According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. As someone who has battled depression for many years, I know the debilitating effects it can have on everyday life. In my case, depression has been largely tied to my career and how I’m doing in life. My happiest times were in college, when I had a sense of purpose and felt like I was working towards something worthwhile. The lowest times were when I felt stuck – physically and mentally. Traveling is what ultimately helped alleviate my decades long struggle with depression.
I’ve struggled with depression since I moved to this country at the age of nine. The move from Germany to the US was incredibly traumatic and stressful for me. I never discussed my feelings with anyone and instead retreated into myself, becoming more introverted and spending my days reading instead of socializing with other kids my age. The language barrier was to blame, but it was also cultural. Not to mention the sedentary lifestyle in the US was incredibly depressing. I went from taking public transportation on my own and spending time after school playing with kids in the neighborhood playground to getting driven everywhere and my parents suddenly worrying about me walking five doors down to my aunt’s house. The food didn’t help – suddenly we were eating more fast food, gaining weight, and feeling its physical and mental impact.
What I realized in later years is that we need stimulation and movement to be happy. When I finally started traveling, I got more exercise and mental stimulation. I once read about a psychological experiment where participants were told to sit in a chair for an undefined period of time without making any movement whatsoever. Within five minutes, they began displaying mental distress, which only got worse over time. It really clicked for me then that at heart, we need to feel a sense of freedom – movement helps us achieve that and for too many Americans, that’s a daily struggle.
My very first trip back to Afghanistan in 2011 helped me overcome a great deal of my anxiety and depression. While I thought I’d be restricted in my movement, that turned out not to be the case. I was able to walk to the market alone every day and generally felt a sense of freedom just by walking everywhere. I realized that driving (i.e. sitting in a vehicle for 3 hours a day) was detrimental to my physician and mental health. Physical movement made me feel more at ease in general. Being in a country where people were so relaxed in spite of the constant dangers they faced also helped me adjust my attitude. The sense of ease was contagious and I began to find humor in situations that otherwise would have stressed me out. I probably would’t have learned that in the high-stress, competitive culture that prevails in the U.S.
Ultimately, it was my trip to Calais in the summer of 2016 that had the most profound impact on me. I spent two weeks in Greece and France, volunteering in warehouses and refugee camps. I walked at least four miles a day, I was surrounded by hundreds of people. As someone who spent most of my days in front of a computer, the manual labor I spent 8+ hours a day doing had a healing effect on me. I’ve never felt more alive and happy than during that time. It was a combination of traveling outside of my comfort zone, working with my hands and constantly interacting with people that helped me overcome that final obstacle that had kept me in a state of depression for so long.
When I returned home, I realized the changes I needed to make: Stay engaged, keep moving and learning. Travel helped tear me away from my computer screen in favor of social engagement. It forced me into a more active life and a more flexible attitude that helped me deal with stressful situations better. Traveling has not only helped me overcome depression by being more active physically and mentally, it also taught me to look outward rather than inward. It took a long time, but eventually I was able to implement the positive aspects of travel into my everyday life in order to overcome depression. I may not be able to see and do new things everyday, but I can move, learn and keep growing. That, for me at least, has been the key to happiness.
Have you suffered from depression? How has travel affected your mental and physical health?