You’re on your dream vacation. You’ve been planning, saving, and dreaming of this particular destination for months, years even. In your dreams, you saw yourself trotting about the streets, admiring the graffiti or sitting in a café on the riviera sipping some freshly brewed coffee, people watching and stealing glances from distant strangers, an incredible experience. But you know what? That’s not how it pans out.
Instead, you don’t feel great at all. You’re sad, lethargic, and disinterested in everything. It’s all a big blah, pointless and meaningless. All you want to do is stay in your hotel room the entire day or return home to your bed, your safe place, and lock the world out. It has nothing to do with the food, the people, the culture, or the region. It’s just you.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? This depiction is one of the faces of depression, and you are not alone. I have had it, and it does happen when you’re traveling.
Travel is supposed to be a phenomenal activity. Some people even swear that it’s a providential escape from everyday worries, a privilege that only a few people get the opportunity to partake in it. So obviously, you should consider yourself lucky and relish every minute of it, right? Unfortunately, that’s not how depression works.
If you suffer from depressive episodes when you’re home, it doesn’t magically disappear when you pack your bags and enter a new territory, no matter how lovely or lively the destination may be. In some cases, especially when you’re solo traveling, it could worsen since you’re in unfamiliar spaces without the sweet comfort of close friends and family.
What is depression and what causes it? Depression is an uncontrollable mental condition that negatively affects your mood, i.e., how you feel, think, and act. It characterizes in feelings of inexpressible sadness and disinterest in activities, including those that you normally enjoy such as traveling. Besides, sometimes, you feel nothing, just a ball of numbness and emptiness.
It is worth noting that there is a difference between sadness and depression even though they manifest the same.
Sadness or bereavement is a response to an adverse event that has happened in your life such as loss of a source of livelihood, illness, the death of a loved one, or a painful breakup. It is a temporary emotional coping mechanism associated with a change of events. Essentially, when you’re sad, the root cause is apparent.
On the other hand, depression doesn’t necessarily have a distinct cause. It’s an illness, and it’s way more complicated than mere sadness. It is often attributed to chemical imbalance and interference in the brain along with a complex mix of factors such as genetics, environmental, psychological, and biological factors. For instance, if your family history has a record of someone suffering from depression or other mental conditions, the chances are that you may suffer from it in the future.
Another significant distinction is that depression lasts for extended periods, usually over two weeks or more and substantially affects your life.
Therefore, while you may have symptoms of depression when you’re sad or bereaved, it may not be depression per se. Nevertheless, sadness can be an indication of depression.
You Are Not Alone
How common is depression? Depression is getting increasingly common, affecting at least 1 in 6 people throughout their lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression.
Despite how prevalent it is in modern society, it is still a taboo topic. Most societies tend to consider showing emotions wrong and a sign of weakness. It is not classified as an illness because it is not well understood. Therefore, people suffering from it hide their pain and feel embarrassed to speak freely about it, and especially not when traveling, where you’re meant to be having the time of your life.
The reality is that not everything you see on the screen or social media pages is hunky-dory as the images project. What people don’t see behind the scenes of those smiling photos is the ugly truth, that, sometimes, hours or even minutes later, it’s a whole different, dark story.
Tips For Coping With Depression
Managing gloomy days when you’re home is hard enough but the pressure of being in new spaces, interacting with new people, immersing yourself into new cultures, having to find places to eat, drink, or hang out, can be overwhelmingly stressful.
Even so, it doesn’t mean that you should not travel at all. On the contrary, getting out there is medicine for your brain and soul. But, unlike most people, you will need to be a little more cautious and handle yourself with a bit more care.
Below are tips that can get you going and that I have personally used to help me cope better when I’m feeling blue while on the road.
1. Develop A Daily Routine
Traveling may call for spontaneity and adventure. However, some aspects of it require some predictability. I’ve found that when I’m down in the dumps, simple tasks like getting out of bed to see a new city, showering, or even feeding myself feel like monstrous tasks because all I want to do is stay in bed all day and mindlessly scroll through my phone.
A great thing that gets me up and going is developing an easy, sustainable daily routine that I can incorporate when I’m either traveling or not. For example, you can decide that every time you wake up, you partake in a few minutes of controlled breathing, and some light yoga while you’re still in bed then drinking a glass of water before jumping into the shower.
No matter how small the steps feel, they are highly beneficial to your wellness, and if you do them repeatedly, they become a habit. A habit reduces the unnecessary stress of having to think about what you need to do, giving your brain some sense of control.
2. Get Your Body Moving
It is a well-known fact that exercise is good for the body, but the last thing on a depressed person’s mind is exercise, more so when in unfamiliar territories. However, regularly engaging your body is scientifically proven to have considerable effects on depression that go far beyond placebo.
How exactly does this work? Depression is characterized by an imbalance of the neurotransmitters, dopamine, and serotonin, which are responsible for the happy, wellness feeling we get when we’re euphoric. When you engage your body in movement, your brain activates these neurotransmitters, releasing these much-needed happy juices.
So as counter-intuitive as it may sound, you need to try to get your body moving. Moreover, it need not be high-intensity exercises like sprinting or running around the block, which I dread. Something as simple as going for a 5 min brisk walk around your hotel or hostel or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, is good enough. It can be whatever. Just get your body moving daily.
You can start small and then build your way up as your energy levels, and motivation gradually increases. It will do wonders for you.
3. Soak Up Some Sun
Sunlight has immense power. It is the reason why some countries that undergo winter seasons report seasonal depression due to lack of sunshine.
So what role exactly does the sun play in a human’s well-being? The sun is essential for two main reasons.
The most obvious one is what’s commonly referred to as the “sunshine vitamin.” When you expose your skin to the sun, the UVB radiation from the sun turns cholesterol from the skin’s surface into Vitamin D. This vital vitamin performs immeasurable tasks in the body, one of them being, it assists in the regulation of hormones such as testosterone, which affects the mood in both men and women.
Secondly, the sun is responsible for setting the body’s circadian rhythm, also known as body rhythm, which is essential for better sleep patterns. It sets you up to feel tired at the right time and energized at the right time. Humans need this natural light at least once a day for a few minutes.
If you can’t make it outside to the park or the beach, consider opening up blinds in your hotel room every morning and sitting outside for breakfast for your tea to get in some much-needed sun time.
4. Remember To Eat Healthily
The adage “you are what you eat” has never been more accurate. What you eat affects every part of your body, your brain included.
If you were to open up your brain and strip it of its moisture, leaving it with only its nutritional content, you would be left with protein, fats, amino acids, and traces of micronutrients and glucose. All these components work together to impact your brain’s function and mood.
Eating regular, well-balanced, healthy meals filled with green leafy vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and carbohydrates is gold for your brain. The main superstars being essential fatty acids and amino acids as they have a direct effect on how neurotransmitters function. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t produce fatty acids, so we have to get them from other sources such as fish oils. Therefore, it’s advisable to have them as supplements on hand to ensure you have your daily dosage.
So even though you’re traveling, you need to be more conscious of what goes into your body. For instance, instead of ordering that English breakfast for every breakfast, swap it for some Greek yogurt, muesli, and some fruits.
5. Lay Off The Drugs And Alcohol
Most people turn to drugs or alcohol when they’re feeling down or lonely to make them feel better. But if there is one thing that all mental health professionals agree on is that you should avoid alcohol and drugs when you’re depressed, especially when on medication as it can contradict with the drugs leading to dire consequences.
Your brain is one of the most complex organs in the body. It’s the central point where all other body functions get instructions on what to do. When you are depressed, this central point isn’t working correctly. Intoxicants are mind-altering, i.e. target the brain so when you introduce them to the brain, you further interfere with its coping process, which makes you slump even deeper into the hole. It is more so the case with alcohol as it is, literally, a depressant.
Other drugs such as ecstasy, may make you feel better for a short period of time, but the way they work is that they give you a sudden, explosive spike in your euphoric neurotransmitters but when the “high” is over, you are entirely depleted and drained and end up feeling worse than you felt initially. Therefore, drugs and alcohol are not your allies in this fight.
6. Hit The Snooze Button
Although it might not be completely obvious, usually when someone is feeling low, if you trace their patterns, one of the primary culprits is often lack of proper sleep or rest.
Lack of proper sleep is both a precursor and a consequence of depression. Inadequate amount of sleep profoundly affects your outlook of life as well as how your body functions and at the same time, when you are depressed, negative thoughts of guilt and worthlessness stubbornly linger, preventing you from sleeping.
The standard recommended amount of sleep for the average human is 7 to 8 hours per day. Good sleep leaves you well rested and able to function optimally.
To increase your chances of getting better sleep when depressed, avoid the use of electronics at least one hour before bed and fill your day with activities to get you tired enough to sleep. All the same, remember to rest when you feel tired during the day and learn to listen to what your body needs.
7. Talk About It
It is not easy to talk about depression. It’s especially true for men who are not expected to talk about their feelings for fear of being emasculated. They are taught from a young age that emotions are not manly, with words such as, “man up,” or “stop being a girl.”
In my experience, it is better to talk about it than keep it a secret to yourself as it will eat you up to pieces. You don’t have to shout it out to the whole world. You can talk about it with people you trust: your friends, family, or professionals. And thanks to technology, they are only a call, a message, or a Skype away.
Your family and friends care about you even when you feel like the world is falling apart right before your eyes. Granted, they might not completely understand, but there are therapeutic benefits to letting it all out.
If they are not within your reach, journal and write it all down; how you feel, everything, just let it all out.
8. Be Kind To Yourself
Lastly and certainly the most important, remember to shower yourself with some self-love.
One thing that I try to remind myself is to show myself love and treat myself with tender, loving, care. Think about it this way, how would you treat your best friend or a loved one if they were sick? Would you blame them or make them feel guilty for their pain? You would absolutely treat them with love and care. So handle yourself with the same love, patience, and gentleness you would a loved one.
Although it might be hard, you need to own the reality that depression is a physical illness and how you feel isn’t your fault. You’re not guilty of ungratefulness. You are worthy, and what you’re going through is temporary, and you cannot just simply get over it or adjust your attitude towards life to see the glass half full. That’s not how it works. Accept it like any other sickness, seek professional help and if you already have, take each day as it comes.
Life is a journey of ups and downs. Some of the downs are depressive episodes, which almost everyone is prone to. Remember that you are not alone so don’t be too hard on yourself when everything doesn’t go as planned on your travels.
No matter how far you are from home, employing these strategies can get you going through those tough times.
Have you been depressed while traveling alone? How did you get through it? Let me know in the comments below.