Solo travel can be difficult whether it’s working out how to use a squat toilet complete with a full backpack or wandering into the dodgy side of town because your map was upside down.
Your mental health and travel
Coping with stress, loneliness, anxiety or mental health problems can be extremely challenging however you shouldn’t let this stop you from heading out into the world.
I have gathered together some stories from fellow bloggers who want to share some of their ideas with you and which will show you that staying mentally healthy while travelling needn’t be too complicated or difficult.
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Overcoming negative thinking
One of the main worries that many travellers have before they even book a flight is how to cope with loneliness, fit in with other travellers and make friends. These fears are magnified and can get blown out of all proportion when you have no concept of what the travelling world is like, if you are naturally quiet or introverted or if you have problems with anxiety.
If you want some support with your self-belief and you want to know how you can deal with negative thoughts prior to booking your trip, please contact me. I am a Mindfulness Practitioner and a Life Coach that specializes in self esteem and guiding people through problems. I have also written a book and there are more in the pipeline… Click on this link to contact me for more information
To combat loneliness, Taylor of The Things My Eyes Have Seen approaches travel in a very similar way to myself (although I use Workaway to find my work exchanges). Taylor writes:
I’ve spent years travelling the world alone. Every time I set off on an adventure, I find myself with feelings of excitement and nerves. I never anticipate experiencing loneliness, but it is something I have felt in countless countries around the world.
My favourite way to solo-travel and avoid loneliness is to participate in work exchanges; working for room and board (such as HelpX or WWOOF.) It is a good way to give yourself a sense of purpose, make friends, and feel a part of the community you are in.
When I found myself lonely in Greece, I was desperate to relieve myself from it. I asked my host family to join them on outings; picking up the kids from school, going to sports practices, and accompanying them on errands. I also decided to focus on learning new skills.
This is something I now do on every trip, choosing a skill or a healthy habit that I want to work on. I have; learned the basics of local languages, journaled, practiced yoga, or read. When I was living in Ireland, I began to meditate or went on walks along the coast when I felt alone.
Loneliness usually visits when I have downtime or feel ‘forgotten’ by my friends and family. I’ve learned to nurture the relationships that really mean a lot to me and to not be afraid to reach out to people first. Remind people you care for them, then find something to do with your free time.
Don’t let the fear of loneliness stop you from creating the experiences you desire. Follow what calls to you, even if it means going alone. Loneliness will happen, get yourself a cup of tea, grab your camera, go for a walk, or find people you enjoy spending time with.
Ayngelina from Bacon is Magic understands that it’s important not to ignore the feelings of loneliness when they strike and she makes a conscious effort to recognise and deal with them in a proactive way. This is her advice:
Travelling long-term can be difficult, especially travelling solo. Loneliness is just one of the realities of travelling on your own. It comes and it goes.
Travelling solo doesn’t always mean you’re alone, it’s much easier to make friends. And I always reach out when I see another solo traveller, I’ve made life friendships this way. But at times, I’m on my own. Sometimes it’s for days and other times it’s for weeks. Some days I may only speak to waiters at a restaurant or museum attendants. It can be really tough at times.
In the past I would just push through it and not pay attention to the growing sense of loneliness. And then all of a sudden I would have a meltdown over something silly. But it was because I wasn’t listening to my own feelings. I didn’t want to acknowledge that it was tough going through the day without any meaningful interaction with people.
That changed when I started meditating. I try to make an effort to do it each morning as it helps ground me. If I’m starting to feel lonely or sad I recognize it sooner rather than just having a breakdown like I would before. I love the Calm app as there are thematic meditations and always a new recommendation each day.
That’s great in many places. But I have the additional challenge that I’ve been based out of Havana, Cuba for the last year. Not only am I less connected to the world because wifi in Cuba is not available everywhere but I’m in a different culture speaking a language that isn’t native to me. I need the app the most and luckily you can download meditations to your phone, so whether I’m in Havana or on a plane it’s always available.
My friend Alice from Teacake Travels draws upon her experience as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist to cope when problems with low self esteem threaten to overwhelm her. Alice says:
I have always been sociable, yet social anxiety definitely got the better of me in the past. I used to be worried about what people thought of me and always tried to please others. I feared about accidentally making other people ‘unhappy’ – and therefore sometimes sacrificed my own wants and needs for others.
Going travelling allowed me to completely put myself to the test. It gave be many chances to meet people from so many cultures and put my needs first for once. The experiences have been exhilarating and life changing.
My first experiences as a solo traveller certainly did put my social anxiety issues to the test. I wanted to challenge myself and travelling solo is certainly one way to do it.
I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand and booked myself into a hostel. Pretty straight forward, right? Until my mind started playing its usual tricks. I started to worry about if I had anything interesting to say. ‘Will they like me?’ I thought. ‘What will they think of me?’
I used to be a cognitive behavioural therapist and helped many people with their anxieties and low self-esteem. This was the time to put into practice the very strategies I’d given countless times to my clients.
I reminded myself to be kind to myself. To relax. Breathe. And when that pesky voice of self-doubt rears its ugly head, I encourage you to ask yourself: ‘Is this factually true? Do I have evidence to the contrary?’ Part of my solo female travel journey has taught me to love myself and not worry so much about what others think of me anymore.
I know what I want, what I can do, and what my best (and not so best) qualities are and I’m very happy with that.
If you’re struggling with low self-esteem and anxiety, I recommend learning some strategies to manage your mood and feel much better.
I can certainly relate to the above from Alice because the challenges raised with solo travel from the basis of my self help course and set me along my own journey to become a life coach and mentor to people with low esteem. Becoming Stronger through Mindfulness
Caring for your mental health while travelling
Ben from Horizon Unknown tells how he immersed himself in temple life in Japan which ‘reset’ him and taught him so much more.
Staying healthy while travelling can mean a variety of different things for each traveller, but unwinding and relaxing is a great way to stay mentally healthy while on the road.
One of my favourite experiences is Taiyoji Temple. Staying overnight at this beautiful and peaceful Buddhist Temple helps disconnect and relax. Not only does becoming closer to nature hit a sort of reset switch, learning about Buddhism and the lessons it teaches helped to create a healthier traveller as well.
Asami is the sole monk living at Tayoji Temple, 2 hours outside of Tokyo. This secluded and quiet temple nestled within mountains is a big contrast to the bustling city just a couple of hours away by train.
Asami teaches guests how to meditate and the principles of Buddism. These teachings helped me forge a positive outlook not only on my travels throughout Japan but in life in general. Asami told me to spend time and learn from nature. To Asami, nature is an amazing teacher with lessons to teach us all.
Taiyoji Temple is a great way to experience traditional Buddishm fundamentals and learn from the kind and gentle monk, Asami.
While learning about Buddhism helps many people, Darja from DeeGees Travel found mental strength through yoga. Here is her story:
Half a year ago I quit my job, my job which had become everything in my life. Since I had identified myself with the successes and failures of my career, I was left with nothing once this part of my life was gone. There was suddenly so much growing emptiness and loneliness inside. What if I am no longer wanted, needed, loved? It was terrifying.
To reset myself and do something better with my life, my partner and I decided to go travelling for half a year. Besides seeing the world, one of the main goals of this journey was to get physically and mentally fit again, to reconnect with myself. Having attended some yoga classes previously, I decided it was through yoga that I would try to accomplish this mission.
I did an intense week of yoga (2-4 lessons daily) in Ubud, Bali attending all sorts of classes from slow morning awakening flows through power yoga, breathing exercises and some more esoteric sessions. I have also learned how to set my own home practice. This was a fantastic foundation for everything which followed.
Ever since, wherever I go I look for yoga studios and join classes. In the beginning it was only once every couple of weeks. Although I loved yoga and felt an immense boost of energy and positivity, I was struggling making it a habit. I was embarrassed to do my own practice fearing someone would see me and laugh at me. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone, be persistent and the results started to show. I feel much more in harmony with myself, I respect and accept myself for who I am. I am happy and am attributing a lot of this to my regular yoga practice.
In contrast to connecting with others it’s also important not to underestimate the importance of giving yourself peace, space and solitude. Too often we feel that we need to conform and act as many other travellers are, whether that is taking perfect Instagram pictures, being the life and soul of the party and we worry about how we appear to others.
Martha from the Quirky Globetrotter has her own solution to this problem of comparing ourselves to others on social media and FOMO (fear of missing out). She tells us about Unplugging while you travel in her contribution here:
Sometimes the hardest thing to do while on vacation is to put down our screens — our phones, cameras, iPads, GoPros. We’ve become so accustomed to examining the world through a lens. Ironically, these gadgets are prohibiting what travel is meant to do — broaden our horizons. And, news flash, they’re also damaging our mental health.
Every day we are bombarded with what our vacations should like. Beautiful, perfect women with no belly rolls, lounge with a coconut drink in a tropical oasis. They laugh effortlessly as the beach breeze tousles their hair. Then there’s me, a chubby, feisty woman who cannot perfect a selfie for the life of me.
This exact scenario happened to me in Belize. I should’ve been enjoying myself immensely in my own personal tropical paradise, but the unrealistic expectations that social media creates crept in. I obsessed over getting that perfect Instagram photo instead of enjoying the Belizean history and culture that surrounded me. It was toxic. I felt less than and that I wasn’t experiencing Belize properly. That I was a failure.
So, I did myself a favour. The next day, I stowed all my electronics. I sat unplugged and listened to the cries of the Howler Monkeys. The next morning, I watched the sun peek over the jungle canopy. I even dared to leave my phone behind as I snorkelled in the Caribbean Sea.
Over the next couple of days, I took a few moments to truly absorb what surrounded me. Sometimes, I sat with my journal and reflected. Other times, I sat in complete silence and admired the beauty. I began to constantly marvel at how lucky I was to be there.
Now, there’s no self-criticism or shame for not taking Instagram-perfect photos. It’s just me and my perfectly, untarnished travel memories.
In contrast, Rebecca from Innate Moves uses technology to help her connect whilst she is travelling. This is Rebecca’s take on things:
I left my home country almost two years ago to travel. Although it’s thrilling and amazing, travelling can also be a bit lonely and isolating if you let it be. The main issue that I have is the language barrier. I find it extremely difficult to really connect to an area and its people when I don’t understand their language. Travelling as a tourist is one thing, but when spending any amount of time somewhere I begin to really need some sense of connection!
What I have found to help a lot is the internet! So many areas have Facebook groups or websites written by expats that live in the area. These are gold nuggets to really delving into whatever new surroundings you are facing. Without some of the online groups I’ve used, I would feel very different about my travels! I use the Internet when finding accommodations in new areas, when looking for local events and activities, and to seek social groups. I also use it a lot to learn the basics of a new language and interpret others.
The easiest way to use the internet to your advantage while travelling is to search for the area you are in. That may bring up some good sites written in your own language. Generally the site owner lives in the area and is open to being contacted. The second way is to search Facebook for an area. Groups are the best in my opinion. That way you can actually ask people that live, or are familiar with, the area. I’ve made so many friends this way – locals and expats. It’s helped the isolated feelings that can creep in when you’re in unfamiliar territory. Luckily I’ve found others are online for the same reasons and are also thankful to find friends in a new area!
Keep emotionally fit while travelling.
Danni from Live in 10 Countries created the perfect balance when she was in Iceland, by spending time out in nature and interacting with local people. You can find out how she coped below:
A few years ago, without properly planning much or even packing too well, I moved to Iceland and took up a work for accommodation role. Basically, a lot went wrong! To backtrack, I found the position almost a year before I went and kept in touch with my employer, who was a police officer looking for someone to mind her child part time. Then, a few days before my flight, she emailed to say that instead of going to Reykjavik, she and the job were moving to an isolated village on the east coast where most people wouldn’t speak English. It would be many hours from any big cities and wouldn’t have road access. Gulp.
I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, but it was definitely a lonely time in my travels. I had to work hard to stay positive and upbeat, and to make sure I didn’t end up isolated. I tried the internet first and used Couchsurfing; inviting travellers to come and surf with me for a few days, so that we could bond and share stories. I printed out an ad for free English conversation classes and put it in the local supermarket – again mainly just to make friends. Walks in the countryside through the town became a daily thing, and they really boosted my mood. Free relaxing meditation on Youtube was a great way to relax afterwards and get set up for the day.
The way I stay mentally healthy when I travel is the same as when I am home – I get outside as often as possible. My favourite things to do in the world are hike, cross-country ski, kayak, and stand up paddleboard and I take those activities with me wherever I go.
Our family spent a year travelling around Europe and I made sure I took a walk or did something else outside almost every day. I discovered that even when we stayed in cities I could find a botanic garden or a park. I’ve strolled through botanic gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Stockholm, Sweden; and Paris, France; to name a few.
The great thing about exploring outside, in addition to the mental health benefit, is that it is an interesting way to get to know the place you are visiting. The Kew Botanic Garden in Edinburgh is different to the Botanički vrt in Zagreb; just as the cities are different.
There are plenty of scientific studies showing that exercise and being around plants is good for your brain, but I also rely on my own experience. Every time I go outside, I feel better.
Dealing with overwhelm while travelling
Sensory overload can be a problem while travelling in a strange environment to that which you are used to.
Priyanko of Constant Traveller tells us about his experiences in the craziness of Hanoi and how he recognised and subsequently conquered the sensory overload in this article:
As an Indian, like many of my friends I was indoctrinated with the idea of pursuing a stable job and not look at travelling as anything other than an expensive hobby. It took me a few years to overcome this one block before I decided to travel solo outside my country for the first time. But that was only the start.
I landed in Vietnam on a rainy July night with nothing except my return ticket a month later. I did not know the language, the customs or how to navigate the world outside of my own country. The simple task of calculating foreign currency took me a couple of days, which is when I realized my xe om driver had scammed me! I quickly discovered Vietnamese coffee (and fell into a lifelong affair with it) but did not know how to ask for it for at least a week. Simple tasks like crossing the road with motorbikes heading in all directions and the fierce smells from the local market were familiar to me to a certain degree but in those initial days, it felt like a sensory overload.
And then when I had to depart from Ho Chi Minh City, I had the biggest block to overcome. I had forgotten to take my passport from my hotel in District 3 that I had booked on my second day in the city; that gave me a panic attack and made me question if I was cut out to be a backpacking traveller.
I loitered in the city for two extra days simply because I was mentally fatigued to decide what to do next. Trusting others, and myself, that I could go from one city to the next without letting my mental conditioning take over my travels was the biggest decision I’ve taken and it has paid me back many-fold through my travels thus far.
The stories above all highlight that backpacking and travelling solo is not always like the perfect pictures that you see on Instagram or Facebook. When things go wrong or when you feel lonely it can be tough, but there are ways of dealing with problems.
Before you set off on your travels it’s just as important to think about how you will stay mentally healthy on the road as it is to get your travel insurance and your inoculations.
One benefit however of this method of travel is that you are never usually far from help. This is why I personally prefer to stay in hostels (check out www.hostelz.com) or I like to volunteer on work exchanges because there are people around who can get you through a low patch.
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Myself and the other bloggers who contributed would also love to know how you manage to stay healthy while you travel.