I’ve been traveling the world every chance I could for the past four years. In that time, I’ve taken trips from one week in duration to seven months, averaging about a week or so per country. I dreamt about traveling years before I really had the opportunity to do it, and perhaps unsurprisingly became obsessive about travel on my first solo trip through Central America.
For me, getting out and exploring a new country provides a plethora of mental health benefits before, during, and after the trip itself. From getting out of my comfort zone to learning how I cope in stressful situations, travel offers countless opportunities for personal growth and learning, which are critical for my mental health.
Here are 11 ways travel benefits my mental health which I’ve noticed over the past year:
- Having a trip on the calendar gives me something to look forward to when I’m working hard at home and provides motivation for me to be efficient in my savings, my work, and my focus. Knowing how long I have until the next exciting adventure helps me pace myself and not get burnt out as easily as I would otherwise.
- It gives me perspectives on my worries at home. When I see people living their lives completely unaffected or unconcerned with my academic, financial, relational, or whatever other concerns, I can imagine my life without those worries too. I’m reminded that in most instances, I’m making a choice to stress and fret over something that is either unimportant or optional.
- Travel teaches me to be resilient and independent. Sometimes it isn’t until you’re forced to solve a problem on your own that you realize you are capable of solving it in the first place. Navigating a new country, especially alone, makes me feel like I can solve any issue that might come up in my life on my own and bounce back from any mistake.
- Exploring a new city or country is an experience that I feel proud of later, especially when I travel solo. I’m proud of doing something that scared me a bit, something that I was passionate about doing, something that was just for me and my personal growth. That confidence extends into all areas of my life.
- It gives me time and space to evaluate toxic relationships in my life in ways that are impossible when I’m in constant contact with those people at home. I’ve had relationships which needed to end but I couldn’t see it because I was too entangled in the situation on a daily basis. It wasn’t until I got some space from the person when I was traveling alone that I could really reflect on what I wanted and needed, and eventually start to recognize the unhealthy patterns that had developed.
- Traveling gets me out of a stagnant environment at home, which improves my mood. I often work from home and get in a flow for a few weeks where I am so focused on work and personal projects that I don’t leave the house much. It tends to make me irritable and stressed the longer that goes on, but taking a trip forces me to get out of the house and focus on other things.
- When I travel with friends or family, it gives me a chance to build stronger relationships with them and spend some quality time making memories on a trip that we will remember for a lifetime.
- I get to escape the pressures and expectations of my friends/family/coworkers when I’m traveling and consider what I would want to do with my life if nobody else had any say or influence.
- Travel gives me a chance to make friends with people who don’t know my whole life story, sometimes connecting over things that I can’t share as easily with my friends and family at home. Making a new friend is something that I’m always proud of and I feel like my mental health definitely improves when I am expanding my social circle. Sometimes I find it hard to do that at home, but traveling forces me to connect with other people (or else be completely alone for weeks).
- Travel forces me to take a break from social media which can often be anxiety inducing and stressful. I notice the longer I spend on social media, the unhappier I am with my own life, plans, and progress. Unplugging for a bit helps me to recognize how much time I’ve been spending on social media and forces me to be more present.
- When, I work non-stop on a project, I tend to get burnt out after a while like most people. Travel gives me a break to recharge my batteries, reconnect with the reasons I’m doing the work I do, and helps me to get excited again about returning home and working hard.
These are just some of the many ways travel helps my mental health and teaches me important lessons in personal growth and understanding of the world. That said, I’ve met many people who have experienced a decline in their mental health when traveling, and I would be remiss to pretend that travel isn’t without its challenges.
Sometimes travel can be stressful, can increase your anxiety, or can be lonely. It depends on your mental health, your personality, and your travel experience. There have been times during my solo travels where I was extremely lonely and homesick. Other times I’ve felt overwhelmed with the demands of travel, navigating unfamiliar places, dealing with budgetary constraints and complications, and having none of the comforts of home.
Still, I think that almost everyone can experience mental health benefits from travel when it’s done the right way (which is a different way for everyone!)
Here are a few tips on how to plan a trip that will benefit your mental health rather than stress you out entirely:
- Overestimate how much money you’ll need. It’s always stressful when you’re low on cash on vacation and have to worry about whether you can afford the fun experiences you’d planned, or even if you need to cut your trip short. Having an emergency savings will be minimize anxiety over the budget when you’re traveling.
- Don’t cram too many activities onto your itinerary each day. Generally, one or two attractions a day is reasonable but more than that can cause stress about sticking to a schedule and prevent you from really enjoying each stop. Choose a few of your “must-see” sights and schedule one on each day, then fill in the rest of your itinerary with your “want-to-see” list.
- Fill your itinerary with activities you know energize you or make you happy. Don’t fill it with attractions that you feel you must see because of the hype if you wouldn’t otherwise visit it. If you hate museums, you probably won’t enjoy seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, no matter how famous it is. There are plenty of other must-see things in Paris you’ll likely enjoy more – do those instead.
- Spend at least 2 nights in every city. Any less means you won’t have a full day to explore. Chances are you will be exhausted from all the travel. You’ll also likely be stressed cramming a city’s entire bucket list in a half day.
- Pack light. It will cost you less money, time packing, and stress keeping track of your belongings.
- Bring a few comfort items. Your favorite shoes, jacket, book, whatever little thing it is that will give you a little reminder of home when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed.
- Leave a bit of room in your itinerary for rest or for plans to change. You’ll feel less guilty about not exploring if you need a morning to read over a cup of coffee, or want to watch Netflix one afternoon instead of going out. It’s okay to take breaks while traveling too!
I hope this list helps encourage you to travel and gives you some useful tips on planning a stress-free vacation. Travel has been such a positive influence on my health and I hope it can be the same for you!
Sarah Swank from SuitcaseSix.com