The Reality of Traveling Depression and How to Cope

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.

Ann Santori
Blogger and podcaster
Ann Santori is a B.A. graduate in English Literature and Political Science from Carthage College in Kenosha, WI. She was born and (partially) raised in Chicago, IL before moving to the suburbs and therefore igniting her life-long desire to travel far beyond towns where the only thing open past 9pm is the IHOP.

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    1. 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.

    2. “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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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!

      2. 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…

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

    3. 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

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

    4. 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.

    5. 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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    7. My work forces me to travel alone – to the most beautiful places in the world. I end up either sitting in the hotel crying about how I miss my family or I force myself to go out – desperately afraid but taking loads of pictures to send to the people back home just to ensure everyone I am having “fun”. Also I feel guilty not appreciating once in a life time opportunities. You made me feel better – tonight alone in another hotel in another beautiful city.

    8. Random query but I’m curious to read the article referenced “How I Manage My Depression While Traveling Abroad,” by xoJane author, Kennedy Ryan. But i see the site is no longer around. Would you happen to know if it can be found elsewhere? 🙂
      …I’m about to head off on solo travel, several years after my awful and anxiety ridden first solo trip abroad. I’m trawling through as much info, articles and others experiences as I can in hopes that this trip will be better if I’m armed with info.
      Tia 🙂

    9. I’ve read blogs and comments about depressed solo travelers. Most or practically all of them talk about “traveling abroad”. Some talk about backpacking across Europe or Asia. With me I have never done any of that. I’ve only traveled domestically (in the US).

      Right now I’m about halfway through the week on my vacation. In the last couple of years I have done this; one week of going away on vacation a year. I used to do it more, but there had been quite a few years of a gap between when I traveled every year and when I didn’t. All have been in the US but far from home. As you may know, the US is a large country!

      Now I’m at a small town and staying for a week. Rented a one-bedroom cottage all by myself. Nice place and people. But my depression and anxiety has made me feel weird and out of place. Other people I know would die to do what I’m doing. I guess I prefer to stay in small areas because I live in a large city and prefer not to visit another large city.

      I notice that it feels good to come back to my cottage after being out. I have been taking one-hour drives from where I’m staying. I do talk to people when I come across them, but I don’t connect. Also I feel self-conscience about others finding out that I’m alone. Like I said earlier, I tend to stay in small towns and not many solo travelers stay in those small towns like I do. Or maybe they do, but I don’t know it.

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