Is there a link between travel and mental ill health?

Travel. It presents an opportunity for rest and relaxation or a chance for exploring other exciting countries and cultures. However, travel can also be very stressful – not just in the planning stages but during the journey itself and adapting to a new environment upon arrival.

Did you know, mental health issues in travellers are very common? In fact, they are amongst the leading causes of ill health while travelling.

For this reason, consideration of your mental well-being during travel is just as important as your physical health. There is a wide range of factors that have been suggested can disrupt stable mental health during travel. These include:

  • Separation from family and friends
  • Disruption of normal routines
  • Feelings of increased stress or anxiety from unexpected travel delays
  • Unease from unfamiliar surroundings and the presence of strangers
  • A sense of isolation due to culture shock and/or language barriers
  • Use of illicit drugs and alcohol
  • Physical ill health during travel
  • Forgetting to take medication regularly

But, perhaps the biggest travel-related culprit for mental ill health is jet lag.

What is jet lag and what effect does it have on us?

In simple terms, jet lag is what happens to the body after a long flight, when you change time zones. It occurs because of the disruption to your body’s circadian rhythm – your own internal clock which determines your body’s sleep patterns.

Jet lag can cause well-known symptoms such as difficulty sleeping or feeling sleepy during the day, as well as other physical symptoms such as constipation or diarrhoea.

Does jet lag really have an impact on our minds?

Yes, it’s thought that when your circadian rhythm is disrupted, so is the development of hormones that interact with mental illnesses. Less commonly known symptoms of jet lag include psychological or emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, depressed mood, impaired concentration or coordination.

Research shows that jet lag can trigger depressive or manic episodes for people with mental illnesses; people travelling east to west may have depressive episodes, whilst people travelling from west to east may have manic episodes.

The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT) produce guidance leaflets for travellers with various mental health issues which you can download for free.

That’s not to say that mental ill health will only present itself in those travelling with a current or previous experience of mental illness, however. Of course, a mental health problem can occur at any time, even in those who have no pre-existing history of mental illness.

Two Counselling Directory team members share their travel experiences.

Katie, Digital Marketing Executive, travelled to New Zealand

“I found that having travelled across so many different time zones, I was completely detached from my body and mind. And, coupled with the physical symptoms of jet lag confining me to my bed (and hospital after I was really dehydrated!), I was so disappointed and angry with my body. I then started to experience an episode of depression, which I had suffered with in the past.

“I lost all interest in wanting to get better and was completely emotional over everything. I was unaware of time and wished the whole trip away. I couldn’t understand how my cardiac rhythm could affect my whole mental state, but it was clear that the imbalance of jet lag had triggered an episode.”

Kat, Content Producer, travelled to Costa Rica

“I can totally see how jet lag can affect mental health. I remember being seriously jet-lagged when I arrived in Costa Rica and it made me feel like the floor was moving beneath me. I was super anxious at the time too (rocking up to a new country to a place full of strangers for two weeks will do that) and the jet lag made me feel so much worse mentally.”

So what can you do to manage your mental health whilst travelling?

Whether you have a current or previous history of mental health problems, it’s not a barrier to travel. But, there are some key factors to consider, to help you maintain good mental health throughout your trip.

  • Be aware that time zone changes and jet lag can disrupt your sleep pattern and general well-being. Try to adjust to the local time on the day you arrive and go to bed and wake up at your normal bedtime, if you can. However, that might mean staying up all day without a nap, or getting up when you’re still exhausted – so trust your gut instinct and do what feels right for you.
  • If you take medication, ensure you take it at the correct time during travel.
  • Be sure to eat and drink as regularly as you can. Also, it can be best to avoid alcohol, particularly on days where you are travelling from one destination to another. Although you might think this will help to reduce travel stress, it can often have the adverse effect or make things worse once the effects wear off.
  • If you feel your mental health is deteriorating, seek help early, either from your travelling companions, family and friends, local mental health services or consulate.

Something to bear in mind:

Attitudes to mental illness vary between countries and, in many, severe stigma and discrimination still exist. Access to mental health services and medication may be very limited at some destinations.

For more information, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have guidelines about the assistance they can offer those with a mental health problem during travel.

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Written by Becky Banham
Becky is Brand and Social Strategist for Happiful and a writer for Counselling Directory.
Written by Becky Banham
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