28 September 2019


10 ways to look after your mental health while travelling

Travelling can bring wonderful benefits - but it can also be challenging.

For some people, particularly those who have struggled with their mental health, it can be especially difficult.

Whether you've got a history of mental illness, or you just want to make the most of your trip, here are 10 ways to look after your mental health while travelling.

Mental health tip 1: Don't make assumptions

That's right, don't make assumptions, even about your own mental health!

Lots of people assume that the stress of travelling and trying to adapt to a new country will automatically send them into a mental health crisis. But we've found, from talking to travellers with mental health problems, that the opposite is sometimes true.

For some people, travelling can actually improve their mental state. They find the new environment, and being away from their job and old life, to be less stressful - plus keeping busy and always finding new things to see and people to meet, can be beneficial. Their mood improves and their anxiety decreases.

So before you leave, even if you've never travelled long-term before, remember that it might not turn out the way you expected.

Mental health tip 2: Plan your trip as well as it suits you

What we mean by "as well as it suits you" is that you should plan it well, but not over-do the planning if that is not right for you.

Some travellers plan everything right down to the last detail. That's what works for them.

Others will book the first bit and then just see where the road - and their mood - takes them.

Most of us fall somewhere in between. We have a general plan and know more-or-less what we'll be doing, but we leave room for an impromptu trip, a sudden change of plan, or to travel with new friends.

So planning your trip as well as it suits you will ensure you're not too stressed, but also that you're not so wound up that you're missing out on some fun stuff.

Mental health tip 3: Do what is right for you, not what others think you should do

This is advice we give to all career breakers, not just those with mental health issues.

When you're planning your trip, it's absolutely imperative that you do something that suits you. And not what you think you "should" be doing. Yes, lots of people volunteer but if you don't fancy it, don't do it. You won't be much use if your heart's not in it anyway!

This is your trip, you'll only ever have one quite like it, and it's got to be right for you. Doing what other people think you ought to do, or putting pressure on yourself to do what you think is expected, will end up frustrating you and could make you depressed.

Mental health tip 4: Make sure you carve out some time to rest

This is an important one but is forgotten too often (including by us, sometimes!).

Very few of us have the time or money to travel indefinitely - and even if we did, the visa rules would limit our trips anyway! So it's tempting to try to cram as much in as we can - to do that trip and visit that temple, and go to that event. But the truth is, no matter how hard we try, we're never going to do quite as much as we want to.

With that in mind, make sure you take time out to rest. This doesn't mean holing up in a hotel or guest house or your room at your host's accommodation. It could mean taking a stroll by a river, chilling in a park (a park is a great place to soak up atmosphere or people-watch) or find a favourite fellow traveller or local to hang out with doing nothing in particular.

Rushing around too much will tire you physically and mentally, and sometimes doing nothing is exactly what you need to recharge.

Mental health tip 5: Have a back-up plan

Even the most well-planned trip can go pear-shaped, and you'll find you can roll with it a lot better if you've got a Plan B in place.

That might mean some extra cash stashed, (see tip 8 below), or knowing where there's alternative place to stay. It could mean making sure you know who to call and having those numbers stored in your phone - for example, the local number of your airline, or the number of your volunteer supervisor.

It can also be as simple as being prepared to alter your plans. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we want to do, rather than what's possible at this exact moment, that we get anxious or stressed when things change. So being aware that something will change, or go wrong, will enable you to deal with it much more easily when it happens.

Mental health tip 6: Sort your meds well in advance

If you're taking medication for depression, anxiety or another mental health disorder, make sure you have enough for your whole trip - or make sure you can get it while you're away.

The first is probably less stressful, if you can swing it. It might not be possible due to prescription restrictions, travel restrictions, expiry dates and how much space you've got in your backpack - and of course, it will depend on how long you're going away for.

Either way, if you rely on your medication to keep you stable, you will need to make sure you can keep taking it.

By the way, this also applies to medication for physical conditions, whether or not you also take meds for psychiatric conditions. If your physical health is managed well, it's a lot easier to manage your mental health too.

Mental health tip 7: Have an emergency contact

Before you leave, make sure there is a trusted person at home who you can contact in a crisis.

This might be a relative, friend, or health professional. Your contact could be over text (email, text, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, etc - it's good to have both a mobile one and a wifi one so you've got options) or you might choose to ask if you can phone them. Phoning people is sometimes better if you need to talk something through, and in very remote places, or those with really old technology, might be easier.

You might not need the person to do anything. You might not even need to contact them, hopefully. But knowing you've got that back-up of someone who will listen to you without judgement, and is willing and able to help you in a crisis, can act as a sort of comfort blanket. For some people, knowing that the support exists is really helpful, even if they never use it.

Mental health tip 8: Budget, budget, budget

OK, here's the deal, your trip is going to cost money and you don't have a limitless supply. Money (or rather, the lack of it) can be a major source of stress and you don't want financial worries spoiling your trip.

So if you budget your trip well - spending money on things you actually need - like a safe place to stay - and saving on things you don't really need, you'll have a better time of it. Like with planning in tip 1 (above), you will find that each person has a different style of budgeting. You might like to budget down to your last penny, or you might be free and easy.

Or you might be somewhere in the middle - having a good idea of how much you've got and where it's going, but not needing to account of every little thing. Some of us are able to balance between spending and saving too. If you're not, you might want to have some kind of protected emergency fund while you're on the road, so you don't overspend.

Whether you're good with money or you suck at it, a budgeting app can make the whole thing easier for you.

Mental health tip 9: Have a reminder to be kind to yourself

When things go wrong, or when we're not at our best, we can sometimes be unkind to ourselves. We might blame ourselves for getting pick-pocketed, or scammed or we might feel we wasted time choosing to go and lie on the beach instead of visiting a historic monument. We might tell ourselves we were stupid, or lazy, or ungrateful for not making the most of the trip.

But we wouldn't talk to other people like that, and we shouldn't talk to ourselves like that either. It doesn't do any good and if our mental health is already fragile, it can make it worse.

Some of us need a reminder to be kind to ourselves. You might want to put this on your phone, or tuck a paper reminder into your wallet or backpack. You could even write the steps on it that you need to do to calm down if you're stressed, such as take a deep breath, take 5 minutes to calm down, then tackle the problem.

And don't be afraid to ask for help!

Mental health tip 10: Don't be afraid to share with others (even strangers)

If we're travelling alone, as most career breakers do, it can sometimes be isolating. For those with mental health issues, this can be challenging as you might feel you've got no-one to talk to if things go wrong - of if you're feeling down for no reason.

Don't be afraid to talk to others around you. Lots of people who travel can have things go wrong - whether it's with their mental health or something else - and for most people, they find their community very supportive.

When we've written before about taking care of your physical health while travelling, we've always encouraged career breakers to tell the people around them if they're not feeling well and ask them to keep an eye on them. It's vital for your safety that someone is looking out for you - and it can help your recovery if you've got someone to help you through it.

And the same goes for your mental health. You don't have to pour your heart out to everyone you sit next to on the bus, but if you're not feeling quite right, or something is making you anxious, it's perfectly fine to ask another traveller, or a local, for help, and explain that you can't manage very well by yourself. You can also tell them how best to help you, whether that's helping you fix something that's gone wrong, or sitting with you, or just keeping an eye on you if they're going to be with you for a bit.

For a lot of people, this really isn't easy. That's OK. You don't have to be explicit if it's hard to say, and you can even write it down (or on your phone) if that's easier. You might also worry about bringing someone else down. But another way of thinking about it is that you're giving them the honour of being trusted - not just with what you're telling them but with helping as well. And if there's one thing that people really love to do, it's to help someone far from home. We've seen it happen hundreds of times!


So please, whatever you're doing on your career break, do what you need to do to protect and preserve your mental health. Here's to a great trip!


Do you have any good tips for looking after your mental health when you travel? Tell us on Twitter or post them on our Facebook page.