10 tips for traveling with depression

If getting up in the morning sometimes seems like you’re taking on the world, then actually taking on the world might sound preposterous. But with a little planning and some extra precautions, traveling without fear of a mental collapse is a definite possibility.

Like a lot of people, I’m discovering, I have a streak of sadness that often runs just below my surface, occasionally exposing itself as painfully as a raw nerve. But with coping strategies, good friends and a little help from medication, I’m able to adventure to the other side of the planet, by myself.

Because I have to keep my mental balance in mind a lot of the time, I’ve adopted traveling strategies to help me with my depression. I’m not a doctor, and don’t play one on TV, so my advice shouldn’t be taken over the opinions of your doctor. But I do have over a decade of traveling experience, and almost all of it came with some form of depression. Here’s what I’ve learned on the road:

1. Mind the jet lag. Upsetting your sleep pattern is rough on your emotional balance. It took three different mental collapses days after flying overseas that I realized I had a pattern going: jet lag = depression. Oddly, once I figured that out, it stopped happening — likely because I now prepare for it by listening to my body. I do my best to eat healthy while in transit, splurge for a comfy room at my destination so that I can relax, and give myself several days before any hard travel. Avoiding (lots of) alcohol on those long-haul flights also helps.
2. Try to create a regular routine. Sleep is a big issue for me, and even friends who know me well often don’t get it when I tell them I absolutely must be in bed by 10 to be asleep by 11 in order to function at 8am. “Can’t you stay up a little bit later just once?” they’ll ask. Well, no. I know it makes me a fuddy duddy, but I’d rather be boring than crying. For this reason, I’ve slowed my travel pace down significantly from my 20s, because too many all-night bus or train rides tends to wear down my defenses.

Ditto for exercise. If I can just get a 30-minute jog in almost every day, I feel a lot more grounded. Failing that, I walk wherever and whenever I can. It’s not easy when I’m on the go, just like with sleeping, though it’s easier to fit in a half an hour of exercise than nine hours of sleep.

3. Be sure you have enough medicine to last your entire trip. Many anti-depressants aren’t available abroad, and the last thing you want to do is try to go off your medication cold-turkey and in a foreign country. My health insurance has given me up to six months in advance before; be sure to ask if they have a vacation extender for prescriptions. My bottle of pills has the same importance as my passport and ATM card – when traveling, those three are often packed together. Besides being super careful about not losing your medication, also leave your prescription with someone who can call it in and FedEx it to wherever you’re at should you lose your bottle.

4. Keep in touch with your doctor. With Skype, this is easier than ever! But phone consultations work, too.

5. Don’t let other people make you feel bad. You feel bad enough, right? Yes, you know (without someone reminding you) that “you’re so lucky to be in [insert beautiful destination here]!” Many folks don’t get that you can’t just “snap out of it,” and even if you could show them your depleted serotonin stores, they probably still wouldn’t get it. And yeah, I know that that beggar with no legs has it way worse than me… which only makes me feel even more terrible about myself. Be careful with whom you share your sadness.

6. Have a support network back home. This is easier than it was ten years ago, because now we have Skype and Facebook. I’m lucky to have a group of friends and family who know me well enough to understand that I get blue from time to time. Usually all I have to do is send out an email telling friends that I’m feeling a little lonely, and soon I’m able to chat or Skype with someone who can reassure me that no, I’m not a complete failure.

7. Be good to yourself, but get out of bed. When I feel like I’m wearing that lead apron they put on you for x-rays at the dentist, the last thing I want to do is pull myself out of bed. Especially if it means it’s going to feel like I’m moving underwater, daydreaming about being in the fetal position, and crying on the street to boot — by myself. But I’ve never regretted leaving bed, even if it’s just to stumble down to the beach to sleep some more.

And on the other hand, don’t berate yourself if you can’t handle the group tour that you booked or write that blog post you’ve been meaning to publish. Pushing yourself to do a little will go a long ways, but trying to slog through something that you simply don’t have the mental energy for is only going to make you feel worse. Be gentle to yourself, but do your best to put one foot in front of the other, even if it’s just for a few steps.

8. Know your limits. My limits involve alcohol and sleep (not too much of the former, as much as I need of the latter), but everyone is different. Learn to understand your body’s signals and listen to them if they’re telling you you’re doing or taking on too much.

9. Trust your intuition. I constantly listen to the “vibes” I pick up not only from people, but also from places. Maybe a hotel room’s feng shui is off, or perhaps the energy from an entire scene – a beach, a town, a guesthouse – might seem not right. Obviously I try not to be overly picky or bratty, but it is important that I feel “safe” in a place. If my guestroom is off, I’ll subconciously avoid spending time in it, and won’t sleep well. If I think that the energy of an entire place is off, I’ll wander around in a funk, unable to make connections with anyone. Your subconscious picks up on things that you’re not aware of; follow your intuition if it’s telling you something isn’t right for you.

10. Go when you’re ready. If you planned a round-the-world trip but collapse weeks before you’re set to leave, try to postpone until you’re stable again. If you’re barely functioning at home, the jolts and irregularities of travel likely aren’t going to do you any good.

Happy travels!

[Photo credit: shawncampbell, hipsxxhearts, Flickr]