How to Survive Travelling with Depression

Road or journey to the sea, in monochrome

I’m sick of reading the flippant phrase ‘post-travel depression’ – something millennials are obsessed with, describing it on forums and websites as ‘so real’ and ‘so intense’.

‘Depression’ is an all too casually misused word, bandied about in frustrating but not earth-shattering moments, like when your football team loses or you find out Zayn is leaving One Direction. Equally, if you feel deflated after a trip to Bali, you’re not depressed and you don’t need this post. I want to draw attention to tangible clinical depression, which is about as much fun as sticking pins in your eyes, and affects one in five adults during their lifetime.

Due to the stigma and silence surrounding the condition, you’ve probably met many sufferers on your travels without even knowing it. Hopefully this guide will help you or someone around you make the most from a much-needed change of scene.

Traditional red telephone box in countryside
Need to phone home? Be prepared.

List Useful Contacts and Tips

The FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) has a helpful page about coping with mental health issues when abroad. It tells you what kind of issues the British Consulate can deal with, and why you should make sure you’re covered on your insurance in case you need medical treatment.

Keep some emergency numbers for friends and family written down, in case you lose your phone. Tell them you’re going away, and make a note of any time differences between them and you, so you can get in touch with each other at appropriate times (nobody likes a misjudged 3am phone call). If you do become in crisis, contact:

  • Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90; email jo@samaritans.org
  • Mind: 0300 123 3393; email info@mind.org.uk; text 86463
  • A local doctor or A&E department
  • Your group leader on a guided tour

Don’t forget to write down the hotlines for any credit or debit cards you’re taking with you, and tell your bank you’ll be travelling so they don’t block your cards due after some far-flung transactions. You can do this online or over the phone. If you’re a serial card user, find out whether key places in your destination have few ATMs or only take cash, so you’re prepared.

Retro suitcases in bright colours at a vintage fair
I’m not sure four suitcases would count as packing light…

Pack Appropriately

Check you’ve got your medication. Check it again, then add a couple of days’ extra meds to cover any unexpected issues (flight delays or mix-ups, damaged tablets, etc.). Keep it in a sealed sandwich bag or a pill box from Superdrug/Muji, and store it in your hand luggage, so it doesn’t end up flown to the other side of the world by a wayward baggage handler.

Find out the size and weight restrictions on bags before you get to the airport, and make sure you’ve paid for hold luggage if your airline charges for this. It’s no fun turning up at the check-in desk to find out you’ll be paying an extra £40 for your suitcase, especially when that kind of unwelcome surprise can send you into a spiral of anxiety and negative thoughts.

If you’re terrified about missing your flight or being stuck in a check-in queue, consider advanced baggage drops for selected flights – you get to drop your checked luggage at the desk at specific times the night before. For example, Gatwick Airport and Frankfurt Airport both have a list of participating airlines.

Marsalokk brightly coloured boats seen through rainy window
Bad weather, or a bad day, can throw you off balance. Have lots of ideas to keep you occupied.

Make Your Itinerary Flexible

In the last few years I’ve gone from casual holidaymaker to rigorous planner, because working in the travel industry made me realise how much I wanted to know a destination and not miss out on a key sight or experience. Funnily enough, my painstakingly researched itinerary was one of the only things that got me through a Lisbon city break last year with my parents. We’d considered cancelling the trip, which had been planned before things got bad, but we all needed a breather. I was desperate to be in a place where no-one knew me and wouldn’t start making small talk or asking difficult questions.

I just couldn’t contemplate waking up and not knowing what we were going to do all day, because I dreaded missing out on something important to one of us. Besides, if we hadn’t had anything planned, it would have been all too easy for me to crumble and stay in bed. But, with the agenda to hand, I only had to concentrate on getting us from one place to the next, and my mum helped with directions when I got baffled by the trams. I didn’t have to make many decisions – a huge relief – but could be spontaneous along the way if things were going alright.

As a result, we saw brilliant exhibitions and landmarks. We tested out internet recommendations and roamed loads of different districts, from Chiado to Belem. When I was feeling really burned out, we retreated to a cafe or went back to the hotel, then carried on. It was an exhausting few days, but I slept well (something of a miracle) and had loads of distractions to break up my usual thought patterns. I don’t believe travel can cure depression in any sense, but it can help to temporarily clear your head.

Museu do Chiado modern art
This piece of conceptual art in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Lisbon, sums up the importance of really looking at what’s in front of you.

Take Advantage of Your Camera and Notebook

Mindfulness is the latest NHS buzzword for depression and anxiety treatment, but being aware of all your senses on holiday is a great way to channel mindful thinking without feeling overwhelmed. What can you smell in the air? What does the moss on the side of a rock feel like under your fingers? How can a busker bring a quiet street to life?

I find the best way to achieve this is to go back to basics and rely on my trusty camera and a notepad. It’s harder for your mind to wander into negativity when you’re focusing on a macro shot of a street sign, or writing about the home-made cake in a cafe. You also have physical reminders of what you’ve experienced, in the photos and notes you’ve collected.

Having those reminders to hand, and knowing you managed to create them, should give you a small sense of achievement. For those few minutes you were able to think about the present, not the awful past or uncertain future. You can keep the results private, or try posting photos online, printing them to make collages and turning scribbled text into a travel journal.

Italian ice cream from traditional parlour
A little indulgence is very good for you – this gelato is from the famous Gelateria di San Crispino, as seen in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’.

Look After Your Body

Remind yourself to stay hydrated and eat regularly, as you need all your energy resources on holiday unless you’re slobbing out on a sun lounger. There are loads of studies about eating healthily to impact your mood and wellbeing, but – spoiler alert – salad isn’t going to make you magically better, and a burger isn’t going to kill you. Just keep an eye out for soup, pasta and fish to sustain you for an afternoon of sightseeing.

One of the major pitfalls is alcohol, which is actually a depressant, so it goes against any medication you may be taking (and can interact badly with meds). But avoiding or limiting alcohol can be tricky when you’re travelling with people who encourage you to drink. It’s up to you how much you want to reveal about your condition, and I think it depends who you’re with, especially if you’re on a group trip with strangers.

You could make a vague reference to medication and sticking to the doctor’s orders, or you could stand your ground and say you don’t really feel like having a drink tonight. Often I have a beer or two on holiday and then switch to soft drinks, and this is normally fine, but it’s all about moderation and what your body can handle. A monster hangover will put you in a bad mood and could mean you miss out on a day’s sightseeing, let alone leave you with the Black Dog.

Stay safe, stay curious, and take what you can from seeing the world around you, but don’t be afraid to return home if and when you need to. In a future post I’ll focus on affordable travel insurance for depression – please get in touch if you’ve encountered problems or stumbled across a great insurance deal.

As for ‘post-travel depression’? If that’s the only thing you have to deal with, count your lucky stars, because it’s nothing to worry about. You’re just experiencing a little wanderlust.

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