How to Take Care of Your Mental Health While Traveling

By Kristance Harlow 08/30/17

Even people without a diagnosis can have a mental health condition emerge during travel.

Woman sleeping with eye mask on plane

Travel can be enormously beneficial to mental health. Seeing the world can teach important skills for adapting to new circumstances and make you more open-minded. Engaging with different cultures can boost creativity and just planning a vacation can be enough to improve someone’s mood. But despite the benefits, there are risks involved. Travel and mental disorders can make for a potent cocktail.

No matter how long you’re traveling for, or how you’re getting there, or how far you’re going, you should be taking precautionary measures to protect your health. This is especially critical if you are coping with issues of addiction and mental illness.

Mental health issues are cited as one of the most common medical problems experienced by travelers. About 11 percent of travelers are assumed to experience some sort of mental health problem. The numbers are higher in long-term travelers such as migrants and expatriates. This correlates with the different levels of stress these groups face. Short-term travel causes the least amount of stress while expatriates and frequent travelers experience the highest levels of stress. Up to 20 percent of repatriations are due to mental illness.

Travel, in and of itself, can bring on symptomatic behaviors and even acute episodes of mental illness. For example, jetlag has been cited as a cause of psychotic episodes in travelers. Jetlag is a real, albeit temporary, medical disorder with symptoms that range from the emotional to the physical. The most common of these include insomnia, fatigue, irritability, poor concentration, headaches, and digestive issues. Sleep deprivation and the interruption of normal biological rhythms are thought to be largely responsible for jetlag’s stronghold on mental disorders. People with mood disorders are especially vulnerable when subjected to disruptions in the circadian clock.

Jetlag is most commonly experienced when a person travels more than two time zones by airplane. However, there are people who can be affected by a single time zone change. A related condition, travel fatigue, can affect mental health even though it does not usually affect the circadian rhythms. Travel fatigue is not as long lasting as jetlag, but it is still concerning for those who are vulnerable. The symptoms of travel fatigue vary from disorientation to headaches.

It isn’t unusual for people to experience new symptoms or even to have their first major episode of mental illness while traveling. Pre-existing mood disorders may become aggravated. Even people without diagnosed conditions can have a mental health disorder emerge during travel, such as psychosis manifesting in people who don’t have a history of it. Acute psychotic attacks make up an estimated 20 percent of “travel-related psychiatric problems” and psychiatric emergencies rank among the top reasons for air evacuation.

One-third of people with mental illness and half of all people with severe mental illness also struggle with a substance use disorder. Fifty-one percent of individuals suffering from a substance use disorder have a co-occurring psychiatric condition. Even people who have their feet well-placed in recovery may be more vulnerable when traveling. When a person’s normal schedule is disrupted, the neural pathways that have been redirected during recovery can be shaken up and old habits can sneak back in. Travel can be stressful and overwhelming which puts strain on newly developed mechanisms for staying sober and balanced.          

Resources about psychiatric emergencies while traveling are scarce, despite the significant percentage of the population that is at risk. Here are some reminders for the next time you travel:

Since stress can be a major factor in triggering mental disorders, self-care should be a priority.

Before you travel, work on changing your internal body clock. At least four days prior to your trip, begin to change your schedule to match your final destination. Adjust the time you’re eating and sleeping, at least slightly, for a few days before you fly. Get advice for your individual travel itinerary on Jetlag Rooster. Put in your travel information and the generator will provide you with a plan and a list of suggestions for avoiding jetlag.

Keep an eye on your food and caffeine intake. Too much caffeine prior to a trip can make it harder for you to catch the necessary shut eye to adjust to a new time zone. Rich foods are hard on your stomach and make travel uncomfortable and sleep difficult.

STAY HYDRATED! This cannot be stressed enough. It is important to drink water constantly while you’re traveling. The humidity level in an airplane is much lower than most of us are used to. On average, a comfortable feeling room has a humidity that varies from around 30 to 65 percent. In a plane that humidity drops to about 10 or 20 percent. Being dehydrated at best will make you feel parched and at worst can cause respiratory problems.

Upon arrival, adjust yourself to the local time as best you can. Once you get to your destination, step outside and soak in natural light. It boosts dopamine levels which helps your body adjust and stabilizes your mood. Stay awake until your usual bedtime. Once you go to bed, set your alarm to get enough sleep.

Plug into a support system. Maybe that means participating in a local (or online) 12 step meeting or emailing with a supportive friend. Many sober travelers have claimed they were saved by the existence of 12 step meetings around the world. There are so many resources available. Pack a helpful book or download one to have positive reinforcement whether or not you can talk to someone in person.

It is possible to prepare for travel and reduce the likelihood of a mental health problem or relapse. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers has multiple “Travel Mental Health Checklists” that travelers can print out and use for guidance during before, during, and after a trip. Different disorders require different considerations and it is worth the extra time to be prepared.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kristance Photograph.jpg

Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.