We all know about the fight or flight response: when faced with certain doom or uncertainty our brains go into instinctive mode, giving us only two options. When life smacks us hard in the face we can either smack it back or run to the comfortable lay-z-boy couches of our therapist. But what happens when the “flight” takes on a literal meaning, when people travel thousands of miles to escape the demons in their own heads?
It’s Natural to Think Escaping to Nature Will Solve Everything
In these modern times, with the popularity of Instagram and social media behemoths, once distant places are at the tips of our fingers. You can’t help but to not be jealous when you see post of beautiful beaches or read articles titled “we quit our boring jobs to travel the world!” Psychologists want you to know, however, that the luscious green landscapes featured in Travel + Leisure will not lead you to greener pastures in your own life.
As humans, we tend to blame unwanted situations on external events: I failed my calculus final because I was sick, not because I didn’t study! I am single because all men are afraid of commitment, not because I don’t use mouthwash! The same goes with feelings of depression: we are more likely to think that we are melancholic because we are stuck in a mundane routine of working a 9-5 desk job in a middle-of-nowhere town where the most exciting events consist of corn fairs, not because of a chemical imbalance in our brains.
“The tendency is to attribute the cause of suffering to something outside of yourself: your job, your family, your relationship, and so on,” describes Mary V. Seeman, MDCM, DSc, Professor at the University of Toronto. “So you travel to get away from the supposed causes only to find that the depression is inside.”
Travelling Can Lead You to an Even Greater Breakdown
You need to book a cheap but fast flight ticket, book a hotel close to the city center under $200, research sites to see, things to do, what to eat. Going abroad? You need to learn to say “please” “thank you” and “where is the nearest bathroom” in a new language. Travelling with friends? You need to make sure that Joe and Jane will get along the whole time. Travelling alone? You need to scout out public transportation, cultural differences and where you can drink without looking like a loser.
Travelling brings on all kinds of stress- stress we seem to willfully ignore until we arrive at our destinations. Some like to travel spontaneously, which can rebound when unknown stressors such as flight delays, bad weather and baggage loss rear their ugly heads. Psychologist Joseph Cilona warns his depressed patients that “travel has the potential to make things worse or better for those struggling with depression and [they should] be very conscious of your intentions by planning thoughtfully and thoroughly.”
Don’t forget that even if you travel, it’s not all about getting the perfect shot for your gram. Yes, a picture may say a thousand words, but if in your head your thoughts are a million a minute you can have a serious mental breakdown. Dr. Seeman elaborates stating:
“All the problems of traveling will bother people with depression more than usual: the annoyances, the inconveniences, the lack of sleep, the loss of familiar surroundings, the interruption of routines, the happy faces, and the forced socialization. Jet lag will be worse. Loneliness will be worse. New people will seem more of a drag.”
Don’t Forget That You Always Have to Come Back Home
We travel for one of two reasons: we either are running toward something or running away. More often than not with depression we are running away from our what we think is the root of our sadness missing the forest for the trees. I remember so vividly breaking down in tears before boarding my flight from London to Toronto to go home during my first trip abroad. I had no job, no money and insurmountable student debt. What was left for me at home besides problems and questions I had no answers for?
And I know you’ve been there too. We take relief in setting our phones to airplane mode, not having to heard the incessant dings of work-related emails or obnoxious Facebook posts from our old high school friends. One day we are feeling high, dining on escargot in the middle of Paris, France and the next day were back eating Shake ‘n Bake in Paris, Texas. In fact, traveling for long periods may even make depression worse as Seeman explains: “All of the old demands will return, plus needing to catch up with work left undone. [With] the possibility of jet lag and the realization that the next vacation is very far away, a depressed person will probably feel it all more than a ‘happy’ person.”
Should I Just Forget About My Cousin’s Wedding in Hawaii Then?
While yes, travelling can amplify feelings of depression in individuals, taking short breaks once in a while can help with stress and putting life into perspective. Remember that the difficulties with travelling while depressed lie in the before and after stages: planning and returning home from paradise. If one takes the time to plan thoroughly for the adjustments before and after travel then your trip will be a welcomed break instead of a total breakdown.
Planning before travel is the easy part: you can spend days on Lonely Planet researching hotels, sights, and food or you can even pay for someone to do it for you. The difficulties arise when we come back and have to deal with our life problems. Fortunately taking time to travel gives us the chance to think about our lives and strategize how to tackle depression. Dr. Seeman states that: “the vacation may have allowed [them] time to think about next steps and new purposes, so there may be a new determination to get help.” Of course therapy, meditation and counseling can help.
Remember that depression is a nuanced and complex emotion- one that can’t be cured by a miracle pill or a miracle plane ticket. Unless you take a good look at where depression comes from at home, it will always be along for the ride.