One area of travel that can be overlooked is mental health. We spend so much time planning and moving around that it can be difficult to remember to look after ourselves. In this blog post, we will describe mental health, the effects of traveling, and methods we can use to take care of ourselves.
What is mental health?
Mental health relates to our emotional, psychological, and social health. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Mental health is not only the lack of emotional or psychological conditions.
Many different biological and familial (genetic) factors as well as life experiences contribute to our mental health. These include brain chemistry, genetics, trauma, stress, discrimination, and lifestyle factors. As the combination of risk factors increase, so do the chances of mental health problems.
The effects of traveling on mental health?
Traveling can have positive effects on mental health, but can also provide additional stressors. Very few would argue that travel isn’t stressful. This stress can trigger or exaggerate existing depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, violent behaviors, and mood swings. However, there are some benefits of traveling on your mental health. These can include:
- Getting a different perspective on yourself, other people, and the world as a whole
- Increasing self-confidence and happiness
- Providing you with a greater sense of resilience when obstacles appear
- Improving creativity and depth of thought
- During some points of traveling, your stress level can actually decrease when you’re away from stressors at home
What can I do to take care of myself when traveling?
One of the most helpful ways to take care of yourself while traveling is to identify possible stressful situations before you leave. In addition to the travel-specific recommendations, check out the next section listed below about more general methods of self-care.
Before you leave:
- Talk to a healthcare professional about your health, including physical and mental health. This includes your health history, current health, medications and supplements, treatments, and prevention strategies.
- If you are staying abroad for an extended period of time, you may also want to get a referral for a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist while you are away. Make sure to check with your insurance to see what services are covered.
- Some insurance companies will also cover video chat, Skype, or telephone sessions. If you have appointments with a mental health professional at home, ask them if they offer these services and check with your insurance company to see if they are covered.
- If your insurance at home will not cover you seeing a mental health professional abroad or video/telephone appointments, you can look into getting travel insurance. This type of insurance covers some unexpected costs while traveling. For more information about travel insurance, see this helpful article from Investopedia.
- If you are taking any medications for mental health conditions, make sure you have enough to get you through the period of time when you are traveling because you may not be able to get refills during your time away. Keep the medications in their original prescription bottles and ask your provider for a prescription note or a signed document describing your diagnoses and prescriptions.
When you are traveling:
- Don’t let your travels take away from caring for yourself. When traveling, we can easily get caught up in our plans and forget to listen to our minds and bodies.
- Just like at home, eating a well balanced diet and exercising regularly can help reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing.
- Keep in touch with family and friends. It’s important to remember that you have people there for you. Additional sources of support include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) if you would benefit from those while traveling.
- Keep up with your medication routine (and appointments if you are seeing a mental health professional while traveling). Your medications will not be effective if the level in your body is not maintained.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you feel like you are in danger of hurting yourself or others or need to find medical services, you can contact the closest U.S. Embassy. They will help you find healthcare services as well as contact people at home if needed.
When you return:
- Continue with your scheduled appointments and medications. Getting back into a routine can help ease the transition of coming back home.
- Sometimes mental health conditions do not appear until you are finished traveling. If this occurs or if you are feeling worse, talk with a healthcare professional. During this time you can discuss your recent trip and get treatment for whatever issues you are facing.
General methods of self-care
No matter whether you are traveling or at home, the methods listed below are great ways to take care of yourself. Don’t wait until you aren’t feeling your best- these suggestions are helpful for everyday life as well!
- Talk about how you feel- you should never feel ashamed about your feelings. Letting your feelings out leads to feelings of support.
- Stay active- exercise leads to endorphin release. Endorphins are “feel good” chemicals that reduce pain and boost your mood. Exercise also increases your self-esteem and physical health, which is closely tied to mental health. Try to get 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days per week. Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program.
- Eat a well-balanced diet- our diet is another example of how our physical health can impact our mental health. Eat colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy fats like those found in nuts and fish, lean protein, and low fat dairy. Make sure you are staying hydrated as well! Again, always talk to your healthcare provider about what type of dietary plan you should follow.
- Limit alcohol, caffeine, and sugar- these substances may make you feel good in the moment, but in the long term they make you feel worse. Do not exceed your daily alcohol limit (1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men). One standard drink is 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine or 1.5 oz of distilled spirits like gin, rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey, etc.
- Stay in contact with family and friends- these relationships make you feel loved. Laughing with our loved ones also makes us feel better! Consider talking with them about your feelings, as discussed in an earlier bullet point.
- Seek help- whether it be a support group like Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous or a mental health professional like a psychologist, getting help when you need it is important. Don’t feel scared about asking. According to the Mental Health Foundation, over one third of primary care visits concern mental health. You are not alone!
- Give yourself a break- in today’s world, it seems as though we are always supposed to be moving, thinking and working. To help you relax, take a few minutes, hours, or even a full day or weekend to recharge and do something you like doing. Whether that be being active or resting, listen to what your body is telling you. You are a very good judge of what you need. What’s important is that you listen to it.
- Accept yourself- this is one of the most challenging things to do, but a very important goal. Instead of comparing yourself to others, recognize your strengths. We all have things we are good at and areas we wish we could improve.
- Sleep- sleep deprivation leads to multiple physical and mental health problems. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours for adults, but individual requirements vary. See https://sleepfoundation.org/ and talk to your healthcare provider for more information.
- Do a quick grounding exercise- grounding exercises help you stay in the present. They bring you back to what is going on here and now, helping to ease anxiety and worrisome feelings.
- Try meditation- meditation helps you focus on one thing, for example your breathing, body, one phrase or thing around you. Meditation can lead to relaxation, pain relief, and improvement of mental health conditions.
- Journal- journaling helps you organize your thoughts. Benefits include determining priorities, tracking feelings and identifying negative thoughts to change to positive. Writing about what you are thankful for also helps you focus on the positive and change your thinking.
- Try something new- give yourself permission to try something new. That may be learning about a new topic, starting a new hobby or simply getting a new perspective. Don’t put pressure on yourself. This an exercise for your mental health, not a competition or something to be graded