job, a lovely flat, great friends. But I felt suffocated. I felt trapped. I was still getting intrusive thoughts and regular panic attacks. I didn’t feel content or any sense of purpose.
What I felt I really needed was a change.
That’s when I got offered the chance to travel around Australia for three months to make content. And get paid for it.
I’ve come to learn that the conditions I have aren’t exactly curable. They’re manageable. Which is another way of saying I’m probably going to live with them for the rest of my life.
Different things work for different people. Medication. Meditation. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Psychotherapy. Mindfulness. I’ve tried most of these.
When we think about mental illness, I believe that a biopsyhosocial model should be used.
By this I mean that neither biology (our genes and biochemistry), psychology (our personality and mood), or social factors (upbringing and environment) can be used to explain poor mental health on their own.
I think that all three affect our mental health.
So while medication might focus on the biology, therapy might focus on the psychology, what about the social influence?
I was in regular therapy in London, and had been for quite some time. But the chance to travel around Australia and get paid for it? That was a dream job, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Possibly the social change I needed for my sanity.
Despite being scared shitless, I said yes. And this is why travelling was the best decision I made for my mental health at the time.
You Get A Clean Slate
When you go away, no matter where you go away, you get to start fresh.
No one knows who you are and you barely even know where you are.
As intimidating as going away on your own to somewhere completely unknown might seem, it gives you the chance to wipe your slate clean.
Ok, I’m not saying you can just eradicate your past. And nor that you should! That makes us who we are today.
But you get to take ownership of everything from the very beginning. You get to choose where you go, what you eat, who you hang out with, how much you want to tell them.
The feeling this gave me was similar to the one I often get on New Year’s Day. It’s a chance to hit reboot, and start over.
You Try So Many New Things
Since I’ve been in Australia I’ve been on two helicopter rides, kayaked with seals, watched the sunrise from a hot air balloon, had a surf lesson on Bondi Beach, fed a dolphin and swam with turtles on the Great Barrier Reef.
That’s not even the half of it.
I don’t say any of this to brag about how lucky I was. I know I was lucky!
I say this because before I left London my life felt like it was a little bit on repeat. I would wake up at the same time in the same flat every day. Do the same commute that I did the day before. Go to the same office I went to every day. See the same (albeit awesome) people every weekend. Walk in the same parks and drink in the same pubs.
Like I said, a bit on repeat.
When you go travelling you get to try so many new things. You learn a new culture, sometimes even a new language. You have new conversations with new people. You explore new cities and new breathtaking landscapes.
You feel stimulated and excited every day, because no two days are the same. This helps you break the cycle, stop the repetition, and feel alive again.
You Prove To Yourself That You Can Cope
I can’t say that I haven’t had any panic attacks or dark days since I’ve been away.
That would be a flat out lie.
I had one panic attack after a yoga session in Sydney that made me feel out of sorts for two days.
But one things travelling definitely does do is prove to yourself that you can push yourself out of your comfort zone, and that you’ll be ok.
When we stay in our safety bubbles of coping mechanisms and comfort, it’s easy not to challenge ourselves at all. We lose confidence in ourselves and are left feeling defeated by our illness. This is something OCD is particularly bad for.
Really, the more we push ourselves and the more we overcome, the more confident in ourselves we become.
You Can Escape A Long Grim Winter
Where I’m from at least, the winters can get pretty bleak.
They seem to last exponentially longer than any other season, with a blanket of cloud seemingly sitting over London for months on end.
For those of us who come alive when the sun hits our skin, winter can be a pretty tough time for your mental health. It makes you feel more morose, more somber, and far less likely to want to leave the house.
Travelling can help with that.
While photos from back home show me that my friends are wrapped in layer after layer, I’m sat here writing this with nothing but shorts and a T-shirt on.
When you go somewhere warm, you can’t help but feel your mood automatically lift.
You Have Fun
This is probably the most important one.
When you travel, you actually get to enjoy yourself.
The shackles that once tied you to a desk have been taken off, and you’re free to do whatever you want.
When you have fun, you feel better. And when you feel better, you feel happier. And when you feel happier, you feel more grateful for your life.
If there was ever anything that helps poor mental health, it’s treating yourself to a little bit of fun!