Author Michael Fitterling reveals how travel helped him beat stress and depression, and suggests the ways it can help revitalise your mental wellbeing too
A couple of years ago, stress was overwhelming me and putting me into a downward spiral of depression. I couldn’t afford medical help, so I did the only thing I knew would help: I got on my motorcycle and rode. Long-distance traveling on my Triumph is the only time I have never felt down.
I rode from my home in Florida to Quebec, and returned with a different and more upbeat outlook on life. Of course, that one ride did not solve all my problems. The stress returned, but by then I had learned to get out and ride before depression got to a critical point again.
I sat down to contemplate what it was about the trip that had made it the prescription I needed. I quickly realised that it was the very nature of travel that had helped me.
Let me explain.
Motorcyclist resting beside a lake (Dreamstime)
After a day or two of travelling, the notes I wrote each day quickly lost any references to being down or worried about things at home. Riding a motorcycle is an immersive task. It requires you to think in the moment. It demands that you watch traffic, deal with clutch and brakes, develop contingency plans to react to situations that develop, and think about turns, destinations, routes, and when and where you'll be when you'll need fuel.
It’s not something that is confined to travelling by motorcycle. You just need to immerse yourself in an activity where you don't have time – or the inclination – to think of other things. That could be hiking in the Himalaya, white water rafting in Costa Rica or buying a bus ticket in Nairobi. Independent travel of almost any kind can provide you with all kinds of distractions and with each day worries move further away.
Traveller enjoying Holi Festival in India (Dreamstime)
The impact of seeing new things and visiting unknown places that are continually changing, as they do when you travel, keeps your mind engaged and constantly processing those new experiences. There's no room for depressive thoughts while being flooded with new experiences, sights, sounds, and smells. You become saturated with the new and, like a wet sponge that cannot absorb any more, you can't absorb the past. Even when I stopped for the evening, the new experiences were so fresh in my mind they didn't allow other thoughts to creep in.
Man contemplating in a forest (Dreamstime)
Back at home or in an office, it's easy to forget how wonderful the natural world outside is, even when it's only steps away. Getting away from four walls and a desk and computer monitor, feeling the wind, hearing it whistle through the trees, listening to birds, smelling the incense-like balsam odour of pine trees are a reminder that we are part of a marvellous world. It's hard to stay depressed surrounded by nature's grandeur.
Man amongst goats in Norway (Dreamstime)
Part of what was depressing me was the attitude of people posting on social media sites and the constant bad news reported on television. These things gave a false impression that people are rude, angry, violent, and selfish. On the road, however, I met many people face to face, which made all the difference.
These human encounters while travelling almost invariably revealed the incredible kindness, selflessness, and hospitality of people. I struck up conversations with complete strangers and walked away with new friends. People I barely knew offered me places to stay and fed me, refusing to let me pay any more than a travelling story or two. Travel restored my faith in humanity.
Man on the Kepler Trail in New Zealand (Dreamstime)
Simply deciding to travel and planning your journey can be the “Zen slap” you need to wake you up to another point of view. It offers hope and a goal to work towards. Pick a journey that appeals to you sailing the Caribbean, hiking the Appalachian Trail, driving the Silk Road, cruising the rivers of Europe – and start researching.
Your mind will clear, your energy will return, and there’s the added bonus of a trip that is immersive, exposes you to new places, puts you in the midst of nature, and gets you away from TV and social media at the end of it all, helping you get you back on track.
Main image: Man contemplating nature (Dreamstime)