How I Manage My Depression While Traveling Abroad

I’ve always been depressed, but that shouldn’t hold me back from traveling. I already have enough to worry about, from graduating university to saving for my next trip and planning where to go.
Publish date:
March 11, 2014
traveling, depression, mental health

I’ve always wanted to travel the world. When my Mom asked me what I wanted for my ninth birthday, I wished for an atlas. Not just any atlas, I wanted the real deal.

She was puzzled and had been ready to purchase a new doll or book series for me - but no, I wanted the eighty-five dollar 7th edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World. It came, all right, wrapped in a parcel that was half my size.

I’ve grown less pretentious since then, but I still want to travel as much as I can. I just got back from a semester abroad in Singapore. I studied communications at Nanyang Technological University and backpacked on the weekends. I managed to see Cambodia, Bali, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and though each trip was wonderful, they were just pinpricks of joy against the backdrop of the major depressive slump I found myself in. I would get off the plane and slump back to my dorm room to hide under the covers.

I’ve always been depressed, but that shouldn’t hold me back from traveling. I already have enough to worry about, from graduating university to saving for my next trip and planning where to go.

Managing depression can be even more difficult while you’re on the road. You’re suddenly in new surroundings and the old familiar touchstones aren’t there. Your friends, family, and mental health care provider are all far away and may even be asleep during your day. When you’re traveling and depressed you need to fashion your own support systems. This guide is specific to depression - but it can be used as a blueprint for those with other mental illnesses.

First of all - accept that travel won’t fix your depression. I know how tempting it is to buy into that fantasy. I thought that a semester abroad would be a chance to be some shinier, happier version of myself. Kennedy without the mood disorder. I thought that the new setting would perk me up.

It worked, for a week or two. I was too excited and sleep deprived to catch my breath. It caught up with me after I’d had some time to adjust. Once I got on a regular sleep schedule again, the bad feelings came back. I was wrong, depression isn’t like a backpack that you leave at the gates in your home country. The symptoms will stay with you - no matter how many mimosas you drink or museum tours you go on. Steel yourself for its presence and be gentle with yourself.

If you’re taking medication for depression, make sure that you have more than enough to last through your trip. Accessing medical care gets tricky when you’re away from home and there are lots of antidepressants that aren’t available outside of North America. When I went on exchange, I took over 150 doses of cipralex with me.

Carve out a routine as soon as you can. Whether you’re away for two weeks or two months, it makes taking care of yourself easier. Find the place where you’ll eat breakfast after forcing yourself out of bed each morning. Learn the streets and carve out paths until they become familiar. You don’t have to do the same thing every single day, just don’t allow yourself to fall back into a day of naps and staring at the ceiling if you can help it.

Be gentle with yourself when you travel. Don’t get mad at yourself for enjoying yourself any less than you think you should be. If you fumble a verb conjugation in a language you’re not used to speaking, or get totally lost on public transportation, don’t let it speak for your whole self. Mistakes are bound to happen, it doesn’t make you a worthless depressed pile of garbage.

Get ready to be more socially daring than you’ve ever been before. I went to Bali towards the end of my exchange with two American friends and ended up leaving from another part of the island after spending the latter part of the trip with two Danish girls who I met at the hostel.

When you travel, you need to pull on your big girl underwear and go make the friends that you were too nervous to make in kindergarten. You’re in luck though; hostels and budget hotels are frequented by the type of travelers who just will not shut up. It’s incredibly easy to make friends on the backpacking circuit, just strike up a conversation over toast or a pint. If you’re staying in a nice hotel, try going to a bar at a hostel to get away from stuffy travelers who keep to themselves. Not only will you make friends in ways you never thought possible, this sort of leap makes it harder to isolate yourself.

The lure of cheap alcohol may be a strong pull, but try to resist the sort of crazy partying that’s reserved for Full Moon Parties. Alcohol is a depressant, and you’re already depressed. Try to keep drinking to a minimum so you don’t have to deal with an absolutely gut-wrenching hangover and the resulting spiral.

Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. If your friend went to Spain last year and had an amazing time, don’t feel bad about yourself for being in the same place and feeling absolutely miserable. Remember that experiences are subjective and remind yourself that you’re doing your best when it comes to taking care of yourself and enjoying your time abroad.

Keep contact with friends and family back home to a minimum. This may sound counterintuitive, but you’ll feel worse if you stay tethered to Skype and What’sApp. Send the occasional update so your loved ones can rest easy knowing that you’re not lying face down in a ditch in Peru, but try to keep those to a minimum. You’ll feel bad every time you tear yourself away from the people back home, even if it’s over a spotty wifi connection. Realize that you’ll go home eventually and have all the time in the world to catch up.

I’m not going to play Michael Scott playing Tony Robbins, but use your time to try something that scares you just a little bit. When I was traveling, I found that that was the easiest way to get out of my head. I’d go ziplining or cliff diving and feel something that I hadn’t felt in awhile. I relished those moments when I felt connected to my body and the present, not lost in my own muddy thoughts.

There are enough hurdles when it comes to traveling. Money and accessibility make things difficult enough. If you’re good to go on all other fronts though, don’t let your depression hold you back. Sure, you may spend some time sobbing in a hostel with paper thin walls, but it’s worth it in the end. You’ll thank yourself when you realize that your depression didn’t keep you from one of the best experiences of your life.