Can Travel Help You Beat Depression?

If you suffer from depression, you’re probably familiar with the usual recommendations. Prescription drugs, talk therapy, and meditation are all clinically proven to be effective treatments, and you’re also advised to get plenty of exercise, avoid alcohol, and eat a healthy diet. 

But what if none of that is working for you? Some people decide to take treatment into their own hands, shaking up their lives in radical ways — with world travel topping the list of popular options. Researchers haven’t tested the effects of travel on mental health, but travelers are reporting on their experiences with depression and travel in the media and the blogosphere. 

Learning Self-Care

Writing for the Daily Mail, Abigail Butcher describes a decade of depressive episodes beginning at age 18, with periods that felt like “walking through mud”  moments when she found herself sitting in the street, unable to move, and finally several days in a dark room popping sleeping pills and battling suicidal thoughts. Her doctor offered increased medication and suggested she go for a walk, but Butcher chose a life change instead. She took a three-month sabbatical from the high-stress job that was giving her migraines and ulcertive colitis and hopped on a plane.  

For Butcher, the trip seems to have done the trick. She has learned to relax, slow down, and make decisions that are only about pleasing herself. “My arrival in Delhi coincided with me taking my last antidepressant. It is different without them: I feel emotions more acutely, but I’m learning to manage them and I don’t feel down. Returning home to start from scratch is daunting — but it’s also hugely exciting. Negotiating my way around the world, I have grown in confidence and ability.”

Traveling alone gave Butcher the perspective she needed to examine her life from a distance, and taught her to care for herself rather than depending on others.

A Cautionary Tale

Conversely, depression can catch up with you on the road as well, and ruin your trip. Natalie Michelle writes for Thought Catalog  about how a depressive episode ruined her travel. She describes sleeping for 14 hours a day,  leaving her hostel only to get food, and finding no empathy in the exuberant travelers around her. “…No matter where you go and what you do, your depression is still going to be there.” Michelle says. “Sometimes it’ll go away, but more likely than not, it’s going to come back. You can’t run from your depression, because it’ll always catch up with you.” She points out that the lack of sympathy either from other travelers or the jealous souls back home is nothing compared to the guilt you can douse yourself with for “wasting” your travel time. 

Lifestyle Changes

In the blog AngloItalian, Dale Davies writes about his experience with travel and depression. For Davies, the decision to take up a life of travel was a catalyst in beating depression. After about two years of travel, Davies reports having only a few bad days and being, in general, “as far away from depression as I’ve been in a long, long time.” His new traveling life has led Davies to a number of other lifestyle changes that have surely impacted his mental health. He’s done volunteer work that brought meaning to his days, observed lifestyles in third-world countries that helped him appreciate what he has, and adopted a vegetarian diet. 

Consider Carefully

A recent article in The Culturist about long-term travel and mood expanded on the axiom that “Wherever you go, there you are.” While a short vacation may lift our moods temporarily, we are all subject to an “emotional set-point.” Your brain chemistry and thought patterns will be traveling with you, and a change of scenery won’t automatically eliminate your need for medication, meditation, or cognitive therapy. 

But if your depression is situational — if you are restless and unhappy in your career or personal relationships — travel might help you put things in perspective and be a jumping-off point for other healthy life changes.