Travelling with mental illness brings a lot of different challenges from being at home but also some of the same familiar ones, too. I have been diagnosed with mixed depression and generalised anxiety disorder so most of the challenges I am going to talk about will relate to the ones I face because of these illnesses.
Should chronically ill people travel or go on holiday?
Yes, of course! How far you can travel and what kinds of accommodation you can stay in will be up to you and your health needs. Just because things might take a little more planning and organisation, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them.
I’ve encountered the opinion that chronically ill people (I’m referring mostly to mental illness in this article, but I believe the same about all chronic illnesses) shouldn’t or can’t go on holiday because being able to do this proves that they are faking. This is not true.
Asthma is a chronic illness, so is diabetes. They’re both well known and accepted by society. You probably can’t imagine anyone saying that you’d be faking either illness if you went on holiday after being diagnosed with one of them.
In fact, there may be some types of holiday that you might not be able to access because of your illness, especially at its worst, and you might have medication or other coping devices to bring with you. So going on holiday is certainly not proof that you are not ill, regardless of the type of chronic illness.
When I go on holiday I take whatever I usually need to help me manage my illnesses, since my symptoms won’t go away just because I’m going on a trip. Even if people comment on all the random stuff I bring, I still take it all, because it isn’t worth feeling awful a long way from home. I also want to be able to enjoy the holiday rather than just survive it, which leads me on to the next point; the purpose of going on holiday.
Common goals when setting off on our travels are rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. I cannot fathom why anyone wouldn’t think that these three R’s could be of benefit to both sick and well people. The majority of the stories I’ve read about chronically ill people describe how tired they are from fighting against their symptoms, so surely, it’s not too hard to see that people starting out exhausted could really benefit from an experience where they are able to rest and relax.
What are the challenges of travelling?
When we’re planning a holiday there are a few things that we take into account.
We try to make sure that there is room for me to do yoga. This is something that I do everyday to help with the tension I get from anxiety and to help me feel calmer in general.
I also suffer from IBS. So we research food where we’re staying and in the vicinity to make sure that there will be things that I’ll be able to eat. I’m lucky that I can control my IBS with diet, but it does take some planning when eating out constantly.
We try to book a room with a bath as well as a shower as this can really help to relax me if I’m feeling very anxious or if I have stomach ache from IBS.
I have a lot of trouble with sleeping, so we try to make sure that we research reviews and information on the comfort of the room/bed before we book.
Connected with sleeping is exercise, I don’t sleep very well if I haven’t done some good exercise in the day and my mood will also drop. So, we have to plan to walk each day at least.
I get very anxious if I don’t know what to expect, so once each part of the trip is booked, I get a copy so that I know what’s happening when and from where. I’m not the kind of traveller who can just come along for the ride…
I take several types of medication, so we always have to make sure that we know what the regulations are about bringing them into the country we’re visiting.
After doing all of that preparation, the holiday feels a lot less stressful and there is far more chance of me managing to relax.
How does travelling benefit my mental health?
Here’s a list of the ways that I’ve found travelling has benefited my mental health:
- If I’m in any kind of negative cycle/routine of thoughts or behaviours it can break them by putting me into a mode where I have to facilitate travel and therefore can't continue this routine. Also, just being in a different space with a different view can break the cycle.
- If I’m feeling emotionally numb, the change in routine and seeing new things can help to bring back a bit of feeling and rekindle my curiosity and interest in things.
- Travelling can push me a little out of my comfort zone so I can challenge myself to do new things and feel like I’m experiencing life rather than just existing. I’m not pushed so far that I feel panicky though, and I can always pull back if it’s too much.
- Holidays can give me a sense of achievement for stretching myself and trying new things despite my anxiety disorder.
- Holidays help me to stop ruminating or focusing on my mental illnesses because there are different things to see and do. Life becomes about more than getting better.
- Holidays get me out and about, walking and talking to lots of different people. There are times when I isolate, and time spent engaging with people on holiday can encourage me to be a little more social once I’m home.
- If I’m lacking in motivation, the opportunity to do lots of different things can rekindle a tiny spark of motivation within me. This can carry on into my projects when I get home.
- Travelling makes me make time to do relaxing things like reading a book, taking a long bubble bath, having a massage, sitting in the sun taking in the area, smelling flowers, taking in pleasant sights/aromas. On a day to day basis, my illnesses can convince me that I don’t have time for this, only for keeping well, but holidays remind me that taking time to relax is part of staying well.
Does travelling make my illnesses worse?
When I get back home from travelling I’m usually tired and feeling a bit down about the end of the holiday, but this seems to be a phenomenon amongst both the sick and the well. It’s also not a long-lasting state-of-mind, but rather a response to the journey home and missing something pleasant.
I have terrible anxiety before we travel about anything and everything. Before we went to Turkey, I was convinced that we wouldn’t be allowed into the country with my medication because we didn’t have a copy of my prescription translated into Turkish. If we were allowed in, I was convinced we would go to jail. This lasted for a few hours as we packed, but by the time we were at the airport, I was back in the land of reason (relatively).
There’s not much we can do but ride these storms out. Both my partner and I can feel the anxiety building and neither of us quite understands what it’s about. I’ve lived in another country before, travelled solo on many occasions, and speak other languages, so it’s anybody’s guess where my anxiety leading up to travel stems from. As is often the case, it’s hard to make sense of the "why" to do with anxiety—it’s more about managing it.
These bouts of anxiety and feeling a bit down when I get back don’t seem to have a bearing on my overall level of well-being. In fact, I would say that they are minor when compared to the benefits I gain by going away. Usually, after a couple of days’ good rest and reacclimatising at home, I feel in a better position to take on the world than I was before I went away.
Would I recommend travelling to other people with mental illnesses?
Everybody has their own boundaries and needs. What’s helpful for one person might be detrimental for another. I’m not going to say that there is a one-size-fits-all type of holiday that would be beneficial for every person with a mental illness.
What I would say is that everyone benefits from the opportunity to rest, relax, and recuperate. If it won’t make you worse to take a trip away somewhere then I would recommend that you do it. But, do it in your way, in the way that makes it enjoyable for you. Take the things that you need to make you feel well and comfortable. Research the things that might cause you discomfort. Challenge yourself to try new things but make sure you can always pull back if you feel the need. Give yourself the time and space you need to relax. Visiting friends and family can be a holiday or getting away from them can be too. Do whatever suits YOU.