I don’t write about mental health. It’s not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed by my experiences of it, it’s just that it’s not something I want to write about – I’d much rather share exciting travel stories and wonderful food experiences with you. And although I’ve struggled with quite severe depression in the past, my mental health is, most of the time, not too bad.
So why on earth am I writing about it now? Over the last week my old friend anxiety has slowly been creeping up on me, and today it all got a bit too much. Life isn’t particularly stressful – work maybe a little bit but nothing that I shouldn’t be able to deal with – and I’ve got it pretty good in terms of fabulous friends, a cosy flat which I adore, a great boyfriend and just enough money to get by whilst enjoying my passions (I’m not bragging, I promise).
But seemingly out of nowhere, my anxiety has built up enough that I’ve had to cancel the holiday that I had planned in a couple of weeks time – not great for an aspiring travel blogger! Booking accomodation, researching things to do and just the thought of getting on a plane and arriving somewhere new to me just feels a little overwhelming at the moment.
This has prompted me to share my experiences of mental illness and travel with you, because surely it must be common to feel mentally under-the-weather abroad? Just as you’re more likely to get a stomach bug abroad than at home, I reckon you’re more likely to feel anxious or depressed abroad. So I’m going to share a couple of my experiences of depression, anxiety and (what I’ve self-diagnosed as) depersonalisation abroad and then remind you that it’s completely, 100% ok to feel like that!
My first experience of mental illness was when I was 18. Depression slowly crept up on me during my A-levels, although for several months I had no idea what it was that was making me feel so sad, empty and scared. It wasn’t that long ago, but even then people weren’t talking about it. During the summer break before I started university, I eventually went to the doctors, and (thanks to private health insurance) I was referred to a psychiatrist. It felt a bit overkill to be honest, as I didn’t think I felt bad enough to warrant that kind of treatment!
Between that first doctor’s visit and my referral appointment I went on a family holiday to Sardinia. The first few days were great – the sunshine, family time and great food cheered me up to the extent that I no longer felt that I needed any help. And then all of a sudden I got really, really ill.
The nature of a pool/beach holiday meant that there wasn’t much to distract my depressed brain, and I found myself drowning in anxious thoughts and unprecedented sadness. I remember sitting by the pool thinking about life being a waiting game (for death) but feeling so low that the wait would never be over! I also remember sitting in the restaurant with a plate of all my favourite Italian food infront of me and being completely unable to eat any of it – there were too many people around me, it was too loud and I was too panicked. I went back to the hotel room and spent the rest of the evening in bed.
Luckily, when I got home I was able to get that psychiatrist appointment pretty quickly, and my treatment programme was effective and speedy enough that I made it to university less than a month later.
A year later, I was feeling pretty great as I headed off on a two week holiday to Corsica with my family. The first week was spent in a gorgeous villa that we’d been to before, with a beautiful view, a private pool and a short walk down to the harbour town of Calvi. It was a great week, with no issues whatsoever.
The second week was spent in a villa about an hour down the road as our original accomodation was already booked up. For some reason, the change in scenery triggered another bout of depression. I was somewhere I hadn’t been before, and once again the lack of routine and distractions meant that my mind could wander as it wished. It was nowhere near as bad as the previous year and the depression wasn’t constant (I had plenty of great times too), but there were still plenty of tears and screaming sessions at my parents.
For the last few years, I’ve felt that my mental health is much more stable. I do suffer from anxiety and low mood now and again but, let’s be honest, who doesn’t? So as recent as last year, I was surprised to have a bit of a blip (I stole this phrase from my friend Steph and I think it perfectly sums up a bad patch without creating any fear that I have spiralled into a full on bout of mental illness) during a short break to Poland.
Billy & I went on a last minute (by last minute I mean we booked on a Friday and went the following Wednesday) multi-city break to Gdansk and then Krakow. We spent a very romantic couple of days in Gdansk wandering around in the cold and warming up on mulled wine (if you’ve read my other recent blogs you’ll know this is my favourite activity), before flying to Krakow for two more days of doing the same.
On our last night, during dinner, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t really experiencing what I was experiencing, almost like I was dreaming. This was a new feeling to me and I panicked, which then made me start questioning all of my life decisions. In that moment I was in the wrong job, with the wrong boyfriend, living in the wrong city… you name it! I cried, I felt guilty that I was ruining the last night of our holiday, Billy tried to coax me into a jazz bar, I cried some more and then we went back to the hotel.
What To Do When You’re Feeling Unwell Abroad
You might have booked a holiday but be feeling deflated instead of excited, or you might have arrived at your chosen destination and immediately feel like you want to go home.
Well, firstly, don’t beat yourself up about it. We think that the point of holidays/travel is to feel relaxed, happy and carefree but in reality it makes complete sense that this might instead trigger low mood. Sometimes you feel worse purely because you think you’re supposed to feel great, and then you feel bad about feeling bad. But put it into perspective, holidays often mean:
- Stepping out of your comfort zone – all of a sudden you’re somewhere that you don’t know, away from your trusty sofa and favourite mug.
- Lack of routine – people totally underestimate the importance of a routine for good mental health.
- Lack of distractions – if your holiday revolves around lying by the pool, your mind is going to wander and it doesn’t always go to the best places.
- Lack of personal space – some people travel alone, but it’s likely that you’re travelling with family, friends or a partner. You’re with people 24/7 and that can be overwhelming if you’re used to being able to take yourself away for some much needed alone time.
- Stressful journies – getting to the airport 2 hours before your flight, finding your gate, being on a hot plane, navigating through a foreign city to your hotel… the list goes on!
So really you just need to remind yourself that you’re doing great, and that a lot of other people wouldn’t be coping as well as you are!
Secondly, do what makes you feel better. This sounds so obvious, but often we do what we think we’re supposed to on holiday or what our travel companions want to do. It might be that you’re on a city break and feeling the pressure to constantly sight-see but you’re exhausted. It’s your holiday so if you want to curl up in your hotel room with a book then do that!
On the other hand, if you get bored on beach holidays and need to stimulate your mind and senses then consider a different type of trip. I very rarely have a ‘doing nothing’ holiday and instead opt for visiting places that I can explore for hours. Sometimes I’ll book a city break but then hire a car and spend a couple of days driving out to little villages experiencing as many new things as I possibly can… and I have the BEST time.
Finally, remember that perfect holidays don’t exist. Most of the travel pictures you see on Instagram are heavily edited, and between all those fun-filled shots it’s likely there will have been a severe hangover (every single holiday for me, my own fault for trying to keep up with Billy), an argument with a travel buddy or a bad case of the shits.
So my advice to you is go and have a fabulous trip full of food, drink and new experiences, but don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed or anxious. And just because you have a few bad days at the start of a holiday, it doesn’t mean you can’t turn it around and enjoy the rest of it (something that I really need to learn!).