How Travel Can Help Curb Mental Illness

The pandemic has exacerbated the global state of mental health. Now with travel restrictions loosening, more people are itching to leave their homes and vacation far and wide. Evidence suggests this could help combat anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
fun traveling to ease out the symptoms of depression
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It's no secret that the pandemic has led to worsening mental health issues around the globe.

As described in one systematic review out of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, those afflicted with the virus indicated a higher display of post-traumatic stress syndrome and showed an increase in levels of depression relative to those who remain healthy.

The review also found that patients with preexisting mental disorders reported a worsening of those symptoms and that the general public seemed to be suffering from greater anxiety and depression compared to before the pandemic.

But change is coming. Not only do current vaccines offer a potential end to the pandemic as we know it and a return to normal life, but the recent loosening of travel restrictions and the relative drop in new cases grant us the opportunity to get on planes and cross borders once more.

And these opportunities might offer us a chance to improve our mental health.

Here are a few reasons why travel can help curb mental illness.

1. Traveling Provides Us with an Opportunity to Relax and Unwind

traveling to relax and unwind
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Be it from over-exhaustion and burnout or the general stresses of day-to-day life, the routine pressures we often face can be enough to bring about depression, anxiety, or other unwanted mental health issues in many.

Travel, and other forms of vacationing for that matter, can provide a break from our daily grind and afford us a respite from the causes of our stress.

Years ago, for example, I was privileged with the opportunity to study abroad in Italy over my summer break. Excited by the prospect, I found my experience to be both relaxing and life-affirming.

The prior semester had been a difficult one, but my experiences were therapeutic and eased my transition back into school—allowing me to graduate without burning out.

2. Traveling Allows Us to Meet People We Otherwise Would Not Have

meeting new people while traveling
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One of the more well-known precursors to depression is loneliness. According to one meta-analysis, loneliness, defined as the sadness caused by a lack of company, is a major variable affecting depression.

When we travel abroad, or even to new places within our own country's borders, we are rewarded with the opportunity to engage with people we otherwise would not have had the chance to meet.

This of course does not necessarily mean we will form long-lasting friendships during our travels, but socializing with others can lessen our own feelings of loneliness, which can work to improve our mental health.

Anytime I have the luxury of visiting new places I almost always end up meeting someone new. Hearing their experiences and perspectives do wonders to curb whatever feelings of loneliness I might be afflicted with, and they usually improve my mood.

3. Leaving Your Home Can Get You in Touch with Nature

traveling to connect with nature
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Depending on where you choose to travel, going on a journey could bring you closer to the great outdoors.

The idea seems relaxing in its own right, but evidence suggests that being in nature can actually offer therapeutic benefits as well.

As one study suggests, experiences in a greener environment were positively associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress in participants.

man and psychotherapist
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And while not a cure-all for many mental disorders, time in a more natural landscape can certainly improve one's mood. I've found that a relaxing stroll through the woods can easily lift my spirits and calm any anxiety I am feeling.

4. New Experiences Can Give You a New Perspective

Vacationing often affords us the ability to meet new people, see new places, and have novel experiences. These opportunities, in addition to being pleasurable, can open our eyes to a new way of seeing the world.

traveling for new perspectives

Whether it's getting in touch with the outlooks and perspectives of a different culture or having a religious experience halfway across the planet, seeing the world through the lens of an unfamiliar society can reshape our understanding of the issues and anxieties that contribute to our own neuroses.

Recognizing the importance of community and family to many Italians, for example, helped me understand how it was lacking in my life. And I am all the better for this realization.

5. Traveling Can Help Keep You in Shape

Even if your sojourn does not involve climbing mountains or hiking the Appalachian trail, going on vacation can often mean exploring new places and seeing everything your destination has to offer.

Be it museums, historic buildings, or acclaimed restaurants, traveling often involves just that: traveling, usually by foot, from point A to point B.

traveling keeps you fit
image source: abcnews

And if you're hoping to get everything out of your experience and end up walking more than you regularly do, chances are that this could improve your mental health as well.

According to one study, increasing the number of steps participants take by about 1,700 steps per day was linked to lower anxiety and depression scores. That is, getting in a little more exercise every day could work to improve your mood.

6. Going off on Your Own Can Teach You Resilience and Self-Reliance

Often times when traveling, you may be forced by circumstance to rely on yourself to navigate a possibly difficult or challenging situation. Although potentially stressful, these moments offer us a chance to learn and grow and can provide us with lessons on self-reliance and resilience.

traveling teaches your self reliance
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During my trip to Italy, I traveled on my own for the first time and was tasked with navigating through airports, customs, and the strange cultures and habits of different people.

It was a challenge, for sure, but it was also a transformative experience in my life. I wasn't under the protection or guidance of my parents and needed to look after my own safety and security.

It was a milestone and an instructive experience that would help prepare me for my time after graduation. It has also helped ward off potential depression and anxiety and can do the same for many.

7. Experiencing Travel Can Give You a Sense of Accomplishment

Voyaging far and wide can be a point of personal pride for many who decide to break the norm and go on an adventure.

And with this pride, there may come a sense of accomplishment. Many feel proud of their exploits overseas and are filled with good memories whenever they take some time to reflect on them.

These memories can in fact be a therapeutic source of comfort as well. When I take a moment to look back on my sojourn in the old country, I find solace in my accomplishments and in the fun I had.

This may not be enough to cure one of depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders, but it certainly can boost one's mood and self-esteem, which are to an extent linked with mental health.

tourist enjoying the site of a city
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Hopefully enough, the pandemic is on its last legs. People are starting to transition back into their old lives and vacation abroad once again.

More and more of the global community is getting vaccinated, and more and more of the world is leaving home and seeing what different countries have to offer.

Let's hope that this change brings an improvement in the state of our mental health.

Michael Valeri is a recent graduate of Hamilton College. He enjoys origami, biking, and playing the kalimba. He hopes you like his work.

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