Traveling is an unquestionably mind-blowing and positively life-changing thing to do.
Head out into the world and you’ll bear witness to wondrous people and places; bask in new and exciting cultures and climates; revel in novel and endlessly stimulating experiences.
You will tick items off your bucket list and fill your boots with magnificent memories.
Travelling will teach, inspire, develop and ultimately change you in amazing ways.
Yet, though it’s tempting to focus exclusively on these remarkable qualities of travel, we shouldn’t forget the challenges involved.
In truth, for all of the unconscionable positives, travel really isn’t that easy!
In reality, on many levels (physical, practical, emotional, spiritual) it can be hugely demanding.
The Managing Mental Wellbeing Challenge
Managing mental well-being is one of the many key challenges a traveller must overcome.
Especially for a solo traveler alone on the other side of the world, far away from friends and family, there are countless ways that travelling can impact upon your mental health.
This subject is close to my heart!
Since graduating in 2014 with a degree in Psychology, I’ve been juggling my passion for travel with a desire to help people who struggle with their mental health.
Although, I’m currently taking some time out to focus on Coddiwomp, my travel blog, I’ve been working in the field of mental health for the last few years, taking frequent trips abroad between roles!
And, though I’m not a clinician, I have worked in numerous mental hospitals and community settings, predominantly in support of individuals with severe and enduring mental health issues, and always with the intention of making a difference in this field.
At times, stress, uncertainty, fear, loneliness, homesickness and nostalgia are all companions for the solo traveller and each can be hugely damaging without the appropriate resources to contend with them.
So, what can we do? What techniques or approaches can we take as solo travellers to navigate these challenges? How do we effectively look after ourselves mentally while travelling?
Drawing on what I’ve learned over the last few years, I’d like to give some suggestions for what might help.
Two important considerations when managing mental wellbeing
But before I do I’ll say two things:
1. We’re all different.
Though I can give some ideas about what could help, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will for everyone.
Instead, when it comes to managing your individual mental well-being it’s necessary to find what works for you.
A good starting point is always to know yourself: when you learn something that helps, make a mental note. Or, even better, write it down!
This way you have a physical record to refer back to. Remember, it’s far harder to think rationally in hard times – sometimes we need a reminder of what helps!
2. Sometimes, whatever you do won’t make a spot of difference
And, though frustrating, it’s absolutely normal. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to ‘feel better’.
Often, the first and most important step is simply to acknowledge and accept the way we feel.
All too often we attach a big pile of negative self-judgment (e.g. “I really miss home today but I’m in such an amazing place that it’s ridiculous. I’m so stupid”).
Isn’t it enough just to feel bad without that additional negative self-talk (e.g. “I really miss home today, but I guess that’s normal – after all, I am a long way from family”)?
Notice the difference?
When we simply notice what’s happening and allow it, adding in some self-compassion for good measure, we automatically feel a little bit better!
So, figure out what works for you and move forwards from a point of acceptance.
Next, if it feels necessary, the following techniques might help to manage and overcome any mental challenges you face on your trip.
5 ways to manage mental wellbeing as a solo traveler
To give these managing wellbeing tips some added credibility, I’ve based them around 5 categories
These ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ were drawn from a huge piece of recent UK government research, where each was found to significantly contribute to improving wellbeing.
In no particular order, here we go:
1. Connect (engage with others somehow)
- Contact friends and family back home. Call or Skype them, write a letter; send a message or an email, anything. If you’re feeling low, sometimes reaching out to loved ones, hearing familiar voices or seeing familiar faces will be enough to brighten up your day.
- Try to reach out and/or speak to the people around you. Say hello to fellow travellers in your hostel, ask a stranger for directions and strike up a conversation, go to a cafe or bar with someone. Whatever it takes, sometimes being with a friendly stranger can make all the difference.
- Try text based therapy. If you’re struggling, these days there are numerous options to interact with a therapist online or via your phone. This is probably something to look into before you go away, but could be a possibility if you think you’ll need professional support while you’re travelling. I’ve seen one called Talkspace recommended by Mishvoinmotion’s blog – click the link for a review.
- You could also try different or more subtle forms of connection. For instance, if you’re less of a people person, you could find an animal to play with or cuddle, or go to the local zoo. Remember: whatever works for you.
2. Be active (some form of exercise or physical activity)
- Go for a walk around town. Go for a run around the neighbourhood. Rent a bike to explore the countryside. Get those legs moving! Exercise will release endorphins which naturally feels great and getting out into the fresh air can be an effective and enlivening distraction from low mood. It’s also a great way of exploring a new place!
- Find a local gym. Sometimes gyms run promotions where you can try it out (under the pretence you’ll join afterwards) for a limited time. Or, just go down, explain you’re in town for a few days and ask if you can pay for a single session.
- Try doing some yoga, pilates or Tai-chi. Stretching and breathing are two great ways of ‘grounding’ yourself. This just means to connect to the ‘here and now’ as a means of reducing emotional distress (see more in ‘take notice’).
- Find something physical to match your level of mobility and energy levels. You could try combining this with ‘connect’ and do some exercise with someone else too, or try a team sport.
- You could also interpret this more generally as ‘take action’. Sometimes, simply the act of doing something- anything- can help in difficult times. The greatest antidote for fear and uncertainty is action.
3. Take notice (be curious, aware, present with your surroundings)
- Tune in: If you’re really struggling, being present with what’s going on may be the last thing on your mind- when escape and distraction feel like the priority. Again, find what works for you but know that trying to be present with whatever’s there can be a powerful tool in understanding how to best move forwards. Sometimes defining the issue is the only way of feeling better.
- Write stuff down. Find a piece of paper and pencil and jot down what’s on your mind. Journaling is a popular way of managing mood and reducing distress. A common practice is to spend 5 minutes at the start of every day in a sort of ‘brain purge’, where you just go for it. No thinking, just mindless writing for five minutes. Get whatever’s there onto the page without holding back. It’s cathartic!
- Meditation: This has a bit of a bad rep with some people and it’s not for everyone. But, it can be a powerful way of connecting to the here-and-now. Not in a woo-hoo, new-agey way, but in a clinically proven, scientific one. Mindful meditation is proven to reduce stress and anxiety and support all manner of other mental difficulties.
Mindful Meditation Tips
Often, our issues are so focused in the past or the future that we don’t have time for the present.
Close your eyes and focus on a physical sensation like your breathing.
Don’t judge yourself critically and don’t try not to think. It’s okay to have a busy mind – simply observe what’s there.
Mindfulness is about gentle, caring and nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment – there is no right or wrong way of doing it! Try five minutes at first and build up if you wish.
- Pay attention to what’s going on around you. Actually listen to what you’re hearing; observe what you’re seeing; feel the sensations on your skin. By being present in such a way we can distract ourselves from our anxiety (routed in the past) and worry (routed in the future). This process is also based on mindfulness practice (as described above).
- Take some time out. As much as connecting can help, so can being by yourself. It’s important to take a bit of time to be alone, to get some space. It definitely is for me!
4. Keep Learning
- Read a book. If you don’t have one with you, try finding a library in town (think of the free Wifi too!). Or, hostels often have book exchanges- I’m sure they won’t mind you taking one off the shelf for the afternoon. Reading is my favourite form of distraction when I’m struggling in some way.
- Tag along on a free walking tour. This would combine getting active, connecting and learning, so could be a good bet. Most major cities do walking tours where only an optional tip at the end is expected.
- Visit Museums! A traveller’s best friend, especially when they’re free. This is also a good option if the weather isn’t great. There’s a large correlation between bad weather and low mood, so finding something to do at such times can be helpful!
- Start a conversation with someone in the hostel and find out as much as you can about them. Another way of connecting with people too.
- Learn about phone applications you can use to support your mental wellbeing. There’s a large range out there these days, including personal favourites such as Headspace (meditation based) and Calm. Simply Google ‘mental health phone applications’ or something similar- there are tonnes of free options.
- Do an online course. In your spare time and when you have wifi, challenge yourself by taking a free educational course. Learning can be an effective form of distraction, as well as bolstering your self-confidence and sense of purpose!
5. Give (do something for others)
- Stock up on the love hormone. Sometimes we forget how good it feels to do something nice for someone else! In fact, scientifically, we actually get a hit of Oxytocin in our brain. Known as the ‘love hormone’, Oxytocin is related to sensations of bonding and togetherness. Supposedly, we only have to see someone else do a good deed to get a hit. Do good, feel good.
- Give food to a homeless person, volunteer in a local school, help out in the local community, buy a coffee for someone, cook someone else a meal, give a stranger a hug, offer to carry someone’s backpack for them etc etc! Whatever scenario you find yourself in, giving something back might help you feel better too.
This is far from an exhaustive list of suggestions to manage your mental wellbeing!
But, if you’re a solo traveller struggling on the road, I hope at least one of them will come in handy.
Remember, it’s entirely natural to have difficult times when you’re travelling.
At such a time, stop, don’t be so hard on yourself, speak kindly to yourself as you would a friend, and know that you will get through this, whatever it is. Often, when all else fails, and as intense as that experience might feel, we just have to ride the wave out. With time, it will pass.
Look after yourselves everyone and please comment below if you think I’ve missed anything out!
I’d love to get your thoughts on techniques you’ve found helpful when travel times have been tough.