Image: Isobel Farquharson

Should we be advocating travel as therapy?

It is a widely accepted sentiment that when one goes through a particularly trying time in life, it is only natural to pack up and leave to escape the stress or situation that caused it. Travel as escapism can be seen as freeing, but also sometimes damaging. Removing oneself from a situation to avoid dealing with it can sometimes be the best move; space is sometimes the rememdy that is needed. However, it can also  be counter-productive and cause even more anxiety upon the return. On my 4 month travelling stint a few years ago I met many twenty-somethings whose reasons for travelling seemed to echo each other. Newly single after a difficult breakup, had just quit an unfulfilling job and in search of excitement, or just graduated and unsure of where their life was going. Travel is an antidote to many ailments. My ‘reason’ for packing up and escaping, however, was much more apparent when I returned than when I left. As cliché as it may sound, I needed the mental clarity and perspective that travel brings in order to heal.

After suffering with mental health difficulties in my final year of school, the thought of going straight on to further education made me want to curl up in a ball in bed and hibernate. I wasn’t ready and was afraid my mental state would only get worse if I threw myself into another 3 years of education. I needed to recover. I strongly hold that I would not have fully recovered had I not gone travelling. For me, travelling was my best and only cure. However, the implication that travel could potentially heal a mental illness is quite different from travelling to escape a bad breakup. On one hand, it can be the best therapy in certain situations, but on the other, it could serve to trivialise the gravity of mental illness.

On one hand, it can be the best therapy in certain situations, but on the other, it could serve to trivialise the gravity of mental illness.

Those who have experienced mental illness will know how frustrating it is to hear utterances such as; “Just find a way to be happy! Go on a run, exercise releases endorphins! Eat healthily! Go out with your friends and have fun! Stop stressing, it’s all in your head”. While those saying these kinds of things often have good intentions, they do not understand the nature of mental illness. These suggestions may provide a very temporary relief, but ultimately will do nothing to cure a chemical imbalance. For someone who is not suffering but is having a ‘low’ day, these actions may make the pivotal difference of feeling happier. For someone in the midst of months of suffering, going on a run, while it may briefly help ease anxiety, will provide no magic cure. There is a danger that the sentiment of ‘travel as a cure’ could act in the same way, and that those who propose it just don’t ‘understand’ mental illness. Travel as therapy also supposes that one has the disposable income and time to do so, and so seems geared more towards twenty-somethings with no family ties and the ability to leave their jobs, rather than, say, forty-somethings with a mortgage and family for whom it is less feasible to pack up on a six month round the world expedition. Still doable, perhaps, but harder and requiring more commitment.

It is also important to remember it is all situational. While I feel I was at the tail end of my mental illness, my travelling stint gave it the final boot. I worked through and overcame a lot of traits that I believe had a hand in causing the illness in the first place; such as social anxiety and paranoia. However, someone else may find that travel provides many difficulties that could exacerbate their illness; like loneliness, lack of structure, and the need for some level of extroversion. Though I would argue that working through these potential anxieties made me far more confident and independent, for some, they may only worsen their situation. Katie, a second year Warwick student who trekked Macchu Pichu last summer, wrote “At high altitude, trekking for six days, your mental health is pushed to the limit… looking back, I think the experience helped to lift the cloud that I had been living under”.

someone else may find that travel provides many anxieties that could exacerbate their illness

A second-year Warwick student said during what should have been an incredible trip to New York, she was “constantly haunted by depressive and suicidal thoughts”. She stated, “I was not ready to recover… and this is one of the reasons this amazing trip didn’t help me”. Pushing the idea as travel as a cure has the potential danger of lessening the importance of actual physical cures and medication. After all, mental illnesses, while sometimes situational, are ultimately caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

Natalya, third-year Warwick student, stated that while travel “is not a magical cure-all” her post-exam trip to Brussels alleviated her while her mental health was in limbo; “This break away from everything that was bringing me down, and the chance to explore somewhere completely new, was incredibly refreshing, and I returned to uni in a much better mental state.” Whether or not we can and should deem travel as a viable form of therapy or cure for mental illness, it undoubtedly forces us to practise and establish useful qualities that we would not otherwise exercise. Though it may be damaging to claim that it can do the work therapy or medication can, I have not met a single person who’s gone travelling and not been shaped for the better by it, even if they faced adversity along the way. Ultimately, it is a personal choice and a personal journey (both mentally and physically) – for some, it may be the much-needed remedy, for others, it may only exacerbate existing struggles. As long as we can agree that what works for one may not work for all, then we can step back and appreciate how travel serves to shape us.



Comments from an Editor:

The happiest I have ever been is when I am travelling. I think there is immense catharsis in packing a small amount of things into a bag and going from place to place with no strong ties but just a drive to continue. It gives me a focus, without which I get weighed down by depression and anxiety. The experience is like a lived-in metaphor for progress and momentum. There is a constant sense of achievement in making your way from city to city, learning the local language and meeting other travellers on your way. I have learned so much about coping mechanisms from being away for months at a time. Before last year, I never would have travelled alone due to anxiety. But last year, I went abroad alone and spent a few days in Amsterdam by myself. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The saddest part is coming home. I love getting to see family and friends again, but now I’ve entered into a cycle of needing to “escape” in order to be happy. If I don’t have a trip planned, I end up feeling trapped. Travelling has changed the way I view myself. It taught me that I have a level of resilience and commitment that I wasn’t previously aware of. But it has also made me very flighty. Unable to stay in one place for very long, I often find myself jumping on trains at the last minute. My happiness now seems to be connected to movement. It’s not a bad thing necessarily, and it has made me an expert at last minute budget travel, but I hope soon that I won’t have to keep travelling in order to be content in myself. – Emma Johnson

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