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25 tips for travelling with anxiety and depression during COVID-19

I recently returned from a 17-day, 10-leg, 9-location trek through Poland, where my fiancée finally had chance to visit her family for the first time this year. Travelling during the coronavirus pandemic required extra vigilance and additional precaution. Accordingly, I want to share my experiences and help people – especially those dealing with mental ill health – to modify their own journeys during this difficult period.

While some people adore travelling, I have always found it challenging. Sure, I’m fascinated by diverse cultures, and every opportunity to see new sports stadiums is precious, but the whole ordeal leaves me drained, agitated and melancholic. I have struggled with homesickness from an early age, and my expeditions have become even harder following adult diagnoses of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Sometimes, it all seems too much, but I appreciate the importance to personal development of stepping outside one’s comfort zone. That is exactly what I did recently, and this is what I learned. In no particular order, here are my ultimate tips for travelling with mental health problems during the COVID-19 emergency – or anytime, really.

1. Avoid unnecessary travel

If your journey is not essential, it is probably best to reschedule just now. We only ventured to Poland out of necessity, as Patrycja went nine months without seeing her family back home. If you need to make a similar trip, pay close attention to government advice, international travel guidance and public health warnings. Check and recheck all those boring but vital websites to ensure you are compliant. If in doubt, stay home.

2. Prepare all necessary travel documents

The usual pre-flight paranoia of checking passports, boarding passes and visas has a new contemporary tic: filling in, storing and providing ‘passenger locator forms,’ state-mandated documents that contain your contact details and declare your fitness to travel. Each country seems to have a different version of these forms, which need to be downloaded, printed, completed and shown at borders. Reduce unnecessary stress and panic by sorting your travel documents well in advance of your trip.

3. Understand your itinerary

I’m a man and, well, we forget things. Indeed, cloudy-headed memory loss is one of the main side effects of my antidepressant usage, which is why Patrycja needs to tell me on seven occasions what day and time we are flying home. If you can, try to have sight - in writing - of your itinerary. Keep it to hand if possible, so you can check your progress whenever that forgetfulness creeps in. This will help reduce confusion and worry.

4. Compartmentalise your luggage

For me, one of the worst parts of travelling is how it turns humans into junk-carrying octopuses. I mean, seriously – how does it always happen? There you are, stood in the boarding queue, backpack on your shoulders, wheelie case by your side, boarding pass on your phone in one hand, passport in the other. You have a bottle of water tucked under one arm, a duty free bag wedged into your armpit, a half-eaten sandwich tucked between your kneecaps, a book falling slowly to the floor, and – what’s that? – oh, your lace needs tying.

Stop this madness. We cannot go on travelling this way. Sort yourself out. Pack what you need, where you need it. Travel documents in one place, easily accessible. Clothes in another place, buried for later on. Food consumed at a table or otherwise left on the shelf. Liquids and gels in the necessary containers. Devices ready to be taken out at security. Make space for the things you need, and if you cannot find that space, perhaps you do not need the thing after all.

5. Pick a suitable airport outfit

The travelling human octopus is also likely to have a full-blown meltdown at the airport security scanners. You see, there is a direct correlation between a male’s propensity to pack abhorrently and his likelihood of setting the sirens off due to wearing a needless Hugo Boss belt on travel days. Dress for comfort and dress to reduce hassle. No coats, jackets, belts, fanny packs, knuckledusters or Dr Martens boots. Pick your outfit with the scanner in mind. Nobody wants to flap at the conveyor belt, dancing the neurotic jig of a malfunctioning human brain. Be smart.

6. Remember your mask and hand gel

On a serious note, wear a face mask and sanitise your hands as often as possible. Your momentary inconvenience may save another person’s life, just as your finite discomfort may preclude the infinite discomfort of those more vulnerable.

7. Disinfect your plane or train seat

People looked at Patrycja a little weirdly when she produced a mini vial of Dettol onboard our flight to Poland, but hey, it is better to be safe than sorry. Antibacterial wipes should also do the trick. Take control of your area and make it safe to inhabit, even for a few hours.

8. Stretch wherever and whenever possible

It may seem primitive, but there are proven health benefits – mental and physical – to just moving your body and getting the blood pumping through your veins. When travelling, we often find ourselves crammed into unconventional spaces, from dodgy Ryanair aisle seats to minuscule modular cabins. Get up, get active and get bendy. Stretch wherever and wherever possible, be it in the airport lobby or in a random petrol station courtyard somewhere near Łódź. Do a full yoga session, if time allows, but make sure you are at least stretching those weary muscles. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

9. Explain your struggles to those with whom you are travelling

All too often, we struggle in silence when feeling homesick or road weary, and that duplicitous avoidance of reality can be enhanced for those suffering with mental health problems while away. Small frustrations can build into momentous eruptions, and innocuous indecision can cause mounting resentment. Ultimately, however, people cannot read minds. You need to voice any concerns to those in your travelling party.

I’m lucky, in some ways, because Patrycja knows my quirks and neuroses, my triggers and pressure points. She knows my values, and that is crucial when travelling in close proximity to people for any length of time. A journey founded on anxious subterfuge, replete with false answers and forced participation, will only end in disaster. Explain your struggles so your friends and family members can factor them into the trip.

Of course, that can often be difficult, because mental health stigma can arise anywhere at any time. Still, tell people why you do not want that drink. Tell people why you want to stay by the pool tomorrow rather than traipsing on another tour. Tell people why you avoid certain foods and do not apologise for going to bed early, if that is what your self-care routine looks like.

These are not personality traits to be dissected. They are symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD and just plain old tiredness. Sometimes, people need to be told as such, and through that educative process, we can help make the world a more forgiving and understanding place.

10. Breathe

The simplest advice is usually the best: remember to take deep breaths whenever tension rises. Breathing deliberately, and focusing on that concept, helps moderate our spiralling moods. It is the most accessible pathway to mindfulness, and it can be done anywhere, in any condition. It is quite magical, actually.

11. Take your medication

It can be easy to lose track of time when travelling. For some people, that is a big part of its appeal. However, such an easy blurring of days can throw our routines out of synch. In a certain light, that can be positive, but when it comes to taking medication for depression, anxiety or any other psychological disorder, consistency is key. Ensure that is reflected in your daily priorities. Take your meds and do not feel a need to hide them.

12. Eat and drink as regularly as possible

Likewise, eating at regular intervals – and eating well – can often fall by the wayside when travelling. There is always something more important or more exciting to do, and the urge to find that next landmark can be engrossing. Plan your meals and consider your departure times. Where possible, cook proper food. Take a refillable water bottle with you. Oh, and avoid those pesky golden arches, which will be ubiquitous no matter where your journey takes you. Nobody ever found contentment at the bottom of a Big Mac.

13. Use the toilet whenever you get a chance

There is nothing like being stuck in transit and needing the loo to cause immense distress. Try to use the toilet on each leg of your journey, even if you do not feel the immediate need. Trust me, that need will develop, and regularity in this regard is important to our overall sense of health and wellbeing.

14. Research activities, attractions, sightseeing trips and excursions

The scattergun approach to travelling never works. Without a preconceived destination, and devoid of a clear strategy for logical jumping-off points, your journey is destined to end in exhausting agitation. Fortunately, the internet exists nowadays, allowing you to plan every aspect of your trip. You no longer have to thumb through huge AA maps and dull Yellow Pages listings. This stuff is easy now.

Iron out the costs, logistics and benefits of each activity, and do not alter the itinerary impulsively. No stopping at a restaurant that looks great through the car window as you drive past. No trekking to an attraction that will be too expensive when you get there. No hemming and hawing about what to do next. Be informed, prepared and decisive. That way, you will limit the anarchy of relentless oscillation.

15. Plan your days while considering mental health

While researching and planning your trips, place mental health at the forefront of your consideration. If somebody in your travelling party suffers with social anxiety, perhaps skip that crowded arcade. If somebody is classically introverted, maybe work in some alone time for the benefit of everybody concerned. If tiredness builds, do not be scared to take a day off and relax. There is always tomorrow. Remember that.

As with most things nowadays, holidays and travelling have been infected by the curse of phoney social media happiness – you know, the pervasive cultural urge to post 700 selfies beside the Coliseum in Rome, pretending to look delighted when in actual fact you are swallowing a panic attack. Stop that bullshit, and stop doing things to impress other people.

Often, we pay so much for our holidays, and we invest so much time feeling excited about them in the build-up, that there is an inexorable desire to cram as much into the week we are away as humanly possible. That is understandable, in part, but listen to your own internal dialogue. If it barks for a day off, that is fine. Why push that pain barrier? After all, travelling recreationally is supposed to be enjoyable.

If you had a late night, make the next day easier. Schedule some downtime. Kick back and watch the world zoom by. Stop travelling, in other words, and actually enjoy the present location to which you are fixed. Stay in the moment, and do not weigh that moment down with nonsensical obligations.

16. Only travel as far as the neediest member of your party can tolerate

This is a novel idea that often goes overlooked. Most of the time, people do not even consider it. However, travelling while mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of your party is crucial to a pleasant experience. If you have kids, maybe avoid that cross-country expedition. If you have somebody who requires a wheelchair, think at length about disabled access. If you struggle with depression, perhaps skip multi-leg journeys. Think before you leave, and do not be scared to tone things down along the way.

17. Avoid crowds and peak-time gatherings

We all want to see the Eiffel Tower, but does it have to be at 1:00 pm on a glorious Saturday afternoon in June? Yes, it will look great in photos, but it will also trigger volcanic eruptions within the soul of a depressive. Be frugal when planning your sightseeing. Avoid unnecessary crowds, confrontations and meltdowns.

18. Monitor your budget and finances

When you are on the road for a couple of weeks, attending events and looking at incredible architecture, it can be easy to forget about bills, invoices, taxes and online banking. The rise of contactless card payments, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, makes it even easier to spend, spend, spend. At least once a day, check in with your finances and monitor your expenditure. Make a budget and stick to it. You will be surprised how those unplanned purchases soon mount up when travelling. Keep an eye on them.

19. Do not be afraid to sneak off and find time for yourself

I’m an introvert, which means my energy is quickly depleted by social interaction. My battery drains pretty quick, essentially, and I do not gain new energy through conversations and small talk. After a couple of hours in a social setting – maintaining a rigorous fake smile – I need the same amount of time alone. Psychologists literally refer to this as a ‘charging’ period for introverts, and I believe strongly in the hypothesis.

If you are an introvert, or if the company around you is just a little bit too much, do not be afraid to sneak off somewhere while travelling and just be yourself for half an hour. Let the mask melt away. Frown to your heart’s content. Wallow in your own impenetrable miserableness.

You may worry that people think you are acting strangely by putting yourself first, but – ironically – they will actually appreciate a break from the incessant pretence to focus on their own issues. We all need our own space – even those people who tend to invade yours. 

20. Sleep whenever and wherever possible

The benefits of quality sleep for good mental health are almost unending. We are all familiar with the need to get seven or eight hours of good shuteye per night, but still we put other things – scrolling Twitter, partying, fighting, eating crisps - before sleep. Seriously, people – there are few things more important at 11:00pm than being in bed. Stop obfuscating the circadian rhythm of life and give yourself the best chance of feeling good when that morning alarm rings.  

21. Shower and wash every day

This sounds like a prerequisite, but you would be surprised at the amount of people who fail to factor in basic hygiene when planning budget backpacking holidays through Europe. Occasionally, resources can be sorely lacking, especially in hostels, and that needs to be considered before you even embark on a trip. There is something to be said for shunning the perks of plush modern life, but some things cannot be sacrificed. Showering every day, no matter how difficult, is a bedrock of good mental health, or at least it is an emblem of your intention to function as a human being. Do it as soon as you wake up. That way, you start the morning on the front foot. 

22. Recreate small symbolism of home

To ease the onset of homesickness, carry some small trinkets or symbols of home that can provide momentary relief and comfort when things get too much. It might be a playlist of local music or simply a book that reminds you of a favourite walk. Just have something that acts as a portal to more familiar environs.

23. Keep a journal or travel diary

During particularly dark periods of depression, anxiety and despair, I have found journaling to be a useful outlet. When you feel lost, or when the world seems too complicated, there is something therapeutic about a smooth ink pen and a nice padded notebook. Together, they form a gateway to your soul, and the simple act of getting your thoughts down on paper can stop them from rattling around your skull. If travelling can help us find ourselves, writing about our travels can help us understand, accept and love that character we discover. It is also fun to look back on your writing a few years down the line. It will be amazing how much you have grown.

24. Check in on life back home

When attempting to analyse the constitution of homesickness and travel anxiety, I think there is a baseline fear of missing out upon which all other issues are built. I’m not necessarily talking about parties or meals or nights down the pub with your mates. I’m referring to news, current events, football scores and the mundane passage of everyday milestones. If you struggle with these things, make some time to check those emails or scan those websites. FaceTime your parents and get an update on life back home. Just do not overdo it, because being present is the most important thing of all.

25. Do not overdo your return to normality

In a similar regard, upon returning home, there is a natural propensity to throw ourselves straight back onto the treadmill of everyday life, working and socialising at an unsustainable pace. Resist that temptation and give your mind, body and soul a chance to reacclimatise.

Even if you are not required by the coronavirus guidelines to self-isolate, be considerate and responsible in your actions for the first two weeks upon returning home. People can wait to see your holiday photos. People can wait to hear your travel stories. People can wait, okay? Give yourself time to recuperate, and give society a chance to welcome you back in a bearable manner.

Final thoughts and advice on travelling in 2020

On the whole, I enjoyed our recent trip to Poland. In particular, it was great to see Patrycja spend some quality time with her family after waiting so long. Moreover, I got to see some new places and experience some cool things. Nevertheless, I continue to learn a lot about my own mental health and the ways in which prolonged travel impacts it – mostly negatively. That will always be the case, because life is ever-changing, and we must constantly evaluate our responses to those undulations.

Undoubtedly, travelling during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic heightened the native anxieties I typically feel in transit. The added layers of paranoia, germ prevention and bureaucracy stoked a traditionally difficult experience. Indeed, a low-level hum of stress permeates life in 2020, throughout the world. It sometimes feels like we are living through a collective nervous breakdown, and we are all a bit jaded by the onslaught of negativity.

Still, there is always hope – and, more practically, there are always techniques we can deploy to lessen the burden of rough patches and tough times. If these hard-won tips help people with mental health issues feel better while travelling, during the current health emergency or at any other time, I will be pleased. Furthermore, if this article helps raise awareness of untold pain and unspoken struggles on the road, my objective will be satisfied. With a more compassionate outlook, perhaps we can even make travelling a more fun, relaxed and inclusive endeavour entirely. I yearn for that day, and I will campaign to make it happen.

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