Travel can be both wonderful and terrible for your mental health, sometimes at the exact same time.
I should know — I’ve been travelling for a decade with every possible type of anxiety you could imagine. I’ve had panic attacks in Vietnam, starved myself in Mozambique, and had a breakdown in Mexico. There have been times where I’ve been so convinced travel was the cause of my anxiety, I’ve hung up my backpack and retired my passport.
But on the flip side, I cite travel as the number one cure for my anxiety. It’s thanks to travel that my once-daily panic attacks now occur once a year, if that. It’s thanks to travel that I have confidence in myself, few worries, and a determination not to let my mental health hold me back.
So there you have it. Travel can both make your anxiety worse, and take it away. Here are my most treasured apps, websites, and tools to make sure it does the latter, not the former.
Use Headspace for Meditation
There have been hundreds of studies linking meditation to reduced levels of anxiety, stress, and depression, and for good reason: it works.
I was an enormous skeptic for a long time, mostly because I had no idea how to even meditate. I used to sit on my bedroom floor and quickly become annoyed when I realised all I was doing was thinking about whether I was thinking, and give up.
Not only that, but I had issues with consistency. As soon as I had a panic attack, I’d vow to make a change and start meditating, but once my anxiety faded, I’d forget all about it and not sit cross-legged until the next one. In all honestly, I found meditating boring, irritating, and useless.
It turned out I was doing it wrong. Meditation isn’t about completely clearing your mind and never thinking of anything, but simply observing those thoughts, letting them pass, and not letting them take hold in your brain.
If you suffer from anxiety, you already know that the main symptom of this disorder is persistent and irrational worries, and that’s exactly what meditation teaches you to leave behind.
Headspace is an app I view as a mental health necessity when it comes to travel, even if it takes a while for things to click and meditation to start bringing benefits to your life. I particularly love that you can focus on different areas you want to improve, like anxiety or self-esteem.
There are SOS meditations for when you’re having a panic attack, and there’s even a fear of flying section to calm your nerves at the airport. As someone who has always been an anxious flier, I couldn’t believe it when I first listened to a Headspace meditation during take-off and didn’t experience even a single hint of anxiety.
Headspace is available on desktop, iOS, and Android. A limited amount of content is available for free. Unlocking all courses costs $13/month or $70/year.
Colorfy is Great for Anxiety, Depression, and Stress
Art therapy decreases stress and anxiety, improves concentration, and improves symptoms of depression. Let’s face it, though: who wants to carry around a colouring book and art supplies in their backpack? They’re impractical for travel, and there’s where Colorfy comes in.
It’s a colouring app that you can use on the road to keep your stress levels low. I love to use it when I’m feeling anxious on a long flight, and it’s great for those times when you don’t have access to the internet but crave a distraction from what’s going on in your mind.
Colorfy is free to use on iOS and Android, with in-app purchases for further colouring options.
Track How Your Trip is Going with Sanvello
A huge part of gaining control of your mental health is through tracking patterns. Sanvello offers several things including meditation and CBT, but I use it to track my mood over time.
It helps you spot mental health patterns and triggers: for example, you may find your anxiety is through the roof after you go out drinking with new friends from your hostel, showing you should cut back on alcohol to help get things back under control.
As someone who was gobsmacked to discover that cutting out dairy drastically reduced my anxiety, as well as my lifelong motion sickness and allergies, I can’t say enough good things about this tracking app.
The basic version of Sanvello is free to use on iOS and Android, with in-app purchases ($8.99/month or $53.99/year) to access all features.
Read “The Mighty” to Realise You’re Not Alone
One of the best websites out there for mental health is The Mighty, which publishes articles from people who are currently dealing with mental health issues. It covers an enormous range of conditions, written about by a diverse community of sufferers, and publishes dozens of articles a day.
This site is wonderful for reducing the stigma of mental illness, and showing you’re far from being alone.
Try Listening to the Anxiety Podcast
I’ve tried every anxiety-related podcast on the Internet, and the only one that’s worth listening to is The Anxiety Podcast. I enjoy it so much that I still listen to it today, when I haven’t felt any anxiety for over a year.
The host (Tim) interviews people who have conquered anxiety using various methods, and that alone is something I find so inspirational. Hearing people every single week speaking about how they used to have anxiety but no longer have even the slightest symptoms was magical for getting me to stop believing in its permanence.
If hundreds of people could find a way to break free from anxiety, why couldn’t I?
Carry a Bottle of Rescue Remedy
Rescue Remedy has been a mainstay in my anti-anxiety toolkit for well over a decade, and it’s one of the few things that can calm a panic attack for me within seconds.
Get a small spray bottle and mist some on to your tongue whenever you’re feeling anxious or panicky. I’ve used it prior to taking off on flights, before taking group tours, and whenever I’m about to enter a new hostel for the first time.
I also keep a bottle in my daypack when I’m out exploring, as I’m always much calmer if I know I have some to hand.
A Stocked First Aid Kit Sets Your Mind at Ease
One of the first things I learned when I started travelling is that you can get almost every medication you use at home overseas. While some travellers take that as an indication to dump their medication in the trash and buy pills whenever they need them, I take the opposite approach.
You never know when you’re going to get sick, and not having to deal with a pharmacy and doctor in a different country makes a huge difference. Plus, it’s the worst thing ever to get travellers’ diarrhoea and have to run to a pharmacy to grab some Imodium when you can’t leave the bathroom for more than a couple of minutes.
Medications are small and lightweight, so don’t feel as though you need to leave them behind to save on space in your bag. I always travel with painkillers, antihistamines, decongestants, band-aids, antiseptic cream, motion-sickness tablets, Imodium, and antimalarials (if I’m going to a high-risk destination).
Most of the premade first aid kids you can buy don’t have the things you really need as a traveler, so you’re better off making your own.
Use Recovery Record to Help Overcome Your Eating Disorder
As someone who has struggled with disordered eating in the past, I know that one of the best ways of overcoming it is through recording what you eat. That’s exactly what Recovery Record helps its users do. It’s a self-monitoring app that’s designed to help you stick to your meal plan, journal to keep track of trends and triggers, and offers coping strategies for sufferers.
Eating can be tough when you’re travelling due to the lack of options, strange foods on offer, and language barriers to overcome, but Recovery Record makes mealtimes less stressful and helps you stay on track.
Recovery Record is free on iOS and Android.
There’s no shortage of articles out there recognising the negative relationship between social media and mental health. Moment is an app that encourages you to take time away from your phone and live in the moment, away from all the likes and curation and Twitter trolls.
Moment runs in the background at all times, tracking how much you use your phone each day, and which apps you spend the most time in. For me, using this app and discovering I spent five hours on websites and social media when I should have been exploring the city motivated me to leave my phone in my pocket, which in turn worked to reduce my anxiety.
Moment is free on iOS and Android, with a premium subscription ($7.99/month, $59.99/year) that unlocks more features.
Improve Your Life with Happify
Happify is a self-improvement app that’s all about using science-backed ideas to improve your happiness while reducing your stress and worry levels. It’s based around tracks, with each one working to give you skills that’ll improve your happiness levels.
The tracks have been created to utilise scientific research from renowned neuroscientists and psychologists, and consist of a set of exercises that’ll help you cope with stress more effectively, strengthen your relationships, boost your self-esteem, overcome negative thought patterns, and work on being kinder to yourself.
Happify is free on desktop, iOS, and Android. A premium account ($14.99/month, $139.99/year, $449.99/lifetime) gives access to more tracks.
Get as Much Exercise as Possible
Physical and mental health are fundamentally linked, and one of the best ways to keep your mind in check is by ensuring you exercise at least once a day. Check out our detailed rundown of apps, sites, and gadgets for staying fit on the road for plenty of ideas for how to do this.
I personally wear a Fitbit, take time out of my day to do a workout on Youtube, and prioritise exploring the city I’m in for a minimum of an hour a day. Travel gives you the perfect excuse to get out of the hotel and onto the streets of an unfamiliar city, so make sure you do so every single day.
nOCD Helps You Continue Exposure Therapy on the Road
Travel isn’t a perfect match for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD.) The continuous exposure to stresses and situations you can’t control can be enough to send your brain into a tailspin. Fortunately, over the long term, constantly getting out of your comfort zone is wonderful for overcoming OCD, and travel can end up being the best thing you’ve ever done for your mental health.
The nOCD app makes use of ERP (Exposure Response Prevention Therapy) and mindfulness to help you keep the worst symptoms at bay while you travel. One of the best features is the SOS section of the app, which you can use if you’re struggling with your thoughts and desperate for help.
You simply record whether you’re struggling with obsessive or compulsive thoughts, make a note of what you were doing when they materialised, and receive emergency guidance for what you’re going through.
nOCD is free on iOS.
No More Panic is Great for Finding Your Community
The No More Panic forum was one of my favourite websites for getting to know people before I left to travel, as well for helping others out with their anxiety and asking for help if I felt like I was losing control.
Mostly, though, I used the forum in case of emergencies. If ever I was having a panic attack or thinking about backing out of a trip, I’d jump on the forums and ask for advice on how to overcome my issue.
Don’t Let Your Mental Health Prevent You From Following Your Dreams
I’m living proof that your mental health doesn’t have to hold you back in life, and that you can travel the world if you have a ridiculous brain to battle with.
Fill your devices with these useful apps, take a deep breath, and step onto that plane.
Images via StockSnap (main image), geralt (meditating woman), ponce_photography (coloring book), TheAngryTeddy (microphone), PublicDomainPictures (first aid kit), LoboStudioHamburg (app icons), StockSnap (running)