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How to take care of your mental health when travelling alone

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Illustration request: How to look after your mental health when backpacking alone Picture: Dave Anderson for Metro.co.uk

(Picture: Dave Anderson/Metro.co.uk)

Going travelling by yourself can be utterly life-changing.

However, despite what travel bloggers picture-perfect Insta feeds might tell us, travelling solo isnt all fun and games. As well as being the time of your life, it can also be (at times) frustrating, nerve-wracking and downright exhausting.

These moments can be tough for everyone, and are (potentially) heightened when youre travelling with mental health issues.

Of course, not having tip-top mental health isnt a reason to not explore the world by yourself, and the experience can actually have a positive impact on your confidence, self-esteem and general wellbeing – that age-old finding yourself cliché exists for reason.

So, while your mental health issues wont necessarily affect your travels at all, there are steps you can take to make it an easier ride if they do.

1. Research time zones before you book your flight

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Feeling low and in a time zone where you only have a small window to speak to people at home can be the loneliest feeling in the world.

Even if youve made a tight group of friends on your travels, sometimes you still just want to have a natter with people who know you inside out.

If you know youll want to speak regularly to your family or friends from home, then consider going somewhere with a more convenient time difference e.g. a few hours rather than one where theyre going to bed as youre waking up.

Obviously dont let your mental health hold you back from visiting far-flung places – just maybe work your way up to them if youre feeling unsteady.

2. Know that its normal to feel overwhelmed

Going travelling by yourself is a big deal, and something some people will never do.

As rewarding as it can be, it can also be exhausting – youve got no one to rely on when you want to take a back seat.

From having to stay awake during long layovers so you dont miss your connection, to making decisions when things go tits up, the responsibility is with you the entire time.

Lest we forget having to constantly meet new people – its fun, but again, exhausting. Sometimes you just crave familiarity and comfort.

Know that feeling overwhelmed isnt a slight on your strength of character – its very, very normal, and something thats experienced by those with mental health issues and those without.

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Its difficult but dont compare yourself to other people – even that girl in the hostel who seems like a confident social butterfly will have times when she struggles. Some people are just good at hiding it.

As uncool as it sounds, why not write little pep talks for your future self for when youre struggling? Hell, even less cool – make a collection of inspirational quotes in Instagram to help nudge you back on track.

(Level 10 cringe can sometimes be level 10 helpful. We dont make the rules.)

3. Try to keep up with some form of exercise routine

(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

We all know that exercise is a bloody good mood booster, but even the most devoted downward dogger can find their routine disrupted when travelling.

Its all too easy to get distracted by new friends and days exploring/nights partying, meaning you totally forget to work out.

Then theres the financial aspect – even if youre travelling to places where you have access to gyms and classes, buying drop-in passes can get really expensive and eat into your budget.

Of course, its totally okay to work out less than you do at home – after all, youve got a lot of cool stuff to do and see – but its not okay if it starts affecting your mental health.

Running is a great (free!) way of exploring a city, so pack your trainers if you have room. (Wear them on the flight and while travelling between destinations if theyre too bulky for your bag.)

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However, its not always possible to go for a run – Ive tried running in rural places in India and Sri Lanka but there were no paths and I kept getting chased by street dogs, so it was just too dangerous (The dogs themselves werent dangerous FYI – they just wanted to play – but the fact they kept tripping me up? Yeah, not ideal).

If youve got the luxury of a private room, do online workouts. If youre travelling to places where internet is patchy, download them before you leave, or go old school and write the routine out by hand.

If you dont mind working out in public, then go do that HIIT workout in the park, or get sweaty at an outdoor gym. The vitamin D from being outside will also do you good.

Whatever you do, if youre used to doing exercise at home, just keep moving, whether thats just walking around a city, treating yourself to the odd yoga class, or swimming in the sea.

Travelling is also a great chance to try activities you dont normally do at home, whether thats surfing, hiking or beach running.

4. Dont feel peer pressured into drinking more than you want to

Youd think alcohol peer pressure would wane as you pass the mid-20s mark, but Im still encountering people in their late 30s who call people boring when they refuse to drink to oblivion.

Were all made differently, and some of us are more sensitive to alcohol than others. I love a drink, but can feel suicidal after just a couple of rum and cokes, so I try not to get too drunk when Im in an unsettling situation, like travelling solo.

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Its totally understandable to be nervous when hanging out with new people, and its easy to rely on a drink or two, but heres a guide on how to socialise sober, to help you out if youd rather avoid alcohol as a crutch.

Also, steer clear of recreational drugs, especially if youre not having a good mental health patch.

Dealing with a hangover or comedown in the comfort of your own home is one thing, having to deal with it when youre surrounded by strangers in a dorm room is another.

5. Make sure your travel insurance policy covers your condition

Annoyingly, even if youre ticking along just fine on meds and know there is no way youll need to see a doctor about your mental health condition while youre away, you have to declare it on your travel insurance policy.

Even more annoyingly, this will up your premium.

Every travel insurance policy Ive looked at has asked if Ive seen a doctor about my mental health in the last two years.

Of course, you could lie and not declare it, but you run the risk of invalidating your entire policy should you need to claim, even for a totally unrelated incident. Its safer to suck it up and pay it.

6. Take your meds

(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

On medication? Make sure you take enough meds to last you, plus extra for emergencies.

Pack medication in your hand luggage just in case your bag goes missing, and take your prescription with you. Ive carried large quantities of tablets before and never been asked for the prescription, but legally, youre supposed to carry it.

7. Recognise when you need alone time

If youre a budget backpacker staying in hostel dorms, try to save up enough so you can keep money aside to book a private room for when you feel overwhelmed.

Its not normal to be with people 24/7 and even the most sociable person needs their alone time.

Getting a private room in a hostel is a happy medium – you can socialise in communal areas, and retreat for some peace.

8. Plan ahead if you have anxiety

Rocking up to a destination with no idea of where youre staying sounds like a lovely, bohemian way to travel, but in reality it can be really stressful.

Psychotherapist and counsellor Olivia Djouadi knows this feeling all too well. Years ago, she was travelling alone on a business trip to Tunisia when feeling underprepared triggered her anxiety and PTSD.

I usually research everything before traveling yet I didnt that time, and I forgot to get health insurance (Im a type1 diabetic), Olivia tells Metro.co.uk.

Plus, someone on the plane told me it was dangerous to travel alone, so once there, not only did I feel unsafe but also thought I might die.

My anxiety was in overdrive, which stopped my common sense from working, and I stayed in the hotel the entire time, only leaving to go to one meeting.

Knowing what she knows now, Olivia suggests always carrying a plan with you that you can follow if youre feeling stressed or confused.

Planning a rough route of where you want to go, including places to stay, where to eat and things to do means one less thing to worry about. Of course, you dont have to stick to it, but its something to fall back on.

Its useful to prepare the worst – but not to expect it. Dont rely on wifi or internet to retrieve hotel info or maps – you can download sections of Google maps to use offline, or download entire maps on Maps.me.

Write down – yup, on paper – all your passport info, insurance details, and important contact info, and keep it somewhere safe.

9. Eat well

(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

One of the best things about travelling is eating your way through a countrys food – dhal and roti for breakfast? Tacos? Poutine? Yes please!

However, in doing so, you could potentially be screwing yourself over nutrition-wise. Its easy to forget about your five-a-day when sampling lots of rich, delicious grub, but this can have a real impact on your physical health, and in turn, your mental health.

When I was a few years younger and used to travel a lot more, eating healthy food was tough, says Mark Sleight, nutritionist and over 40s health coach.

It can be difficult to eat well when living on airport food, service station food and the only restaurant you see regularly has two golden arches.

What I failed to see was the connection between these food choices and my mental state. I felt tired, groggy, mentally slow – and I was always losing and forgetting things. At the time, I put this down to travelling, not my food and exercise intake.

Fast forward 20 years and I now travel with a backpack of healthy foods. Nuts, seeds, fruit, prepped lunches and fresh water. These all help me have a clear mind and an energetic body.

Yes, I still have to eat in airports and fast food outlets but when I see I healthy food outlet, I stock up my body and my backpack with nutrients.

I now have more energy travelling in my late thirties than I did in my late teens, which is all to do with my improved gut health and mental clarity.

Multiple studies have shown the connection between gut health and mental health, so eating well can give you a mental advantage.

You dont have to be super precious about it, but if you know that eating an abundance of fatty foods/existing on boxes of crackers makes you sluggish, just be sure to slip some veggies in – whether thats whipping up some porridge oats and banana in a hostel kitchen, or ordering a side salad at a restaurant.

Also, dont forget to stay hydrated.

10. Dont beat yourself up when you feel like the odd one out

There are times where youll find your crew and live your best life, and times where youll feel like the loneliest person in the world because you havent clicked with a single soul at your hostel.

When its the latter, dont let intrusive thoughts take over.

When feeling left out or isolated in a group situation, its easy to be triggered by negative memories of starting school or other times when you wanted to fit in but wasnt sure you could, explains Sally Baker senior therapist at Working On The Body.

Its catastrophic thinking which is an unhelpful thinking style, and when these type of thoughts are given free rein, they make you feel worse and worse about yourself.

Learn to recognise your negative self-talk for the BS it is, and interrupt it. It can be useful to track back the origin of the negative voice in your mind – does it remind you of a parent or someone else in your family?

Start to acknowledge the negative thoughts as old judgements from an earlier part of your life and nothing of relevance for you today.

If they are hard to shift just tap with a soft fist around your collarbone. This is an energy therapy point and helps to keep you grounded and feel safe.

If you know youre naturally prone to negative thought patterns or low self esteem, then prepare for it. Bring CBT thought records with you and fill them out when youre feeling crap about yourself.

To help you put a positive spin on things, right before bed, write down in a diary/notebook the best things that have happened to you that day.

Plus, always remember that you cant get on with everyone, and that friendship circles arent forged overnight.

You cant compare your new life to your one back home that youve built up over years. Have patience.

11. Remember that travelling wont solve all your problems

*illustration request* People who don't use their car's indicators drive me crazy

Cute pic of you trying to drive away from your problems, hun (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

This is probably the biggest one of all.

If youre going travelling to avoid facing your problems, then close that Skyscanner tab right now. Problems dont disappear just because youre on a tropical beach.

In fact, when you suddenly cut yourself from your usual support networks, they can seem much, much worse.

In 2014 when my depression was at its peak, I quit my job and booked a one way ticket to Australia on a working holiday visa. However, instead of finding a brand new life waiting for me, I found myself isolated, unemployed and feeling suicidal.

Ive met so many backpackers who were running away from their problems. I did it myself for years. I can tell you now that going on big solo adventures wont rid you of your demons – theyll just rear their heads at the most inconvenient time.

Last summer, I finally faced my fears and tried CBT one last time (after many previous failed attempts).

I told myself I wasnt allowed to leave the country again until I felt better about myself, and guess what? It was incredibly tough, but it helped. Im not 100% (dont ever expect to be – thats life), but Im in a much better place now than I was when I last went travelling.

Im now living overseas feeling so much stronger than I ever did.

Never let your mental health issues stop you from going on adventures, but be realistic about it – while taking yourself out of your comfort zone can have a lasting positive impact on your life, jumping on a plane and expecting some sunshine to cure you of your ills is only going to end in tears.

People often use geography as a way to resolve their emotional problems, and it rarely works, says Sally.

Use travel to explore new situations and praise yourself for coming out of your comfort zone. Try hard to interrupt harsh criticism you make about how well you are doing and be supportive of yourself.

Its essential that you become your cheerleader instead of a critic.

Remember, youre always doing the best you can do and even when your best is pretty rubbish just give yourself a break.

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12. Never be afraid to cut your trip short if youre not feeling it

Theres a difference between giving up and being strong enough to walk away from something thats not making you happy.

If youre miserable because you did point 11, theres no shame in flying home and working on your mental health before you go travelling again.

However, always make sure you give yourself enough time to try a new experience – sometimes it takes a while to settle into things.

When I was feeling low in Australia, I would remind myself, Youre only ever 24 hours from home, which helped me stick it out a bit longer (it took a good six months before I felt properly settled in my life there, and then by the time my 12 month visa was up, I didnt want to leave).

Its just knowing how long to give it, and when to call it – but you are the best judge of this.

If you do end up leaving your trip early, think about all the positive things youve achieved that you wouldnt have had you not booked that ticket.

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