Long-term Travel and Mental Health
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Travelling the world can be thrilling, but you can't forget to take care of yourself. Its easy to get caught up in all of the activities that comes with entering a new place but remember that your body and mind are your home.
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Schedule down time
Don't guilt trip yourself into packing every moment of your trip with activities. Yes you should take advantage of being in a new place but you are also a human being who needs rest and restorative down time. What are your favorite things to do to relax at home? Taking a bubble bath or listening to music or just sitting outside. Sometimes you need to just be and not be stimulated.
"Medication, Multivitamins, and Movement."
Don’t forget your medication
If you’re on any kind of regular medication, buy a pill case with the days of the week on it. Often with the excitement of seeing new places you can forget to take a pill but a case gets you back on track. Missing one might be okay but missing a lot could, in some cases, potentially trigger a mental health condition. Always stock up on prescriptions before a trip and remember to bring your multivitamins and any supplements you regularly take at home. A holiday shouldn't be a time to go crazy and throw all caution to the wind. You want to feel good on your holiday right? that means taking care of your health.
Pro Tip: bring a copy of your prescription with you for long-term travel, even if it's the prescription on the bottle (or just a photo) you can show it to a doctor abroad and they will be more inclined to write you a new prescription.
“Travel east and you’ll need morning light and evening melatonin; go west and you’ll need evening light and morning melatonin.”
Develop good sleeping habits
Sleep is a big one. Not getting adequate sleep can make it tough to concentrate or make decisions. Some people may even start to feel depressed. Travel and flight schedules can really screw with your circadian rhythms. I have a routine for sleeping en route; no coffee or tea, moisturizing under eye patches, light ambient music a travel pillow supporting my neck if I’m sitting up in a plane, train or bus. If I struggle to drop off I’ll listen to a meditation app on my phone called Headspace or Calm. A good eye mask can also help you drift off, my preferred mask is the IMAK Compression Mask, it seals to your face and blocks out any light and something about the weight just makes me drift off, you can also put it in the freezer if you have a headache.
Pro Tip: My hands down favorite hack for beating jet-lag is a supplement called, No Jet Leg: The Perfect Travel Companion. It's a homeopathic remedy and every time I've used it crossing time zones it has really worked! You can find it on Amazon or at REI.
I never drink tea or coffee in flight because the caffeine (which stays in the body for hours) might keep me awake, and try to resist fizzy drinks for the same reason. Instead, I drink decaffeinated tea and take at least one big water bottle on a flight. Air travel can lead to dehydration which can make it harder to concentrate or think clearly.
Time zones and jet lag play havoc with sleep patterns. I’ve always found that, unless I’m on a very short trip, it’s best to embrace local time; don’t torture yourself thinking about what time it is back home. According to Weill Cornell Medical College professor of clinical psychiatry Richard Friedman, melatonin supplements can help your body beat jet lag too; in the New York Times, he wrote, “Travel east and you’ll need morning light and evening melatonin; go west and you’ll need evening light and morning melatonin.”
Gut health is super important. Bacteria, changing routines, different food, exercise & unusual sleep patterns and even travel stress can all cause digestive upset. Did you know that even one bout of traveller's stomach can leave you with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or other post-infectious autoimmune diseases? Even if that isn't the case, digestive upset or traveler's diarrhea can consist of painful abdominal cramps, vomiting, and loose stools which leave us dehydrated, tired, and more than likely having to cancel our plans and rearrange our trip.
In addition to washing your hands religiously, using hand santizer and daily probiotics, taking an over the counter supplement like Travelan that helps to prevent traveler's stomach is also a great step, especially if you have an adventurous appetite or are visiting somewhere where quality food and water may be a concern.
Physical fitness is important too; physical activity can be very beneficial for mental well being. It’s tempting to throw routine out the window when you’re travelling ‘because you’re on holiday’ but it can help you stay balanced. If you usually run in the mornings it makes sense to pack your kit and keep it up. Releasing endorphins and moving your body releases stress and anxiety and boosts serotonin, this is especially important for long term travellers. There are a plethora of of YouTube videos out there for any kind of workout. I especially love Yoga with Adriene and Fitness Blender HIIT workouts. There is plenty of portable gear you can bring with you, I use a travel yoga mat, and resistance bands. For long-term travellers it makes sense to find a gym that can do a month to month membership or pay as you go classes like Zumba or Spinning. There's countless options to get a good workout in, opt to walk instead of taking public transit (also saves $$$), go for a hike, walk around the city center, create your own stair-master using the hotel stairs, or take a swim in the ocean if the weather is nice. A healthy rule of thumb is one activity each day.
Keep it balanced and don't overindulge. It’s tempting to try lots of rich, local food but you don’t need to do this at every meal. Hotel breakfast buffets usually have a good amount of fruit or an Airbnb or hostel has a kitchen so you can cook healthy meals. You don’t have to resist local dishes to stay healthy though. In fact, traditional meals in most places are often quite nutritious, especially if you avoid the heavier dishes and look more toward those loaded with veggies and seasonal produce. In the end, it’s all about balancing the not-so-great treats with healthy meals and nutritious snacks. Focus on eating your veggies and fruits while getting an adequate source of protein. Also try to limit alcohol intake, It’s fun to sample the local beer and liquor while you’re abroad. But you can easily fall into the trap of overdoing it—alcohol quickly converts to sugars. Especially when you mix it with sweet sodas. Try to opt out of most sugary drinks like sweetened ice tea and colas and drink water with meals instead. Avoid indulging too often for too long, or it can have negative effects on your health!
Staying hydrated is crucial. Before you go somewhere new, research the local water. This will help you save money on bottled water, I bring a collapsible water bottle with me on every trip to save money and reduce plastic consumption, plus when i'm finished I just roll it up and it saves so much space in my bag! If the local supply isn’t safe, keep stocked on bottled water or carry a water bottle and refill it, a water bottle with a built-in filter is the perfect solution. You may also opt for an Electrolyte solution if you just feel like you aren't getting enough, IV packets are a great quick fix.
Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a big advocate for the "Slow Travel," lifestyle. In addition to allowing yourself more time to absorb the culture, language, and meet new people, staying in one place for 1-6 months at a time has been the best form of balance of the nomadic life and creature comforts. With the slow travel digital nomad lifestyle I've been able to keep my yoga and workout morning routines while still enjoying the benefits of living in a totally different environment.
Make sure you travel with a reliable friend
Finally, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to choose your travel buddies wisely, especially if you have a mental health condition. A great trip can turn sour with the wrong travel partner and some of our best friends at home don't necessarily make great travel mates. Know your limits in terms of partying – too much alcohol and drugs of any kind are bad for everyone’s mental health, but if you have a mental health condition they can interact with medication or make you very unwell on their own, especially if paired with little sleep. Make sure you have a travel buddy who is laid back and will be sympathetic to your needs. Find someone who understands if you can’t party ’til dawn or cram every waking minute full of excursions. Downtime is necessary for good mental health, so don’t feel guilty for taking early nights or having a hotel massage instead of hitting the town. If you are a solo-traveler don't feel bad if you don't feel like going out! The flip side of this is if you are a solo long-term traveler it is important to make time to spend with others. It can be hard to meet people if you aren't staying in a hostel so I always use facebook groups for Digital Nomads or walking tours. I've talked before about how to make friends while traveling solo, and these are just a few other the countless options!
Retaining good habits is as important as picking the right travel buddy. It’s your trip, so make it work you.
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