How Traveling Can Help Your Mental Health, According To 11 People
Although going on a trip is exciting and invigorating, it can also be challenging — for instance, when it comes to traveling and mental health. Traveling, by definition, messes with your daily routine; if routine helps you manage your mental health, you may need to find other forms of support while traveling. But it can also help you discover new ways to cope.
When I was severely depressed and grieving my best friend’s death, I left L.A. and moved to a small town in Switzerland. Almost three years later, I’m still living abroad. My friend Alex called it “travel therapy” and I agree. The more I got out of my comfort zone and adapted from one new environment to the next, the more I was reminded that my friend’s death was a lesson in living life to the fullest — as cliché as that may sound. While that's my personal experience, experts agree that travel can have major mental health benefits.
“The most common factors that cause anxiety are mental and physical situations resulting from our daily lives,” Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center, an Atlanta, GA, treatment center, tells Bustle. Stress from work, school, finances, or relationships, can all be potential triggers that can bring about anxiety or severe mental distress. “One of the best methods to alleviating anxiety is to break out of a usual routine and remove yourself from these situations and from feeling trapped,” she says.
In comes travel. “It basically shocks the system by taking you out of your comfort zone and away from the daily grind and your usual safety nets,” Berman says. “Introducing yourself to new surroundings can actually help refocus your thoughts, spur creativity, and boost happiness.”
If traveling helped my state of mind, I was curious how others’ experiences were, too. Below, 11 people share the impact traveling has had on their mental health.
1. Victoria, 27
“I suffer from major depressive disorder and also borderline personality disorder. These are two very isolating conditions, but travel allows me to explore and enjoy my own company. Because I travel solo, I am able to learn what it is that brings me happiness without pressure or judgment, and then to pursue that source of happiness without fear or hesitation. I learned that you cannot escape your mental health via travel — it will come with you. But, equally, traveling allowed me to realize that I was not controlled by these disorders — they were simply just another part of my DNA.
If you’re scared to travel due to your mental health, I implore you to take that first step and get a sense of the personal achievement and freedom that it will bring to you. Just put one foot in front of the other, and if you stumble, there will be someone, somewhere, to talk to and help you.”
2. Emma, 33
“I’m a traveler from Ireland who goes by the name Lady Alopecia, which is a website I set up to support men and women experiencing hair loss. I’ve been traveling Southeast Asia since 2016 and have been living and working in Hội An, Vietnam since January 2019. I’m prone to anxiety and used to have quite severe depression. But since quitting my advertising agency job and becoming a freelancer (which allows me to travel), I’ve never been happier! Travel has definitely improved my overall mental health: It’s introduced me to a much bigger world than the internal one I became wrapped up in, helping me find a sense of joy again.
For those with a mental health issue who are thinking of traveling, I’d say do it. But remember to look after yourself, because being on the road constantly as a backpacker — two nights here, two nights there, without eating proper meals or getting enough sleep — could actually take its toll on your mental health, too. If you find yourself worn out and exhausted, you could always join a Workaway opportunity or volunteer somewhere for a few weeks. It’s a great way to meet people and become ingrained in the culture of a place without feeling overwhelmed.”
3. Sydney, 34
“When I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last year, I quit my cushy corporate job and joined a friend’s startup, hoping that if I actually cared about the work I was doing, maybe the stress and toll my career was taking on my mental health would be worth it. Not long after, however, I started having panic attacks almost daily, sometimes twice a day — the kind of panic attacks that would knock me out for the rest of the day. After a few months on the job, I quit — no backup plan or savings to speak of.
My husband and I sold everything we owned and moved into a van. We started an organization called Hiking My Feelings, a nationwide experiential wellness tour. We’ve been traveling in the van full-time for almost a year and hiking all over the U.S., sharing the story of how hiking helped me heal my mind and body. We built a life around traveling and spending time outside for the sake of my mental and physical health, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year, and now my Type 2 diabetes is in remission.
If you’re struggling with your mental wellness, it can be hard to make choices, especially big scary ones that could ultimately improve your life. My advice is to do one small thing today that gets you closer to your travel goals. Take a chance on yourself — you’re worth it.”
4. Brooke, 26
“I’m a yoga teacher who runs Brooke Davidson Yoga. I started practicing yoga eight years ago when it was recommended as a therapy for the intense anxiety and depression I was experiencing. The daily practice of yoga — mindful movement, breathwork, and meditation — has helped me to make huge leaps with my mental health, but another key component of my improvement has been travel. My first day of travel is always rough; anxiety creeps in at the stress of being in a new situation, and I find myself thinking of all the worst-case scenarios. But by the next morning, I am able to really enjoy the trip. Being in new places, around new people, and engaging in new routines helps me to realize my own abilities.
I also find that travel helps with my interpersonal relationships, as it gives me and my partner a break from our normal stresses and a chance to engage in a new way of life together. It can be intimidating to travel with a mental health issue, but it can also be incredibly powerful. Let yourself be uncomfortable or to feel scared or worried or overwhelmed. And then let yourself take a deep breath and adjust to the new situation. You might be surprised at how capable and powerful you really are.”
5. Elizabeth, 27
“I travel and live abroad about 70% of the year and battle mental health issues overall, and travel has made that particularly challenging. I definitely go through waves of depression. I started traveling when I was younger because I had an eagerness about the world, and to also see if it would help me overcome some of the deep sadness I was feeling. It was a battle to get to this point now, which is the best I’ve ever been, and I can attribute a lot of that to traveling.
Traveling opened my eyes to the rest of the world, how beautiful and magical it can be, and to realize that being alive is a gift. Be open to meeting other people, even if it is uncomfortable and daunting to get out of bed in the morning. When you push yourself out of your comfort zone, especially while out of the country, it can help you step out of your current mindset.”
6. Amber, 48
“Before I started traveling, I suffered from a high level of stress related to my job as a director of accounting at a dynamic private equity firm. The volume of work was too much — I was working 60-80 hours a week, and subsequently, was full of anxiety and stress. I couldn’t sleep, and I was taking medications to combat insomnia and stress.
I decided I couldn’t continue like that anymore. So I sold my house and everything I owned to travel full-time in an RV and ultimately quit my job and start my own business, Story Chasing. Being in nature, traveling to places I only dreamed about, and meeting incredible people on the road has relaxed me and completely gotten rid of my stress and anxiety. I discovered this entire world out there that isn’t about conference calls, meetings, and stressful situations, and I feel like I’m truly living my life now. I realize more than ever that fear can keep people from traveling and paralyze them into not giving it a chance — but look at this challenge as an opportunity for growth and pushing through those fears.”
7. Anna, 23
“I’m a travel blogger at AdventuresWithAnna.net and author who’s also been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. My mental health can make traveling difficult, but it gave me a choice: I could either learn to control my anxiety or it would control me. Because traveling is unpredictable and impossible to control, I knew it had the power to teach me an abundance about myself. Instead of helping you avoid or escape your mental health, traveling helps you learn how to manage it. And there’s nothing more valuable than knowing how to truly love and take care of yourself.
If you’re struggling with your mental health and want to travel, learn your triggers, your limits, and the anxiety management techniques that work for you. Most importantly, travel slowly and view the inconveniences and mishaps as learning opportunities. Because travel is rarely perfect, you’re almost guaranteed to have a chance to put your anxiety management techniques to the test. After a few learning opportunities, you’ll have a good idea of what works for you and what doesn’t, and that carries over to your everyday life. It’s life-changing.”
8. Virginia, 64
“I’ve written a book about mental illness, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith: Lessons of Hope Through a Child’s Mental Illness, and manage my depression with medication and various self-care techniques. The process of planning for travel excites me, as I look forward to spending time in a new environment with different people to explore new places or cultures. I try to stay mindful to keep my schedule close to my regular one and make sure I get plenty of rest — exhaustion can trigger symptoms. If downtime is needed to stay feeling at the top of my game, I make sure to allow time for it.
I also strive to take my medications at the same time each day and take extra medication in case of travel delays — consistency is important and even missing a single dose could cause an adverse reaction. I’ve learned I get homesick for my comfort space called home, so I keep my trips within the boundaries I set for myself. This helps me anticipate a vacation and return home refreshed. Also, I travel with a trusted family member or friend who understands me — it makes me feel secure.”
9. Anonymous, Early 20s
“I’m a musician who tours around the world, so I travel a lot and think about my mental health associated with it. I’m prone to anxiety and depression, but traveling improves my mental health because it gives me the chance to just reset and do any unfinished work. For instance, email correspondence is meditation/me time that I can’t fit in during my many appointments, meetings, rehearsals, and performances. Traveling allows me to evaluate my progress and evaluate what I need to do to become better in my job.
Traveling is a form of adventure, and in any adventure, there are many unknowns — but that’s part of the fun because you will never know what good can happen. It’s also an opportunity to get away from your current scenery so you’re able to see many other different things that you would not get to see otherwise. Just get out of the house — even if that’s your only form of travel — because it will change how you encounter everyday experiences, especially outside of your usual routine.”
10. Sara, 35
“I run the site Live Free Warrior and I’ve struggled with mental health issues in the past, mainly anxiety, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors. Today, I’ve learned many tools that help to counter and balance those disorders, taking on healthier lifestyle habits — that can begin at home or on the road. Sometimes, we’re inspired to be healthier from an experience we have while traveling, a new food we try, a fresh fitness class we take, or just meeting other people in the world that allow us to be our true selves and realize ‘we’re not alone.’
If you’re also someone who struggles with mental health issues, then I would absolutely recommend travel as part of a therapy towards healing. New surroundings and environments with travel push us outside our comfort zones and current habits — that’s exactly what can be the cue to create healthier ones.”
11. Mita, An Xennial
“There are so many positive things to say about traveling for mental health, especially when it’s solo. I look at mental health the same way I look at my physical health — something that should have ongoing, healthy support, and a work-in-progress for the better. A few years ago, I lost both of my parents to cancer and I was met with profound levels of grief. I was functioning and able to work, but also processing a lot of emotions and the new reality of life without my parents at a relatively young age. The grief was actually the acute catalyst of why I started to travel full-time as a digital nomad, to heal and find myself again.
I ended up on a two-year trip to more than a dozen places, such as Mexico, Malta, and Vietnam. Being able to put myself in new physical surroundings and completely immerse myself into new cultures was a fast way to switch my mental attention to other things and to give my emotions time to heal. Overall, travel left me feeling refreshed and added balance and joy to my life. It also left me with amazing ideas of how to relaunch my startup, Adventurely — which helps solo travelers find friends, community, and adventure worldwide — which ended up getting an investor when I presented newfound ideas to them from my travels. Even if it’s a half-hour trip outside of where you live, I highly recommend travel as a great way to support your mental wellness.”
While travel has the potential to boost people's mental health, Denver, CO-based psychotherapist Brittany Bouffard tells Bustle it's important to do so with as much support as you can. “Whether traveling solo or with others, be sure to let your supports know what you would most like from them should you need to talk,” she says. Plus, know how you’ll communicate if you need to — through Skype, WhatsApp, or what have you.
Bouffard also suggests keeping your top coping skills handy. “Write them out so have a visual list in times of upset, and come up with plans for if you are alone and sad or in a big city feeling anxious,” she says. “Also, bring along a journal, books that are fitting for possible emotional states, things to draw or color, and any items that help you feel grounded and safe.” Finally, she says not to forget any medications you may need. “Be sure you have the correct amount, just as you would any medical medications,” she says. “For many psychotropic medications, missing a day can bring distress, so be sure you have the correct amount for your trip.”
With a little preparation, traveling when you live with mental illness can be a huge boost.
Brittany Bouffard, LCSW, psychologist