The world is changing, and conversations around both travel and mental health are changing with it. In the West, openness about depression and anxiety is ever-increasing for women and men – right now, 3.4% of the world’s population have been diagnosed with depression, but that number is likely to rise as more and more of us are willing to discuss our mental health. By that same token, travel is becoming a way of life for many people, with 4.8 million Americans identifying as digital nomads in 2018. All this being said, how does travel impact our mental health? Does taking yearly vacations help alleviate stress? Is being constantly on the road good or bad for our mental strain? While we may not have the answers, we do have a few stories that may shed some light on the blending of travel and mental health issues.
What you’re about to read is personal – we don’t do many of these. Books and Bao isn’t about us; it’s about books and authors, travel and culture. But if you are interested in us or want to know how travel and living far from home can affect your mental health – both positively and negatively – then read on.
My Pre-Travel Life
When graduation day started to loom overhead like the moon from Majora’s Mask, threatening to destroy this happy student life I had carved out over three good years, I realised that a degree in theatre would do me little good, and I also didn’t want to go get a nondescript office job. I wanted a career that would be exciting and also something I could be proud of. And so, after graduation, I became a high school English teacher. I spent a year training and having a hell of a lot of fun doing so. Soon enough I graduated, got a proper job, and moved to Surrey.
Depression sank in within months. The pressures of the job, the spitefulness of the kids, my own immaturity and lack of preparedness. Being away from my university friends, my family, living in a county nobody else I knew was even close to. All of these things contributed to the onset of crushing sadness and loneliness, bouts of crying and screaming. I developed insomnia and I would often hit myself as I grew frustrated with the planning, the marking papers, the discipline. I lost my temper daily. I would wake up at 6:30am and immediately start to cry. My morning bouts of tears became a daily occurrence. I suffered through this for two years, and then I met Jess.
I had recently decided to quit and look for another job at a school closer to my hometown, believing that’s what I needed at the time. At an interview in a small English village, I met Jess as a fellow interviewee. Neither of us got the job, but we got each other. She confessed she had applied for a job in Abu Dhabi, and that I could apply as well – the school needed teachers. Six months after meeting, we moved abroad.
Now, did moving abroad cure my depression? Or did finding love? I don’t know. What I do know is that I was no longer depressed or anxious. I was excited, confused, on an adrenaline high for weeks. We ended up leaving Abu Dhabi after six months, simply through a lack of a love for the culture and the school we worked at. The UAE is bloody hot, it turns out. Next move: to Shanghai. This time, as EFL teachers. A less stressful, easier, simplified job that pays just as well.
It was in Shanghai that the complexities of not only my own mental health, but Jess’ as well, became clearer. Shanghai can be a stressful place to live. If you compare it to the relatively polite England I’d spent my life in, people in China can be far louder, more abrupt, and ruder. There’s animal cruelty everywhere, and people are constantly spitting. I’m not saying this to be mean to China – I love China – I’m merely pointing out the culture shock I suffered and how it affected my mind. I began suffering severe bouts of anger and anxiety, and this caused my mind to close off the world around me. I ignored Jess a lot of the time, to the point that we were living two different but parallel lives. Her own depression and anxiety worsened as a result. It was a hostile life we were living for much of that year.
So here I had first-hand evidence of living abroad, away from home, nestled deep inside a culture far different from the one in which I was raised, and having my mental health deteriorate. This is the first bit of real advice I can give: despite what you learn and gain from another culture, culture shock can negatively affect your anxiety. A busy place with too many people, full of pollution and things you don’t enjoy seeing or feel comfortable around, can cause your mental health to deteriorate.
After a year in Shanghai, we broke up. For a little while. The state of our collective mental health was too much, and our relationship fractured. I moved to Tokyo for a few months and Jess moved to Bristol, UK. During my time there, we reconciled, and I flew home to be with her. We got a new home, new jobs (in high schools), and settled back home before becoming restless again within months.
Looking back at our time in Bristol, we were both happy. We were healthy, happy people. We cooked dinner at home, exercised regularly, got better jobs, and furnished a gorgeous little house full of bookcases and strange antiques. We risked all of that to go chasing the travel bug once again. This was a risky move, without a doubt. And to this day I miss that house. I miss Bristol. But making that blind leap led us here, to this life.
We moved to Seoul. We lived there for a year and worked for the worst company I’ve ever seen. The job brought back my anxiety in a big way. It became a real problem. But something was different this time. Our relationship was different. Jess and I were in Relationship 2.0, and we were stronger this time around. We leaned on each other for support. We took trips together and stayed closer to each other, rather than drift apart. We started this blog as a hobby, in order to feel like we were building something together, shared our love of literature and travel. We’re not interested in marriage or kids, but we wanted to make something together. To share a hobby and a passion. That’s what kept us together and kept my anxiety at bay.
From Korea we moved to Japan – together this time. Then we left teaching behind and began a life as digital nomads, freelance writing and working on our blog. My anxiety is still there, and travel stresses make it flare up. But living with anxiety and seeing what triggers it has led me to the belief that it’s caused by a lack of control. I can’t control kids very well, so they make me anxious. If I don’t know where life is going, I get anxious. What reduces my mental health issues is Jess and this thing we’ve built together. Controlling my life, making decisions to better it, building something I can be proud of and being in control of that – these are the things that aid my mental health.
What to Take Away
Travelling is stressful. Being a digital nomad is stressful. But the two things that alleviate that stress are being in control and being a partnership. Jess and I work together as partners in every sense of the word. Learning to lean on her a little has helped immensely. Being open and discussing our plans, our future, and choices – these things have helped. Travel becomes less scary if you do it with someone. And anxiety gets chased away by self-assuredness and feelings of security and understanding.
I still get anxious. So does Jess. We both have our down days; our sad days. But being in full control over my life is the thing that has helped me. Not working for a corporation or a school or a government you don’t approve of. Carving my name into something – forging a new path, a new career, a new life. Those are the things that have helped rebuild my mind.
If you take away one thing from reading this, it should be this: take control of your life, in whatever manner that entails. Don’t be at someone else’s whim. When we lived in Bristol, our friends would stress us out with constant nudges to go out and drink when Jess didn’t want to. It wore her down. When we worked in Korea, the corporate corruption wore us both down. So take control. Say no to the things you don’t want to do. Try your best to choose things for yourself – things that are good and healthy for you. Your best life comes from your own decisions and the things you build because of them.
Have a look at these Seven Books About Mental Health That May Help and these Five Proactive Ways to Give Your Mental Health a Boost before you go.