Those stories you read of people quitting their jobs to travel the world who come back with a fresh perspective? They’re an exception.
More than 15 million American adults have major depressive disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) and another 3.3 million have a diagnosis of persistent depressive disorder. For most of these adults, travel is not a cure. In fact, traveling may even make symptoms worse than before.
In college, I experienced a depressive episode after traveling to see my then-boyfriend. Prior to visiting him, I was facing the stress factors of a long-distance relationship mixed with the struggles of finishing my final quarter leading up to graduation. That long weekend was a great escape from schoolwork and making important decisions for the future. But when I arrived at my departure gate, the reality of returning home slammed into me like one big tidal wave.
I found myself in tears.
Fleeing in order to avoid uncomfortable situations is utterly human. After all, the fight-or-flight response has been around since the dawn of time. Easy and cheap travel booking literally makes the flight part easier.
Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona also adds that if this escape in the form of travel is done impulsively, there’s a greater likelihood symptoms will rebound or return even stronger than before.
And we’ve all experienced that — the moment we land and turn flight mode off: all the pings, notifications, and text messages overwhelm like a flash flood.
“The tendency is to attribute the cause of suffering to something outside of yourself: your job, your family, your relationship, and so on,” notes Mary V. Seeman, MDCM, DSc, Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto. “So you travel to get away from the supposed causes only to find that the depression is inside.”
Travel can be a stressful experience. For people who just drop everything and leave, it can be worse. “Be aware that travel has the potential to make things worse or better for those struggling with depression and be very conscious of your intentions by planning thoughtfully and thoroughly,” urges Dr. Cilona.
Trying to coordinate transportation, locate lodging, and plan activities that flow seamlessly throughout the trip is often a daunting task. Add in the many uncontrollable factors of travel like flight delays and inclement weather? Well, people diagnosed with depression can become even more overwhelmed than the everyday traveler.
If you’re thinking of dropping everything and leaving, there are some other things you may want to consider before taking the plunge.
Holidays and other peak-travel periods can increase your anxiety. Where you’re traveling matters, too. Traveling abroad requires much more preparation and consideration than traveling domestically. All of these elements can exacerbate and add symptoms of depression, even though you’re leaving your everyday life behind.
“All the problems of traveling will bother people with depression more than usual: the annoyances, the inconveniences, the lack of sleep, the loss of familiar surroundings, the interruption of routines, the happy faces, and the forced socialization,” says Dr. Seeman. “Jet lag will be worse. Loneliness will be worse. New people will seem more of a drag.”
Think about how you’d feel if you left without addressing your problems and came back, only to find out they’re still there. If the thought of picking up where you left off makes you feel hopeless, perhaps traveling isn’t the answer.
“Once you realize that the tangled causes of the depressed feeling come from the inside, it becomes easier to sort them out by talking to friends or counselors,” advises Dr. Seeman. “[Help yourself] by meditating, by improving sleep, hygiene, and diet, getting more exercise, stopping habits like alcohol and drugs, sorting out interpersonal problems, and potentially even by taking antidepressants.”
This isn’t to say that people with depression can’t travel in a healthy way. Dr. Cilona notes that a conscious use of travel for healthy respite or relief can be helpful. It’s when travel is viewed as a cure that problems arise.
For people who travel with depression, treatment while you’re away from your everyday surroundings and support system can often be the same or require only slight alterations to your current treatment. Once you’ve learned what tools and assistance are effective for you, relying on many of the same practices while on the road is sufficient.
Often for people with depression, the time during your travels won’t necessarily make things worse, especially when done in a healthy way. Traveling often brings feelings of relief and happiness. The crash comes when you have to return home at the end of a trip.
In the days after returning from visiting my boyfriend, I spent more time in bed and less time facing my responsibilities, nursing an intense case of the post-travel blues. Travel had been a respite, yes, but for that moment, it was very temporary.
“All of the old demands will return, plus needing to catch up with work left undone. [With] the possibility of jet lag and the realization that the next vacation is very far away, a depressed person will probably feel it all more than a ‘happy’ person,” concludes Dr. Seeman. “But, the vacation may have allowed [them] time to think about next steps and new purposes, so there may be a new determination to get help, for instance.”
My story and experience isn’t unique. I wish I’d known that setting aside a time for reflection and planning can be key to actively combating magnified symptoms when returning home.
There’s never been a magical cure for depression. Travel definitely shouldn’t be viewed as such.
Understanding that depression will come along for the ride — and using travel as a reprieve rather than as an antidote — can make all the difference in the experience and feelings that arise before, during, and after your journey.
Ashley Lauretta is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. She’s an assistant editor for LAVA Magazine and contributing editor for Women’s Running. Additionally, her byline appears in The Atlantic, ELLE, Men’s Journal, espnW, GOOD Sports, and more. Find her online at ashleylauretta.comand on Twitter at @ashley_lauretta.