How to take care of your mental health while travelling

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Michael Turtle is constantly on the move and finds stability in a well-planned itinerary.

Travelling is meant to be an exciting, refreshing and overall enjoyable experience — and most of the time it is. 

Leaving your world to immerse yourself in another, discovering new places, and learning about new customs can help you discover more about yourself. 

While it can be transformative, travel can be challenging if you’re struggling with your mental health. 

If you’re planning a road trip — or a trip around the world — here are four ways to maintain your mental health while you’re away from home.

Sink some time into research

Social media and travel blogs can give us an unrealistic idea of what travelling is like, especially when it comes to visiting exotic locations.

But it isn’t all #wanderlust — travelling can throw up some unexpected challenges too.

Grant Blashki, head clinical advisor for beyondblue, says that when it comes to travel, our eyes can often be bigger than our common sense. 

“It’s so easy to just book a flight and go these days,” he says. 

“It’s common to see people become quite overwhelmed when they throw themselves into a really foreign and challenging situation. We often see symptoms start as a result of this.” 

What to remember:

  • Dr Blashki recommends really doing your research when it comes to your travel destination(s), and being realistic when it comes to your capabilities to cope. 
  • Chatting to others who have been there, discussing your trip with your doctor or therapist, and making use of free resources such as the government-run Smart Traveller which can help you make informed travel choices that work for you.

Plan and prepare an itinerary

While packing a bag, booking a flight and getting lost in the world sounds romantic, it’s worth putting some effort into planning if you’re worried about how you’ll manage.

Travel blogger Michael Turtle, 38, has been travelling the world full time for the past seven years. For him, being organised limits the kind of stress that can overwhelm him in unfamiliar situations.

“I try to be organised and have things booked further in advance, so I don’t have last-minute stresses about where to stay,” he says. 

What to remember: 

  • Dr Blashki agrees that organisation can limit some of the anxiety that can come with travel. Having a set itinerary, knowing all your transport and accommodation arrangements, and even planning where you might eat can help you feel a little more in control of what’s going on around you. 
  • If you’re new to travelling overseas, or travel in general, he recommends dipping your toe in with an organised tour.

Get some sleep and watch the booze

Amykate Moroney, 24, from the Central Coast of NSW has been travelling for the past nine months, visiting as many countries in that time. 

At times she’s struggled with the ‘cocktail’ of travelling and partying.

“Too much alcohol mixed with lack of sleep, shaken with feelings of worthlessness and garnished with loneliness. Now amplify this by not having any homely comforts,” she says. 

“This would send anyone into a spiral, let alone someone that struggles with a looming black cloud.”

What to remember: 

  • Dr Blashki says that lack of sleep can have a negative effect on your mental health, which may come with being jet-lagged, late-night partying, or just trying to sleep in an eight-person hostel room. He recommends trying to maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle while travelling to avoid burn out. You might also consider breaking up long-haul flights with stopovers and forming good sleep habits in the weeks before you leave.
  • When it comes to partying, Dr Blashki has this advice: “People need to be cautious of how much alcohol they are drinking, and any recreational drugs they may be taking.” “While this is good advice for anyone, it is particularly important when travelling as these things can make you feel even more out of your depths.”Not sure if your habits are problematic? beyondblue has a number of checklists to guide you.

Consider what you’d need in an emergency

Woman wearing a backpack with the beach and blue sky in the background.
IMAGEMake sure your travel insurance covers mental health as many only include it as an add-on.(Unsplash: Tara Urso)

If you are currently dealing with mental health issues at home, it can be tempting to feel like travel is off the table. 

If you or anyone you know needs help:

But Dr Blashki says travel can be beneficial as part of a considered treatment plan with your doctor. 

“Travel, like many things that we do, stretches our comfort zone, makes us more flexible and adaptive,” he says.

“You can become more comfortable in rolling with the ups and downs of life. From that point of view, I think that travel is highly beneficial.”

That said, if you’re taking medication or travelling overseas, it’s worth considering a few extra things before you leave.

What to remember: 

  • If you’re taking medication, Dr Blashki recommends packing an adequate amount, along with a letter from your GP that lists what you’re currently taking, to avoid any issues with customs and local laws.
  • Heading overseas? “Get to know the local health system and embassy contact. You should also ensure that your travel insurance covers mental health as many will include it as an add-on,” he says. “Make sure that you have people at home who know your medical history and your travel arrangements.”People who need to access talking therapies or emergency help can contact the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who may be able to assist in arranging appointments with local mental health professionals. The Consular Emergency Centre can transfer you to Australian mental health services such as Lifeline, beyondblue and headspace.
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