We often don’t think of depression or anxiety as a form of mental illness, but that’s exactly what they are. Left unchecked, they can completely overrun our lives, creating chronic stress in the body and increasing our risk of disease.
Beyond the health factors, however, is the simple act of living with an anxious or depressed state of mind. I’ve been there, and I understand what people are going through. Every day becomes a burden, and every trip into the outside world an unwanted excursion. We become trapped in our own heads, unable to curb the negative thoughts but also strangely unwilling to do so.
For me, the catalyst for my mental issues was money. In my fourth and final year of university, I decided to mix things up and study in Auckland, New Zealand. As a born and bred Canadian, I had always dreamed of exploring that far-off and seemingly mystical land. It was, after all, Lord of the Rings country.
And all-in-all, it was a great year. I made amazing new friends and took the time to explore the many wonderful things that New Zealand has to offer, but the student loan was piling up at an alarming rate. By the end of my time in New Zealand, I was waist-deep in debt and no matter what jobs I took, I couldn’t seem to get rid of it. Added to this the constant struggle of trying to find a job in my chosen profession, interior design, during the years following the global housing crisis, and the anxiety started kicking in. It wasn’t long until the depression followed suit, as I began to doubt my choice of career and the direction my life had taken. I wasn’t at the point where I needed medications for my predicament, but I was close.
There is, of course, plenty you can do to treat both depression and anxiety, without even stepping into a doctor’s office or drug store. Yoga, for example, has been shown in multiple studies to be an effective way to naturally treat depression and anxiety, without the nasty side effect of standard antidepressants. There are other factors at play too, like diet, lifestyle and mindfulness. I see no reason why you shouldn’t pursue any of these avenues if you’re looking to begin recovery from mental illness.
I tried them all, and these self-administered treatments certainly helped with my depression and anxiety to varying degrees. But the best thing I ever did for my mental health is to pack it all up and hit the road. Here’s how I cured my depression and anxiety, simply by traveling.
Travel gets you out of that rut
One of the reasons why I was feeling so down in the dumps was because it felt like my life wasn’t moving forward. The wheels were spinning, but I was in a rut — I couldn’t continue down the road of life.
So in late 2014, I began blogging. I soon landed a job with an online publication and was able to use the proceeds from that, in conjunction with my existing day job, to put some money aside. In the summer of 2015, my boyfriend and I quit our jobs, packed up our apartment, bought a banged-up old RV, and hit the road. We didn’t stop traveling until 16 months later, when we arrived back to the part of the world where it all began — New Zealand.
While I had traveled plenty before, this was the first time I’d really committed to the act of traveling. With no end in sight, life became movement and new experiences. In a way, this freed me from that rut I had found myself in back in Toronto. Constantly exposing myself to amazing new things, new challenges and different experiences, there was literally no room to feel depressed or anxious. How could I feel sorry myself when I was literally living the dream?
To put this in perspective, here’s an example of an average day for us on the road:
- Wake up with the sun on our faces, complete the wake-up process by reading and looking out the window of the RV.
- Get up, do yoga outside amongst the trees or beside the river we parked at the night before.
- Have a leisurely breakfast, then do two to three hours of work.
- Drive to our next destination, park up, do a bit more online work, then strap on our hiking boots and go exploring.
- Make dinner, read by the fire, go to bed.
Does that sound like a bad day to you? I was still making money, experiencing amazing new things every single day, and staying fit and healthy. How could I not feel happy?
Travel helps you meet new people
Even if you’re not doing exactly the same thing that I did and hitting the road for months at a time, almost any travel excursion will expose you to new people. I think this is super important — a lot of the reason why people feel stuck in life (and start to develop depression or anxiety) is that the people around them remain the same. Whether those people are negative or positive, there’s something about that social repetition, day in and day out, that triggers a negative feedback loop in our brains. I had started to resent the people around me, but couldn’t work out why.
With our lives now tied to travel, we couldn’t help but interact with new people every day. We’d chat to the gas station attendants, who were always curious about why an old beat-up RV was filling up way down in Arizona, and we’d have long yarns with the folks in the stall next to us at the RV park. We called into long-lost friends and family along the way, occasionally stayed in hostels to meet new people our age and establish lasting friendships, and even enjoyed talking to the waitresses at the restaurants in Mexico… when our broken Spanish permitted it, of course.
The more we traveled, met new people and experienced new things, the more I felt my depression and anxiety slipping away. It never fully disappeared, but it became far more manageable. I know now that if I ever find myself in that mental rut again, it’s time to hit the road once more.
— Liivi Hess