The streets were teeming with dancers sweating in the evening sun, bodies packed so tight they could hardly breathe, but still they kept moving to the rough samba beat. Rio in carnival season was more than I ever imagined – the parties, the beaches, the caipirinhas.
But it wasn’t good for my mental health. By the end of the trip I was strung out: sleep-deprived, wired and on the verge of hypomania (where you’re on overdrive, often talking very quickly, sleeping less and making risky decisions). I was 24 and, although I’d suffered depressive and manic episodes, I was not yet diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.
I wasn’t prepared for the stresses travel can have on mental health. Now, 12 years later, with many more trips under my belt and a better understanding of how to manage my long-term health condition, I’m better equipped.
It’s wise to look after your mind as much as your body when travelling, whether you have a diagnosis or not.
Sleep is a big one. According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, the occasional night without sleep won’t affect your health. However, if you miss more, this can make it tough to concentrate or make decisions. Some people may even start to feel depressed.
I have a routine for sleeping en route: breathing exercises and a comfortable rolled up cloak supporting my neck if I’m sitting up in a plane, train or bus. Some people prefer a neck pillow. If I struggle to drop off but I feel I need rest I’ll listen to a meditation app on my phone called Headspace – there are others available such as Calm and The Mindfulness App.
I never drink tea or coffee because the caffeine, which stays in the body for hours, might keep me awake, and try to resist fizzy drinks for the same reason. Instead, I drink chamomile tea and take at least one big water bottle on a flight. Air travel can lead to dehydration which, according to Mind, can make it harder to concentrate or think clearly.
Time zones and jet lag play havoc with sleep patterns. I’ve always found that, unless I’m on a very short trip, it’s best to embrace local time; don’t torture yourself thinking about what time it is back home. According to Weill Cornell Medical College professor of clinical psychiatry Richard Friedman, melatonin supplements can help your body beat jet lag too. In the New York Times, he wrote: “Travel east and you’ll need morning light and evening melatonin; go west and you’ll need evening light and morning melatonin.” Although I’ve never tried melatonin, I know the importance of stocking up on prescriptions well before you travel – you don’t want to go without because you forgot to stop by your GP or run out because your flight’s cancelled.
I’m on mood stabilisers and now set an alarm for when they’re running low. If you’re on any kind of regular medication, buy a pill case with the days of the week on. Often with the excitement of seeing new places you can forget to take a pill but a case gets you back on track. Missing one might be okay but missing a lot could, in some cases, potentially trigger a mental health condition.
Physical fitness is important too; Mind says physical activity can be very beneficial for mental wellbeing. I find this easier on trips to sunnier climes; I recently went to St Kitts and was up most mornings in the hotel pool. I find swimming great for my mental health – refreshing, relaxing and fun, it gets the day off to a good start. It’s tempting to throw routine out the window when you’re travelling “because you’re on holiday” but it can help you stay balanced. If you usually run in the mornings it makes sense to pack your kit and keep it up.
Other routines I like to keep in place are daily meditation and getting my five a day. It’s tempting to try lots of rich, local food but you don’t need to do this at every meal. Breakfast buffets usually have a good amount of fruit, and I often opt for vegetarian or vegan options later.
Finally, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to choose your travel buddies wisely, especially if you have a mental health condition. Know your limits in terms of partying – too much alcohol and drugs of any kind are bad for everyone’s mental health, but if you have a mental health condition they can interact with medication or make you very unwell on their own, especially if paired with little sleep. Make sure you have a travel buddy who is laid back and will be sympathetic to your needs. Find someone who understands if you can’t party ’til dawn or cram every waking minute full of excursions. Downtime is necessary for good mental health, so don’t feel guilty for taking early nights or having a hotel massage instead of hitting the town.
It’s your trip, so stay fit and enjoy it.
Thursday, 10 October is World Mental Health Day.
The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.