Today has been a down day for me. It’s not 5 degrees anymore, the ice has melted, and the sky is even blue! But this just goes to show that external factors often have nothing to do with a shift in mood. Of course sometimes they can have some influence, and I know I should be doing things like exercising, but even when I’ve been immersed in what I love most in the world, I have still been depressed.
That thing I love most, as many of you know, is travel. My last overseas trip was to Italy for a month in 2011, and I know from experience not to expect everything to instantly transform for me when I travel in the winter. But on this trip, I isolated more than I ever have while traveling and really beat myself up a lot.
One benefit of being depressed while traveling? I know what helps make it easier. Here’s a list of some tips if you are struggling with your depression while on the road. Even better, most of these things are useful even if you’re at home.
1. Let your hosts, or people you’re traveling with, know what’s going on. Feeling down and miserable is bad enough, but it only gets worse when you keep it to yourself. Your hosts/travel-mates might detect a change in your mood or energy level. Some clear communication can clear up any misunderstandings and frustrations, so try to be honest and just let them know where you’re at.
2.It’s okay to take some alone time. In fact, when you’re traveling for an extended period and staying in other people’s homes, taking time for yourself is a necessity! You don’t have to feel guilty for going to bed a little earlier, or backing out of that last game of Scrabble, or politely declining that third glass of wine.
3. Don’t go away expecting you’ll have Internet access everywhere you go. Throughout my stay in Italy, it was surprisingly difficult to find WiFi , or to connect my laptop to my hosts’ networks, or as in the case in mountainous Tuscany, we sometimes lost our connection for a couple of days. I was in that mentality of MUST CONNECT OR ELSE!, and often that got in the way of appreciating where I was. I’m sure if I had gone into the trip thinking I have my laptop, so I can write, and if I get online too, that’d be a bonus. But I’m not going to Italy to be attached to my computer, then I might have been more in the moment. But I put too much emphasis on being able to ‘connect’, on getting in touch with loved ones, that it only upset me more when I found myself so disconnected.
4. Write to yourself. Documenting in words and photos is a must for me when I’m somewhere new.I always have a journal when I travel, even if it’s just for observations and commentary on my surroundings, and it comes in handy when it turns to stream-of-consciousness journaling and I can sort through my feelings. Sometimes I’m not even able to make sense of something until I write it down.
5. Send postcards home- even to yourself! Honestly, I just thought of the sending a postcard to yourself thing. But I’m absolutely going to do that next time I’m away. If I’m feeling depressed, I’ll write to myself how beautiful everything is, or how kind my hosts are, or what I’ll miss once I leave my temporary home. And as the person in my family who’s traveled the most, it’s always fun for them to receive my missives from different countries or cities. Part of fighting depression is getting out of your own head and doing something nice for others. Who doesn’t love receiving mail?
6. Play with animals. The two families that I stayed with on this trip both had pets: dogs, cats, and farm animals at one, and a dog at the other. Just type in “pets depression effects” and you’ll find endless articles on how beneficial owning a dog or cat can be. Cuddling up with a dog when I’m feeling lonely is so soothing!
7. Get outside and stay there! Another depression hack that has plenty of evidence out there. Spending time outdoors was easy: I was surrounded by great big skies and mountains straight out of The Sound of Music. And if I wanted to spend a day or an afternoon alone, short of holing up in my bedroom, I had to spend time outside. The nearest villages were always either several miles away or a strenuous uphill hike. Even better, sometimes I took the dog with me.
8. Speak the local language even if everyone around you is fluent in English. One of my hosts was an English expat, the others an Irish family who lived in Italy half the year. It’s easy to be lazy about practicing a foreign language when you’re surrounded by English speakers- but why not try to learn a certain number of new words every day? Every time someone speaks to you, ask them to repeat it in Italian. Read their newspapers and magazines with your dictionary close by. When we speak foreign languages, we’re exercising our cognitive skills and even triggering brain growth. That doesn’t leave much room for feeling depressed, does it? Even if you’re not practicing language skills, you can use your brain in other ways like doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles and studying maps.
9. Keep a gratitude list. Make a plan to stay consciously aware of the good things that happen. At bedtime each night, write whatever it is you’re grateful for, or what the highlights of the day were. It can be one thing, five things, or ten things. Maybe it’s the barista who made your latte that morning and wrote Good morning in the foam on top. Maybe it’s the little kids begging you to take their photo, or the dog keeping you company on the couch. Starting this practice before you’re feeling so down will help you to keep it going when you’re not having as much fun.
10. Don’t beat yourself up for not feeling joyful every minute. Yes, it sucks to be depressed when you’re exploring a new part of the world, but it sucks even more to berate yourself for not being happy when you’re “supposed to”. You are not supposed to be anything. Yes, try to appreciate where you are, but just feel whatever you’re feeling and that allowance might even make room for something more positive to come in.
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. –Anne Lamott