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The Reality of Traveling Depression and How to Cope

Published on May 5, 2014 by Ann Santori

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When your feelings won’t let you be. Image by Flickr user Geraint Rowland.

After reading this brilliant article, “How I Manage My Depression While Traveling Abroad,” by xoJane author, Kennedy Ryan, I practically punched the air with excitement over how eloquently Ms. Ryan had mirrored and expressed my own darkest ‘while-traveling’ feelings.

And I practically physically punched the following ignorant troll who commented on the article.  (Well, this is the internet, so it’s more accurate to say, ‘entertained extensive fantasies of physically punching.’)

Okay, this will sound bitchy, but what do you have to be depressed about if you are getting to travel abroad?

. . . but really are you complaining about your depression while you travel?? It’s about as interesting as complaining about your cold/flu, yeah it sucks, but like stay in a few days until you get over it.

I have little sympathy. I haven’t been on a real vacation in like 6 years.

Now, to be fair, most other xoJane commenters jumped in with impassioned defenses of Ms. Ryan and the article — with paragraphs upon paragraphs ranging from personal experience to scientific proofs.

But, as a sufferer of an anxiety disorder myself, it bothers me that there exists even one person in 2014 who (a) remains clueless enough to believe that mental illness is equivalent to a stuffy nose, and (b) is confident enough in their belief to broadcast it in a public forum.


A New York adventure fraught with feelings. Image courtesy of Ann Santori.

Yet, ultimately, what really bugs me isn’t that there is a minority (and I really hope it is just a minority) of the population that remains oblivious to the realities of mental illness.  What really cuts through me, down to my very depths, is the damage that comments like these, which echo our existing insecurities and self-criticism, can do to travelers like Ms. Ryan and myself.

Because here’s the thing.  We know we’re privileged.  We already feel lucky to see what we see, to experience what we experience while traveling.

The problem isn’t that we need a lesson in gratitude — it’s that we are forced to travel with a sinister imaginary friend who’s constantly whispering in our ear, “But what if you’re not having enough fun?”

“What if you spent all this money for nothing?”

“What if your suitcase gets lost in baggage check?”

“That was a historical landmark you just visited — shouldn’t you have felt . . . historical?”

I returned less than a week ago from a fabulous trip to NYC — my first visit there.  And believe me, I thought about how lucky I was to be there every minute.  But I had plenty of down moments, too.

DSCN6267I felt guilty about not enjoying the ‘landmark’ experiences like the Top of the Rock observation deck (which was ridiculously crowded and overwhelming) and absolutely loving the quirky, non-iconic ones (like seeing Godzilla in the original Japanese at the Film Forum).  I worried frequently that I wasn’t enjoying myself enough in proportion to the amount of money that I was spending on the trip.  And I felt ashamed to share these feelings with my family and my boyfriend back home, who desperately wished they were there with me.

But I did share them, and my security blanket became my conversations with my loved ones.  All the before-bed questions that I dumped on them (“Was it okay to spend $15 on a sandwich?!” and “I thought Grand Central Station was underwhelming: Am I a bad tourist?!”) helped shake me out of my ‘mean reds,’ as New Yorker Holly Golightly would say, and meet the next morning refreshed.  As did sharing all the good experiences across the telephone lines.

I’ll never forget walking into Times Square for the very first time — with my mom on the phone with me.

Top of the Rock: beautiful view, but not so fun of an experience after all.

Top of the Rock: beautiful view, but not so fun of an experience after all. Image courtesy of Ann Santori.

My mom has a number of spinal and nerve problems and for the past eight years, though we know not forever, she’s been completely home-bound.  When I was growing up and we had no money to travel, we would fantasize about going on a road trip for my 16th birthday or to Vegas for my 21st.  But when Mom’s medical problems got worse, we realized those trips wouldn’t be coming for a long time.

After I graduated university, I started to travel by myself.  Ontario, Boston, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Columbus, and now New York City!  And I love solo travel, don’t get me wrong, but just as Ms. Ryan’s article articulates, every trip — solo or not — has its ups and downs.

So when we walked into Times Square together, sobbing and blowing our noses in a very un-metropolitan manner, we connected — 800 miles apart — and I remembered something Mom has always tried to teach me: Picture your memories like a filing cabinet.  All the experiences that disappointed get shoved in the back in a dusty, rusty corner of the drawer.  But the ones that made you remember why you spent $1,300 on a room without a private toilet just to see New York  — they’re always right there, just at your fingertips.

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11 thoughts on “The Reality of Traveling Depression and How to Cope

  • Lee Ogilvie
    on June 21, 2016

    You’re not alone! I’m relieved to see someone goes through what I go through when I’m on vacation. I didn’t start traveling on my own until later in my life (28 yrs old) as I was a very poor student and trying to pay off my debts after dropping out. I recall traveling with my family from the time I was 9 to around 17 and experiencing this magical feeling of being somewhere else; the euphoria was there almost every waking moment. Fast forward to 28 at my very first tropical vacation in Mexico for a friend’s wedding, and although there was some great times, I remember being sad a lot. Sad and frustrated. Some ups and a ton of downs. I couldn’t pinpoint my thoughts but I felt bored, sad, irritated, just feelings I felt no one should have when on a relaxing vacation. My new girlfriend at the time was the victim of my mood swings and it sucks. She is now my wife and we have 3 kids. We don’t travel as much but when we do I still have those feelings. I refuse to go on meds so I’m figuring out ways to beat this. Meditation. Prayer. God. Buddha. I’m getting there but I feel like I’m missing out on life.

  • Michael
    on September 1, 2016

    “Because here’s the thing. We know we’re privileged. We already feel lucky to see what we see, to experience what we experience while traveling”.

    I was just told i shouldn’t be depressed because i can afford to be on the other side of the world.. like really?

    I can’t be depressed?

    2 months of overseas travel has contained far more depression than i personally ever anticipated.
    It is hard. Some days i don’t want to leave my hotel room it’s that bad.

    • Michael
      on October 3, 2016

      Here is another depressed traveling Michael 🙂

      I thought I had beaten depression once for all a few years ago thanks to meditation… but no, the dark side of my soul took control again last month. For me, traveling far away is usually the ultimate trigger to let go dark thoughts and initiate recovery. Here we go, I booked a ticket and I am now on the other side of the world.

      The depression feelings do not seem to go away that time tough. Still feeling miserable, without any motivation and energy. Instead of visiting or socializing, well, I am in front of the computer whining about my condition. Feeling guilty on top of that as many people can indeed not realize how a dysfunctional brain can make you feeling terrible while you sit in the most enviable situation.

      • Michael
        on October 11, 2016

        Hello other Michael 🙂

        I found meeting people via tinder for hanging out was a great way to pick myself up.
        I’d meet random locals and just socialize, it would take off the edge.

        In fact the best thing I did in Cairo was meet a local girl via tinder and I had the time of my life for 3 days. She happily spent 3 whole days with me, showing me local food, taking me to the Pyramids (and shooing that atrocious hagglers!!).

        In Greece I met a girl who showed me some great cheap local cuisine and some hot spots outside of the tourist attractions..

        These were the real highlights of my overseas trip, and I found that the counter to whenever I fell into a ‘funk’ which quickly turned into depression.

        You need to find what triggers you out of that state of mind and just go with it. Sometimes it’s not always available. I didn’t always find people to hang out with, so I had to find other means to break out of the cycle 🙂

        Hope your trip went well Mike!

    • Georgi
      on November 8, 2016

      Michael! I’m there with you!!!! and some days I DONT leave the room and that’s okay too because I find if I sink deep into it and really feel my depth and my sadness, eventually, there isn’t anything left to cry out for the time being and I feel motivated to catch some light again and get back out there. I think, maybe, sometimes we need to sink so we can let go of weight to float back up…

    • Kaitlyn
      on August 25, 2017

      Thank you, thank you, thank you… I truly thought I was alone in my feelings.

  • Georgi
    on November 8, 2016

    Wow wow wow wowowowowowowooww. THANK YOU SO DAMN MUCH FOR THIS!!!!! You have seriously snapped me back. I just graduated from UCLA and in march, 3 months before graduation, my mother died. My mom, who was my best friend and rock, just like your mom was for you during your NY trip. She was my single parent so that was all for me,.. anyway due to her death I came into some money and decided I could travel like I always wanted to… my boyfriend is. Well-experienced traveler and has been all over central and South America… so I feel even more pressure to toughen up, rough it up, and get out there to get at the “truth of life”. But here I am, and the only truth I feel is serious confusion. I’m in nepal now, one of the birth places of Buddhism, and there is so much corruption, overwhelm, AND POLLUTION. I don’t feel enlightened. I feel angry a lot of the time because someone is always trying to rip me off. Finally last night and this morning I opted to eat at a fancier restaurant but then couldn’t get rid of the nagging guilt that said I shouldn’t eaten at a dirty, local restaurant for cheaper. I’m SHARING a bed with another girl in this free “ashram” (more like rented out top floor of a hostel) and everyone is always buying the cheapest, so i feel like I’m supposed to as well to not be spoiled. We meditated in the fucking dark, which is just depressing to me and last night everyone in the room was coughing. Meanwhile I’m writing letters to god asking, “what am I doing here?! Why the fuck am I here?!”. God hasn’t answered me yet….

    This morning I was walking around and just feel so brought down by the poverty… AM I supposed to help somehow? How am I supposed to help? Deep down I have no interest in getting involved in volunteers, NGO work though… and then I read your post and I felt so relieved… yes it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay….

    Thank you

    • Michael
      on December 10, 2016

      Georgi, did you find some answers? How is it going now?

  • Mnbska
    on March 15, 2017

    In defense of the offensive commenter, another way to read it is: “the prescription for depression is staying in for a few days”, which is true and actually sympathetic to depressed people who just want to be left alone guilt free. And there’s truth in vacations being a luxury. So while it’s accurate to receive the comment as lacking empathy, the comment itself has wisdom.

  • Cw
    on August 10, 2017

    Thank you for sharing. I’m on a trip of a lifetime and I don’t feel myself. I get worried over finding the “perfect”lunch spot, the perfect bakery, i don’t want to make the wrong decisions. I want to experience the sites as a local, but feel I don’t belong. I have anxiety of driving, directions, the roads. I just want to be excited for the adventure and to stop worrying.
    It helps to read your comments and what some of your concerns are. To look at the worrying from an outsider in a way then I know what I would say to a friend to help pick them up.. and then it puts me in a positive outlook, positive state of mind. Thanks!

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    on August 31, 2017

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