I’ve often wondered about the effect that travel can have on our physical and mental health; particularly over the past 2 years when I’ve spent more time away than at home. During this period, Andy and I took on Asia: teaching monks in Myanmar, surviving typhoons in Japan, catching crazily pretty trains in Sri Lanka and getting dengue fever in Thailand before settling down to live and work in Vietnam.
And it’s been amazing. (Apart from maybe the dengue.) I’ve had enough once-in-a-lifetime moments these past few years to severely dilute the phrase. My travels have introduced me to stunning locations, unusual situations, glorious food and some batshit crazy people. And I wouldn’t change a thing. (Again, maybe the dengue.)
But all of this madness and adventure and exhilaration can’t be good for the health, can it? I wonder. Because even though I returned from my solo trip to Bali feeling the best I’d had in years (and with my hair growing back!), there are definite downsides to travel that can take their toll on a person, both mentally and physically.
In this post, I’ll talk about the less-than-glamourous side to travelling. The physical effects that can take their toll on your mental health. I speak from my own experiences in the hopes that if you’re feeling down or depressed in a beautiful setting, don’t judge yourself for feeling that way. It happens.
Here’s how the stress of being on the road can catch up with you…
Until very recently, I didn’t pay much heed to the importance of getting enough sleep. But now that I do know how much it impacts our immune system, not to mention our mood, I take it more seriously. Now I know that missing out on 7–9 hours’ sleep a night can have some pretty heavy consequences, I’m much more aware of how I feel after a lack of zzzs.
And let’s face it… backpacking isn’t exactly the path to a sounder slumber. The different bed every few nights, the dawn train rides, the uncomfortable bus journeys, the noisy dormmates or over-eager animals outside… all of these things are part of the adventure, true, but they also prevent us from sleeping as much as we need to.
The result? We’re underslept at a time when we need our energy most. And those sunrise hikes and adorable children and random festivals start to become less appealing when you’re completely drained!
It’s really hard to keep up healthy habits when you’re constantly moving. After all, you wanted to get rid of routine entirely… and that includes the routine of regular meals.
Instead, you have breakfast well before the dawn morning market, you might ditch a proper lunch in favour of local snacks and as for dinner? It seems to keep getting pushed back until later and later, depending on how many sundowners you’ve had.
And that’s just the times you eat at. What you eat is mostly out of your control, too. A lot of the time you don’t have a choice and you certainly won’t find the likes of vegan, dairy-free or gluten-free options in the hills of northern Laos! Long train journeys can often mean turning to sugary snacks or resulting in a carb overload.
An old Burmese favourite (the thought of which turns my stomach now) is called ajaw – which basically means ‘fried stuff’. Fried what, you might ask? Good question. All I know is that it was fried and filling and it went great with beer.
But it definitely wasn’t doing my insides any good.
After several months of this unhealthy lifestyle and waaaay too much condensed milk in countless cups of Burmese tea, I found myself wolfing down fresh veggies and noodle dishes in Hoi An, Vietnam. But even though I thought I was eating healthily, I still don’t know what was in the sauces of most of what I ate. Oh, and this time condensed milk found its way into my coffee. Dangerously tasty stuff.
So unless you plan on cooking for yourself as you travel – which is pretty hard to do – it can be impossible to maintain the well-balanced diet we all need to thrive.
Some people lose a lot of weight while they travel. All of that sweating, and lugging bags around, and skipping meals means they shed pounds without even noticing it. Others pile it on; the unhealthy diet and the lack of real exercise, not to mention the cheap beer, catches up with them.
And while my weight has never fluctuated that much when I travel, I do notice how much I miss the chance to exercise regularly. Because whether there aren’t any classes available, or I’m afraid to go for a run in case of getting knocked over by a million angry scooters… or just the deadly combination of heat and humidity… it means that exercise often falls by the wayside.
At home, I have a daily yoga practice – either by myself or in a class. And when I travel I do my best; I even carry the right equipment for that very purpose.
But most of the time there’s no space in the bedroom. Or it mightn’t be safe to practice by myself on the beach. Or it’s simply too hot, even by 7am. In any case, I find it hard to get into a good exercise routine without being stationary for a while (if that makes sense!)
My friends at home will probably scoff at this one. After all, aren’t I meant to be ‘living the dream’ and isn’t a life of travel one of luxury and ease?
If you’ve ever been away for longer than a couple of weeks, you’ll know that that’s definitely not the case. Because backpacking is very different to your standard summer holiday. Sure, there are plenty of highs – but you do clock up some lows.
It’s not always exciting, it’s often exhausting and it’s far from glamorous. You’re carrying your world on your back and have to trust that no one will steal it from you (while not trusting them too much). You don’t know where you’ll be sleeping tomorrow night. Everywhere you go there’s unfamiliar sounds and smells and sensations… and you’re likely to be stared at all the way, particularly if you’ve got a condition like alopecia to contend with.
If you’re of a nervous disposition, this can be a bit overwhelming. Even if you aren’t, the sheer planning and organisation involved in this nomadic lifestyle can send your mind and heart racing.
Don’t get me wrong: this is all part of the thrill and I do love the freedom of it. But sometimes the lack of stability and routine does dangerous things to the mind. Anxiety or lethargy can set in before you know it, and you find yourself chasing greener pastures that immediately dull upon arrival.
Which is why travel isn’t always best for our mental health.
All of which can hit you pretty hard. You might find yourself with no energy thanks to the intense heat rippling from the pavements. Or all that honking/shouting/clucking can send you into a panicked state. Or you’ll fall seriously ill, somewhere very far from home, where you suddenly don’t want to be.
Getting sick while travelling usually makes for a fun story back home. But at the time, it can feel horrendous.
Whether it’s food poisoning or a mysterious virus or a broken leg, you don’t want to be in a place where you can’t understand what’s wrong, or if anyone can help you. The heat and the noise will never seem worse, and you’ll wonder for the thousandth time what the hell you’re doing there.
But obviously there’s a big upside – otherwise I wouldn’t have kept it up for so long. But there’s a time when you have to listen to yourself and know what’s best for your health. And since I’ve been having chronic headaches every day for 8 months – which started overnight in Sri Lanka, for some unknown reason – I’ve had a bit of a wake-up call.
Clearly something in the lifestyle I was living didn’t agree with me. And the fact that my alopecia has stubbornly stuck around for the past 2 years is another indication that maybe this nomadic lifestyle isn’t the healthiest idea for me right now.
I guess I’ll have to weigh it up – experience and adventure vs. stability and security? It’s a tough one. But for now, I think my health will have to come first. I’ve ignored it for too long.
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Alopecian. Yoga Teacher. Copywriter. Here to share information, offer support and show people the adventures that can lie in hair loss. I’m proud to have alopecia and I want to help others embrace their baldness, too!