Traveling won’t cure your depression. After living in three countries and traveling around four continents, I am still depressed. I may always be. There are peaks and valleys with travel just as there are with depression. But despite being inflicted with low energy, mood swings, anxiety, and insomnia, wanderlust exists as a constant throughout my life. And when I travel, my perspective shifts. Distracted by my surroundings, I’m able to let go of any negativity floating around in my mind.
Then again, there are times when I can’t kick it. I’ve spent days in a hostel, too depressed to leave for anything other than food. On my first day in rural France this past year, I was so anxious that I frantically left a restaurant before I even got the meal I had ordered. As I ran back to the rental car blocks away to calm down and take my medication, I was struck by the thought that no matter where I went, I couldn’t leave my mind. Your thoughts travel with you, good or bad.
I’m not going to tell you how to manage depression while abroad, but rather why you shouldn’t let your depression hold you back from traveling. While it isn’t a cure-all, traveling can be a valuable tool for coping with depression. Here are five ways traveling helps me with my depression, and in turn, why having depression actually makes me want to travel.
1. Planning takes my mind off of negative thoughts.
Trip planning is mentally consuming. The act of booking flights, hotels, and activities is refreshing rather than tedious for me. Suddenly, the once far-fetched idea is reality and I’m engaged with research on my destination during my free time instead of unproductive habits such as napping or watching television. Distraction is a popular coping mechanism because it’s effective. But be careful — avoid letting distraction shift to unhealthy avoidance.
2. The anticipation is almost as rewarding as the trip itself.
Counting down the days until a trip fills me with excitement. The eagerness builds as the trip approaches. Once I’ve booked my flight, my elusive positive attitude emerges and sticks around until my departure. Even if the time abroad was lousy, I probably had a solid couple of weeks or months looking forward to it. Trip anticipation can pull me out of almost any depressive slump.
3. I actively push the limits of my comfort zone.
None of the valleys will stop me from traveling because the peaks are worth the emotional discomfort. I would be more depressed if I thought that my mental illness was holding me back from going abroad. The same night I rushed out of that restaurant in France, I shared a bottle of wine with my incredible host family in their charming, traditional townhome. I woke up the next morning and went climbing in an area that I’d been fantasizing about for years. The trip was one of my most memorable. I didn’t let my depression take over, I pushed myself to enjoy every moment.
4. It’s easier to ignore social media.
Back home, scrolling through Instagram’s endless feed for hours or opening Facebook periodically throughout the day sends me into a wormhole of envy. I get caught up in the lives of others while mine passively goes by, fixated on my all-too-convenient smartphone. But when I’m traveling, I almost never invest in international phone coverage. When I step off of the plane in a new country, my phone is no more than a glorified clock. I become present and able to fully embrace my experiences without the constant distraction of a glowing screen.
5. I learn to laugh at the disasters and cherish the good moments.
Before I started my freshman year of college, I traveled to the Irish countryside to volunteer on a farm. The entirety of the time on the farm was so terrible that all I could do was laugh (after I returned home safely, that is). I told the story of this farming nightmare to my senior international studies class a few years back and everyone was simultaneously horrified and engaged in my comedic anecdote. These stories shaped my identity, my interests, and my character.
Of course, all of my experiences have not been unpleasant. There were countless occasions of life-affirming wonderment: swimming with bioluminescent algae under a full moon in Hong Kong, bouldering in Fontainebleau, eating a bowl of hot ramen on top of a snowy mountain in the Japanese Alps, snorkeling in the Red Sea… to name a few. In the end, the good overshadows the bad, always.