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Post-travel depression: what is it and how can we combat it?

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There’s no doubt about it, the benefits of travel are plentiful. For young people, travelling creates independence, freedom, and cultural experience impossible to build from remaining in a single country. However, returning to reality after a period of travel can lead to feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and emotional distress for many people, especially students.

Post-travel depression is very common, but it remains a topic heavily concealed in favour of glamorised blog posts and Instagram highlight reels.

The illness manifests when someone who has returned from a holiday or period of travel experiences symptoms of depression. According to the mental health charity Mind, this can include but is not limited to: feeling down, upset, and/or tearful; restless, agitated, or irritable; and finding no pleasure in life or things you usually enjoy.

At its most extreme, depression may result in physical aches and pains, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

For university students or young people still living with their parents, post-travel depression may be triggered by returning to an environment with dramatically reduced freedom and fewer opportunities for independence, leading to feelings being trapped or “holed up”.

Post-travel depression may also be associated with a reverse culture shock, which transpires when someone is plunged back into a country with significantly different cultural values and practices than they are used to. For students returning from long study abroad periods, reverse culture shock is prevalent.

University of Bristol student Charli Torode recalls experiencing a low mood after spending 10 months studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain: “Mundane tasks felt important and valuable because they were helping me to become fluent [in Spanish].” After returning to England, Charli explains that she felt restless and bored, and missed her friends in Salamanca.

For Charli, keeping active and finding new challenges were integral to coping with the reverse culture shock and nostalgia. “I would definitely recommend finding another challenge. When I got back to uni, I joined a Cuban fitness class and found that it was really helpful because the music was similar to what I’d listened to in Spain, so it filled the void a bit. Plus, the exercise made me feel much better,” Charli says.

Integrating your new-found culture into everyday life back home as Charli did can help to lessen the effects of reverse culture shock. For instance, if you miss the wildlife and nature of your previous destination, it may help to invest in some house plants or get stuck into some gardening. Alternatively, if you feel unsettled by the drastic difference in local cuisine, experimenting by cooking some of your favourite dishes from your holiday can make you feel close to your cultural identity abroad.

Likewise, making small changes such as keeping active, sleeping out any jet-lag or exhaustion, and regularly meeting with friends can be crucial to combatting post-travel depression.

While dwelling on memories to the point of extreme sadness is not healthy, getting creative with your travel memoirs may help to creatively channel your emotions into something positive. Writing a realistic blog is a great way of working through your feelings about a particular place or time.

The National Student’s music editor Caitlin Clark also spoke to us about her experiences of post-travel depression after returning from a year studying in Kenya and Tanzania. After contracting typhoid fever which grew progressively worse due to lack of resources at the Zanzibar hospital, Caitlin was flown to a hospital in Nairobi and eventually home by her insurance.

Caitlin recalls, ‘When I returned home, I felt completely lost. Home didn’t feel like home, but neither did Nairobi or Zanzibar, or London, where all my friends were. It was a strange feeling of displacement that took over my mental and emotional state, making it even more difficult to recover and move on from the traumatic event I’d experienced.”

“Normal life became really difficult; I continued to have health problems as a result of my illness and my mental state carried on deteriorating, to the point where I was having full-body flashbacks to being ill in the hospital,” Caitlin continues.

After enrolling in her university’s counselling services, Caitlin made progress by finding coping mechanisms such as swimming and yoga classes which helped her to release pent-up anger and stress. “I spoke openly and often to all of my friends and family about my experience, and eventually, learnt to laugh it off. Thankfully, I have an amazing group of people around me who listened to experience, sympathised with me and gave me the space to realise that it wasn’t something that was best left stewing in my brain, but laid out in the open.”

As Caitlin emphasises, post-travel depression is best spoken about openly and not swept under the rug. Returning home from a period abroad can feel disconcerting, confusing, and even scary. After all, travel is a life-changing experience which has the power to alter your attitude to life and open your eyes to different cultures, influencing the way you connect with people you previously believed you had a lot in common with. Nevertheless, although post-travel depression cannot be prevented, there are ways to come to terms with the illness and combat it, beginning with an open discussion.

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