My partner and I were driving a rental car through the desert of southern Jordan when the engine unexpectedly shut off. We pulled over on the side of the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Within moments, our car was swarmed by Bedouin children.
No idea what was wrong with the car, no language to communicate with the drivers we flagged down, no idea how long it would be before our rental car company could come rescue us. A couple years ago we admittedly both would have had a meltdown in this moment. But after the hundreds of mishaps we’ve dealt with together, we were ready for this one. After a couple hours of Google translating, phone calls, and messing around under the hood of the car (with lots of help from Jordanians), we were back on the road. We high fived and commended each other for not freaking out: we had faced the problem head-on while accepting that there wasn’t all much we could do to change it.
Traveling, vacationing, going on a trip, all are associated with fun! While travel is definitely meant to be fun, this isn’t always the case. International travel often means leaving one’s comfort zone, and so stress is inevitable. While travel has always served as a therapeutic escape for me, I have discovered that I have to manage my mental health while traveling just as I would while at home. Diagnosed with a mental health condition or not, we are all susceptible to mentally difficult days - especially while abroad. These difficulties might present in different ways. Panic attacks, anxiety, feelings of loneliness or homesickness, or fear. Some people might simply feel low. Before heading abroad I like to prepare myself for the inevitably difficult moments that I will face. Here’s what I’ve learned about managing mental health while traveling.
Learning to cope with unpredictable situations, problems, and encounters while abroad is an individual process and can take time. They key I have found is knowing yourself. For example: know what stresses you out, and what relieves that stress. Know what triggers panic, and how to cope if you encounter a panic attack. For some, planning detailed itineraries is they key to feeling comfortable while traveling. For others, frequent calls home are what works. Here are some ideas of other tricks to manage mental hurdles:
Go slow. If you need to sleep in, sleep in. Spending an afternoon lounging in your hostel or hotel is okay, too. Undertaking travel at a pace that works for you is important!
Communicating with loved ones. Having a group chat with family members or friends is a great way to maintain connections to home.
There are things you can do before your trip to make sure you are prepared to manage your mental health while abroad. Preparation of course depends on a person’s individual needs, but here are a couple ideas for of what to do before taking off:
If medications are a part of how you manage your mental health, be sure to stick to that routine while abroad. It’s always good to bring some extra medication along, and in some cases it is wise to check on the availability of your medications abroad (in case you need to re-stock). If you check baggage on flights, make sure you bring the medication on your carry-on.
Sometimes it can be difficult to sleep in new environments. I have found that valerian root tea helps with this. Valerian is also available in a capsule! Another option is melatonin, which also comes as a capsule.
Download to your phone some favourite movies, music or podcasts. Familiarity can be so calming in stressful moments, and if it is downloaded then you won’t need to rely on WiFi to access it.
Get a SIM card. Communication with home is a way to minimize homesickness. With a SIM card (mobile data) and apps like WhatsApp and Messenger, you can stay in constant contact. A SIM card will also help to relieve generalized anxiety in a foreign country - mobile data means you can use Google to access information, directions, and translate languages.
The assumption that travel equals relaxation, happiness and self-actualization is loaded, and in some cases might do a disservice to some travelers. We might wonder, why is this experience not making me euphorically happy? In recent years, I have realized that while travel certainly does make me happy, it is not a miraculous quick fix for my mental health, or happiness in general.
In my experience, both knowing myself and preparing in advance of a trip has helped me immensely in managing my mental health while traveling. But in the end, every person’s approach to mental health at home and abroad is highly individual and evolves over time based on personal experience. You may not know what throws you off while traveling, until you’ve traveled. Perhaps travel for some, is a euphoric quick fix. And that is okay. We prepare for travel abroad in a plethora of ways - packing, booking guides, planning routes. Taking the time to consider how you will prepare for or manage your mental health is just another element of preparation that we can include in our routines.