How travel helped me overcome depression and fall back in love with my life

How travel helped me overcome depression and fall back in love with my life

Mental health problems are staggeringly common and can affect anyone at any time. Take me for instance. Eighteen months ago I was in my final semester of my undergrad degree, with good grades, a wonderful boyfriend and living by the beach with my two best friends. My life seemed perfect. Why I suddenly found living so terrifying and exhausting makes no sense at all. But mental illness doesn’t make sense.

Travel overcoming depression

Most of that period of my life is now a blur in my memory. After months of pain, medication and therapy, I slowly felt my old self returning. In April last year, the girl who had previously been too anxious to go to the local shops, booked a flight to London. I’d travelled before: studied in the USA and gone on holidays with family, but spending the summer in Europe after university had been a dream of mine for years. That dream finally felt once more within reach. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, compiling Pinterest boards, reading blogs, imagining what was out there for me.

I was taking medication and had gained so much out of courses in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. The doctors were satisfied with my progress and I’d proven my commitment to my mental health, so they gave me their blessing to go. I promised to stay in touch via email and was told I could arrange sessions with my psychologist over Skype if necessary. I’m careful to always carry enough medication and translated copies of a letter from my psychiatrist explaining my mental health history.

travel battle depression

I knew I was still recovering, but now I was full of enthusiasm and excitement, about to see far more of the world, and feeling a lust for living that I’d forgotten was even possible. The enormity of what I was doing hit me as my plane soared off the runway. The girl who was always running away from what frightened her, was flying towards the unknown. My fears had been swept aside by excitement, self-belief and the love and support of my family and friends.

For anybody out there reading this and struggling with mental health, I want you to know it’s worth pushing through the despair; fighting until you feel mentally strong enough to book that plane ticket of your own. Travel is the healthiest addiction you can develop. It leaves you craving more and lusting after new experiences. It is, without a doubt, the fastest way you can grow as a human being and turn your life into an inspired one. My wonderful travel tales were made possible by taking charge of my mental health.

Travelling has meant not being afraid to share myself with the world. It’s meant being alone in a foreign country and still thriving. It’s been meeting strangers in hostel common rooms, only to leave together as friends. It’s been sometimes opening up and sharing my mental health journey, seeing the surprise on so many faces that an outgoing, blonde twenty-something can have suffered from depression and anxiety; but it’s also realising just how many others can relate to my story.

Travel depression

There’s definitely no need to be ashamed. I fit within the category most susceptible to mental illness, being a girl in the 16-24 age bracket. This age group represents the highest incidence of mental health problems worldwide. Research also shows that young people like me are travelling more often and for longer periods of time than ever before. A lot of us are likely to have this overwhelming desire to travel, but also an urgent necessity to look after our mental health. I am proof you can do both, and journeying through different countries can actually be an effective antidote to anxiety and depression.

For me, visiting 18 countries in the past year has meant talking in broken Spanish to a sweet Peruvian lady selling fruit on the street, and to a taxi driver who saw the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. It’s been journeying to places I could have never imagined; finding the beauty in a near-abandoned Brazilian town; asking an Andean highlander what brings him the most happiness. It’s been horse-riding beneath a towering volcano in Ecuador, sharing secrets with new friends, drinking wine by a bonfire in Argentina and hand-standing under the Eiffel Tower. It’s been devouring pasta in Rome, topless sunbathing in Spain, and being one of millions dancing in the streets during Rio’s Carnival.

But more than anything, it’s been looking around, be it somewhere magical like Machu Picchu, or this tiny café in Colombia where I’m writing this, and being grateful for the second chance I have to embrace it all. It’s to keep exploring, to keep learning, to keep reading, to keep believing. It’s not letting mental illness run my life. It’s deciding to write all that I can to inspire other strugglers of the world. It’s allowing myself to feel real emotions: letting myself cry, or laugh until I cry. It’s being thankful for every person who has helped me get to where I am, but especially myself, for never giving up.

Travel battling depression

I’m not naïve enough to think that from now on everything will be easy. Whilst Instagram depicts travellers’ carefree lifestyles of sunsets and waterfalls, sometimes, even with your best intentions, you still have bad days and you aren’t immune to your brain misbehaving while abroad. Occasionally nasty thoughts try to sabotage me, from something as simple as “you’re on the wrong bus” to “this taxi driver is a murderous lunatic”. That’s the nonsensical nature of our minds, and I know mine is a more fragile one at that. So I have to pay attention to how I feel – I have to be honest with myself, constantly assessing whether I am really coping. Sometimes bad things really do happen – I’ve had bags lost, phones stolen, boys treat me horribly and much worse – but that’s when I use all the skills I’ve learnt, like challenging my unhelpful thoughts and tolerating distress through various self-soothing techniques. Travel is character-building: you are thrown into strange situations and have to quickly adapt to new environments.

Despite being thousands of kilometres away from my support system, I never really feel that far, thanks to Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype and email. Travelling hasn’t meant abandoning my mental health. I avoid binging on alcohol or junk food; I take my medication; I keep a journal every day. I keep my brain busy – learning and trying new things, so I keep feeling the thrill of small achievements. I put a lot of effort into choosing the perfect places to stay – I always look at hostel reviews and judge if it will be possible to get a proper sleep, have some time to myself, but equally meet cool people. I’m drawn to pretty surroundings, rooftop terraces and yoga classes.

I’ve come to accept that travel can be exhausting – constantly adventuring, dancing, sightseeing. I’ve learnt not to expect my energy levels to always run at 100%, and I know I need the freedom to nap, to relax, to recharge. I try not to get overly attached to plans, because sometimes they won’t work out, or sometimes my mind changes at the last minute. I tell people when I’m not feeling okay, because that, in itself, is okay. I’ve come to appreciate how most travellers are kind and open-minded. Chances are you’re not alone in how you feel, and people can be grateful for you opening up the conversation about mental health, making space for the truth that often gets ignored, and providing them with an opportunity to share their own feelings.

Travelling overcoming depression

On my travels, I’ve met extraordinary people living even more extraordinary lives. They’ve shown me possibilities for my future and urged me to seek more from everywhere I go. I’ve fallen back in love with living, thanks to falling in love with the world.

About the author
Emily Mulligan is an Australian Masters student currently living in South America and doing an internship. Follow her occasionally neurotic, but mostly optimistic adventures around the world on Instagram @happily.travelling.

We’d love to hear your experiences of travelling and coping with mental health problems, so leave us a comment below. Who knows, it might just help somebody else out there struggling 👇👇❤️

 

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Emma Martell (Hostelworld)

Coffee-obsessed Berlin exile living in London.

24 Responses to “How travel helped me overcome depression and fall back in love with my life”

  1. It’s so refreshing and quite pinnacle at my stage of life to read this. I’m 38, been in counselling for a year now for depression and anxiety, something which whilst only diagnosed officially a year ago, probably started 20 years ago. But in those 20 years I have travelled to 54 countries, done a gap year in Canada, worked on Camp America. at 30 backpacked for 16 months with a stint of living and working in Australia. The times I feel the happiest within myself is when I’m on the road, seeing the world. Coming back from the 16 month trip was my downward spiral, why couldn’t I always be that happy even though I live in the best city in the world that constantly has something new [or old] to be discovered. I’ve always had this plan for my big 4-0 and a “big trip”… again. In the throws of the worst times, it never seems achievable, despite what I have achieved before. Now, I’m back to my old self and ready for action, but worried that travelling is escapism. Now, still 1 year and 8 months away from the big 4-0 and I think why wait? Reading Emily’s story is hugely inspiring, knowing that you’re not alone, and once you’ve reached that point of recovery, why not just pack your bags and allow yourself the freedom and happiness of discovering the world……

  2. I love this and your soul! I also had very bad depression. I have been travelling as a scuba instructor for around8 years and masked my depression with denial, alcohol, drugs and self sabotage and was constantly running from things by my travel rather than to them. For the last 18 months Iv been in a 12 step self help and sobriety program and as a result have done a lot of work on myself and learned who I am, where I stand in this world and where I want to be heading. Iv learned a lot of things are out o my control and if I jut go with the flow of life it is crazy and beautiful and so much better than I could force it to be myself! For the last 2+ months Iv been riding a bicycle solo across Europe with no plans and just revelling in the gifts of the universe and taking things as they come. Is amazing. Thanks for sharing your story ! Xx

    • Oh wow, that sounds like an incredible adventure Kayla. What an inspiration. Congratulations on all the progress you’ve made, and hope you continue to enjoy your trip – if you feel like sharing some pictures be sure to tag us on Instagram!

  3. Yeah, it’s truly wonderful to travel, I 200% agree. I have a deep-many-years depression, anxiety and social fear. I would LOVE to travel around the world, would that tomorrow if only….. I had the money…. That’s the main obstacle as it is for many people. It ‘s a beautiful article but lacking solid practical side of it. Where to get the money to buy all the flight tickets, accommodation, food… As far as I know nothing is for free in this world…

    • Money is definitely an issue for most of us ;( The best advice is to start small – travel doesn’t have to mean taking a flight to the other side of the world, it can simply be a daytrip to some place you’ve never been before. And the same goes for saving up money for your travel fund – start small and it will soon add up. Good luck!

  4. I am 62 and love to travel but suffer from PTSD. i have good days and bad. I usually travel on my own and sometimes get really lonely. . On the odd occasion i have someone with me but not often. I am not an old 62 but like a good nights sleep. What do you reckon about staying in these new idea hostels. I used to stay in them when i was much younger but they certainly weren’t like they are now.

    • David made some great points, I would add that the reviews on our site are from real travellers and are one of the best ways to get a feel for the hostel before you book – they’ll help you gauge whether the hostel is going to be more chilled, or a little on the wild side. You’ll then be able to pick on that’s right for you. Hostels offer amazing facilities nowadays, and they’re still great places to meet other people, especially if you’re travelling alone. Enjoy re-discovering the world of hostelling 🙂

  5. David the Dingo Reply

    Hi Sue not sure if you’re going to reread this.

    You can always get some earplugs to help you sleep better in loud hostels. If you’re a deep sleeper and ok with noise you may not need them. Some hostels have a no alcohol policy which you may prefer. You can try booking a bed in a four person dorm if you’d like less noise to deal with but sometimes it’s not a viable option. Ive met a few retired people who now travel with hostels and love it, some older than seventy. 🙂

  6. I had and still have anxiety about being in enclosed spaces and a travelling enclosed space is even worse. I’d have panic attacks in shops and lecture theatres at University…the thought of going on an aeroplane was impossible. It was something that was just out of the question for me. Then I turned 30 and something inside of me changed. I went on my first flight at 30 and I’m 32 and about to go abroad for the fifth time. I have been to some amazing places and managed a 7 hour flight and I have a long list of all the places I want to see. I still struggle with anxiety but I just force myself through it, mind over matter and the experience of new places and cultures is more than worth it! I told myself I would never sit on a plane, resigning myself to a limited life…now I am literally experiencing a whole new world. Fear is a wasted emotion.

  7. You and what you’ve done for yourself is truly inspirational, and the honesty in this makes it even more relatable and i’m hoping to do travel more by myself, for myself, in the near future 🙂 Thankyou for writing this! I live with depression and am becoming much better in knowing how to help myself – I recently spontaneously went on holiday last week and seeing that there is more to life was beautiful to feel! X

  8. Adventure is so good for the soul! When your soul is well and you’re heart is full, there’s no room left for anxiety

  9. I also had to deal with some of this issues, so I find your article really inspiring and true, bust most of all, brave. There’s still this general belief that mental illness cannot affect anyone. despite social, cultural or economical situation, so I really admire you talking about it so honestly here. Best wishes!

  10. I’ve never thought travelling could overcome depression before.. After reading your article i reall want try to travel far away from my home as my work has been so depressing lately. You really share a great inspiring and motivaing article here.

    Cheers!

    • Danielle Saunders Reply

      Thanks Hendra, so glad the article got you thinking. Sounds like you need a break from work, let us know where you end up on your trip!

  11. I have been in and out of depression since a few years now. Stopped all medication this year convincing myself that I will b fine on my own. Been a roller coaster and last month I was in a very bad shape even getting suicidal thoughts. Luckily I decided to take things in hand, booked a yoga class and also a trip abroad. Was on verge of cancelling the trip today when I read this post. Made me think abt it in a more positive manner.
    Thank you

    • Danielle Saunders Reply

      Lisa, this is such an inspiring comment. So glad we made a difference to you 🙂
      Yoga really helps me too. Where did you go on your trip?

  12. I’ve been surfing on-line more than three hours lately, but I by no means found any fascinating article like yours.
    It’s beautiful worth enough for me. In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you probably did, the net might be a lot more useful than ever before.

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