Overcoming Low Mood, Negative Thinking and Difficult Situations while Travelling
We all know how great travel is. Seriously, I’m the first to rave about the sheer awesomeness of it and have done so countless times through Coddiwomp, both on the website and social media.
In terms of self-development, education, personal growth, enhancing cultural awareness; witnessing profound beauty and having incredible, life-changing experiences, I honestly think travelling is one of the best things anyone can do in life.
However, travel isn’t always great. And, where travel bloggers and content producers understandably often focus on the immense positive qualities of travel, there’s a tendency not to talk about the multitude of challenges involved too. And, though I’ve discussed some of the potential problems any traveller can experience (such as homesickness, loneliness and tiredness), I’m guilty of it as well!
For instance, there’s a common (mis-)perception that, miraculously, travelling will enable us to leave the woes of our ‘normal life’ behind; indeed, we may even go away with the primary intention of doing so, seeing it as some form of escape from our usual struggles.
For such a traveller, it can be unsettling to find that the problems of home (stress, anxiety, worry, depression, fear, anger etc) remain present on the other side of the world. Personally, I’ve definitely felt the sting of this realisation!
The fact of the matter is that most of our issues are internal so it doesn’t matter where you go, the same difficulties will follow.
Except that, now you’re feeling anxious and neurotic alone on a beach, or in a temple, as opposed to in the comfort of your own home.
This in itself is problematic as it can lead to shame and self-flagellation: “how can I still be x, y and z when I’m ‘living the dream’, exploring somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit and ticking items off my bucket-list? There must be something wrong with me”.
Suddenly, the trip of a lifetime that you’d expected, hoped and ultimately (having read, seen and listened to so much one-sided travel content) been led to believe would be so incredible, turns into a wholly different story: one of negativity and hurt.
Okay, so that’s an extreme, specific example. But the general point is this:
In the effort to help people travel, it’s only reasonable and fair that we talk about this side of things too, rather than unfairly focusing exclusively on the positive. Hence this blog post.
That was a long introduction. However, I wanted to set this blog on ‘overcoming low mood, negative thinking and difficult situations while travelling’ up properly as ironically, the issue I’ve just talked about seems self-perpetuating.
After all, when you plan a trip it’s understandable to want to focus on the positives and hear how amazing it’s going to be, rather than dwell on the potential issues. Content producers follow suit and give us what we want. Hopefully, 500 words in, I’ve made my point about the need to talk about the downsides too!
The potential challenges posed by travel are broad and numerous. They can range from practical difficulties such as navigating language barriers and novel public transport systems, to physical struggles such as illness and fatigue, to emotional ones like low mood, anxiety and negative thinking.
None of these issues are easy, but in my experience it’s the emotional struggles that have had the biggest impact on my trips. So, though I’ll look at the practical and physical difficulties in future, for now I want to offer some thoughts and strategies that I hope will help if/when you come across such emotional challenges while you’re travelling.
So, without further ado and in no particular order, here they are.
- One of the best starting points for alleviating low mood or negative thinking is having a solid grounding in who you are and what makes you tick.
- It means you have a better chance of understanding what you’re thinking/feeling and why it’s happening; you may also know the strategies that improve things best for you.
- For instance, one day you feel lethargic and sluggish. However, you know that you’re a classic extrovert and thrive around people; travelling can be a lonesome affair at times and it’s been a while since you’ve socialised- maybe you need to find someone to hang out with for the afternoon.
- This is something you can work on before you even go travelling: make an effort to know yourself better and it may make things far easier to handle on your trip.
Recognise What it is You’re Feeling or Thinking
- Often, the best first step to feeling better is to put your finger on the exact negative emotion or thought you’re going through. Only from a point of knowledge can we really find a solution to a problem. It’s similar to making goals.
- If a goal is undefined from the outset, there’s no way of ever reaching it. Instead, we need something specific that we can focus on. The same goes with our mood.
Try to Accept the Way You’re Feeling
- Having recognised the issue, try to accept and allow yourself to feel/think that way. In life, there’s a lot of pressure to be and feel a certain way (check out my article on the danger of ‘shoulds’). Whether it’s genuine pressure from others, or an internal felt pressure, it’s easy to convince ourselves we shouldn’t be or feel x, y or z- especially when we’re meant to be having the time of our lives.
- As a result, we berate and argue with ourselves and beat ourselves up. This creates internal conflict that usually exacerbates the original issue.
- Instead, allowing ourselves to think or feel a particular way helps to alleviate the felt pressure not to and reduces the negativity as a result. Remember that it is okay to feel the way you are. You’re only human- it’s natural to struggle at times.
Take a Self-Compassionate Approach
- Don’t be hard on yourself. Speak to yourself kindly as you would a friend going through the same thing. Try hard to shut out the punitive self-talk that will only make things worse.
Keep in Mind What You’re Doing
- I mean, you’re away from friends and family, perhaps on the other side of the world, testing yourself in new ways that constantly push you out of your comfort zone.
- That’s brave, ballsy and it’s fundamentally a big deal- it’s completely natural to go through the entire range of difficult emotions.
- Not everyone has the courage to do what you’re doing. Give yourself some credit!
Ride Out The Wave
- Sometimes, it’s just a matter of time. No matter what you try, nothing’s going to make it better and it’s simply going to suck for a while. Emotions tend to come in waves, in a series of crests and troughs. You might just be at a particularly low ebb: accept what’s happening and ride it out.
Using Stress/Struggle As a Tool
So, I want to spend a bit of time talking about stress.
In our society today we spend a lot of time and effort avoiding discomfort to the extent that we’re now immensely stress-averse. We’ve come to see it as something that’s downright bad. It’s true: stress is never nice and in extremes it can lead to really negative consequences.
I recently watched a video of a Rabbi talking about lobsters in this context. So, apparently a lobster is a soft, squidgy animal that resides in a hard outer shell. As the lobster grows it gets too big for the shell and, like a button that pops off your jeans when they’re too tight, it becomes uncomfortable under such pressure, strain and stress.
At such a time the lobster retreats under the safety of a rock, sheds its old, too undersized shell and waits until a new one forms. Then, complete with a shiny new shell, the lobster ventures forth stress free, having grown as a result of its ordeal.
Compare this to a modern day human approach.
We feel uncomfortable, under pressure- stressed. However, rather than accepting the problem, finding a place of safety and waiting for the discomfort to pass, we search frantically for a way to get rid of it. Maybe we get prescribed some medication or a short term course of therapy.
Essentially, in our angst, we hurry to feel better and so opt for a quick fix: the fastest method available of reverting to our previous state of contentedness.
However, it’s a bit like the lobster taking a pill to shrink its squidgy interior.
Ultimately, there’s a danger that we deny ourselves the chance to grow. Of course, this approach is often warranted and I definitely don’t wish to question the need for medication and therapy- they’re hugely important.
However, I also think we should acknowledge the extraordinary power of coming up against something challenging and coming through it, having grown as a result.
I’ve used the analogy before of learning to ride a bike. The first time you take those stabilisers off you wobble around and fall over countless times. It’s difficult and it hurts. But, having mastered the art of two wheel travel, new possibilities are opened! You’re faster, more agile and come away with a great sense of pride.
The same is true of travel. It can be horrendously difficult at times, you’ll wobble around, fall over and it can hurt. When you get through the challenges though everything changes: you’re stronger, more resilient and things are generally easier.
For me, this is where the power of travel really sits: the reason it has such profound influence on people’s lives.
That was reaalllly long way of suggesting that the emotional struggles on the road, though undeniably challenging and uncomfortable in the moment, may ironically be beneficial in the long run. Reminding ourselves of this idea and seeing issues in this light may be helpful in and of itself.
Sometimes it takes a shift in thinking- a positive reframing - to help us overcome an issue. Changing our relationship with our problems, though tough, can be a good way of getting through them.
...Back to the blog though! Where were we?...
Put Things in Perspective
- Seeing things in perspective can be a powerful way of overcoming challenges.
- A personal favourite is staring at the night sky, into the deep dark abyss of space, seeing how vast it is; realising that the only reason I can see the stars is that light has travelled hundreds of thousands of light years to enter my eye; that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on our beaches. Something about it makes my issues pale in comparison.
- Other methods could include acknowledging the challenges of the people in your environment or further afield- seeing refugees fleeing war for example. This isn’t to belittle the way you feel at all. It’s just another useful method of putting things in perspective to hopefully alter a negative state of mind.
- Own what’s happening. In other words, don’t blame other people or events for what’s going on. It isn’t easy, but even if your bad mood is obviously someone else’s fault, you take responsibility for it. Succeed at this and you never have to wait on someone else to fix your problems. Instead, it’s your issue so you can fix it.
- This is a hugely empowering process whereby you’re in full control of your experience. Remain self-compassionate, but accept responsibility. From there, you have an awesome platform from which to take positive steps forwards.
If you’re still with me, good on you! This has turned into a long one! I’ll now move on to some practical strategies that may also help.
Make a List of Things That Help, Before You Go
- A teacher of mine used to say: “prior preparation prevents piss poor performance” (thank you Mr. Short!). Essentially, preparing for something properly beforehand will prevent problems in future.
- Before you go away, make a list of everything that you know helps you feel better emotionally. It’s far harder to think rationally about this when we’re struggling in some way, so having it written down to refer back to can be incredibly useful in such times.
- One of the greatest antidotes for fear, uncertainty and anxiety is action. Whatever it is, doing something can help alleviate it. Go for a walk, read a book, go for a coffee, watch a film, speak to someone on the street.
- Whatever it is, doing something can be a perfect distraction. Just a brief break from a negative mindset can be hugely beneficial.
- If you’re feeling homesick you (check out my post on how to reduce homesickness while travelling) could always contact friends and family back home. With Wifi nearly everywhere these days, it’s super easy to do call or message loved ones.
- When times are tough, having someone who knows you listen and offer their advice and encouragement can be huge; simply hearing their voice may be all you need & remember: a problem shared is a problem halved!
Be With People
- When you’ve been alone for a while, connecting with someone can be just the ticket to improve a negative mindset. Cook a meal with someone in your hostel, introduce yourself to someone on a city tour, buy someone a drink in a bar and get chatting.
- Whatever form it takes, often being with people can improve your mood and help distract you from thoughts and feelings.
- Conversely, when you’ve been around lots of people, especially new people, for a long time, taking some time out t be by yourself can help recharge your batteries. As a self-confessed introvert this is definitely true for me.
- Though I love meeting and being around people, it saps the energy from me; being by myself helps me to relax and feel rejuvenated.
Do Something for Someone Else
- We forget how good it feels to do good deeds! Buy a coffee for someone, volunteer in a charity, speak to a homeless person, cook dinner for someone in the hostel...anything!
- Doing good and even seeing someone else do good releases a hormone called oxytocin in our brains. Essentially, this gives us a natural neurological dose of positive feeling.
Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
- On the theme of taking doses of something, it can be tempting to consume both drugs and alcohol in hard times. After all, on traveller circuits drugs are often readily available and alcohol is usually cheap. When you’re struggling and these mood-enhancing quick-fixes are on the menu, it’s tempting to indulge.
- What goes up must come down though and comedowns and hangovers are best avoided when you’re already in a bad place.
- By all means socialise and go for a drink or two (...or three)- these can be great ways of meeting people and feeling better- but know your limits and keep in mind the depressive nature of alcohol too. Things can go downhill quickly.
- Write things down. I think everyone should write in a journal when they travel anyway but there’s a particular practice that helps when you’re struggling. In something referred to as ‘Morning pages’, for 5 minutes only (best practised in the morning, right after you wake up), write whatever’s in your head down on a bit of paper, or on your laptop.
- Don’t think, just write or type in a constant brain purge. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or syntax etc- this practice is all about getting what’s in there, out there.
- Before you know it, those loosely defined, abstract problems that filled your mind have been emptied into a physical medium and have been concretised and well defined.
- The practice in itself is cathartic, but having the knowledge there also helps you move forwards with a solution.
- Depression is based in the past; anxiety and worry rooted in the future. Consequently, in the midst of these we’re rarely in the present. Meditation helps us ground ourselves in the present moment such that we have a better chance of escaping such debilitating emotions.
- Mindfulness (a form of meditation defined as non-judgmental awareness in the present moment) has been linked scientifically to a huge range of benefits including a reduction of stress and positive effects on all manner of mental health challenges.
- This is my meditation of choice. Try experimenting with mindfulness before you go travelling and build short exercises (5-10 minutes initially) into a daily routine, such that you’re not a complete newbie when you need it on your trip.
Eat and Sleep Right
- Essentially: cover your bases first. Make sure you’ve done the most basic things required for positive mental and physical well-being before looking for answers and pondering how the deep-seated flaws in your being must explain your current state.
- Sometimes, you might just be hungry, or you didn’t sleep well the night before, or you’ve not eaten correctly, or had too much (or not enough...) caffeine. In the words of Tim Ferriss, in his book ‘Tools of Titans’:
- Travel can be incredibly tiring and for me, tiredness is the root of many evils. When I’m really tired I get grouchy, restless, frustrated and fidgety; life feels rubbish and so do the people I’m around. I’m not a lot of fun. So, taking breaks (along with eating and sleeping well) is hugely important to keeping up energy levels.
- Try not to cram too much stuff into your day, go easy, sit on a bench and watch the world pass by. Generally, when you travel, any semblance of a rush that you feel is self-imposed- no time constraints here!
- Slowing down, taking breaks and being present are fundamental ways of enhancing your experience.
So, there you have it: my thoughts and strategies to overcome low mood, negative thinking and difficult situations. This piece turned into a mammoth one, but I hope you got some value from it. For me, the most important point to keep in mind is that travel isn’t easy.
Far from it! Challenges are around every corner. However, embrace the adventure.
Very little on the road is insurmountable; you will get through whatever comes up and the difficulties there-in will be exactly what made the experience so rewarding when it eventually comes to an end.
When it comes to emotional challenges, know yourself, recognise how you feel, attempt to accept things and then, if it’s still tough, take some form of action. In spite (and possible because) of the struggles, you will have the time of your lives!
Did I miss anything out? What techniques do you use to feel better in life that you expect to use on the road? I’d love to know! Drop a comment here or contact me directly!