If you experience depression and anxiety generally, how will moving onto a boat or traveling full time by RV affect you?
And if you’re normally mentally healthy, do you worry that the stress of nomadic life might cause you to suffer a bout of depression or anxiety?
I don’t know all the answers. But after a lifelong acquaintance with mental illness, I’ll give you a few things to think about. And some ways to find a glimmer of hope when you’re feeling low or stressed.
How Will Nomad Life Affect Your Mental Health
I ask myself one question every time I set out on a new activity: “If I start feeling strongly depressed or anxious, will everything go wrong?”
Sadly, I have a long list of activities I’ve failed to accomplish because I couldn’t push myself through the darkness to work on them. (And yes, I also know that focusing on past failures is itself a symptom of depression.)
So you can imagine the self-questioning I subjected myself to before selling our house, darn near all our stuff, and moving into a boat that I had very little experience sailing.
Imagine my surprise to discover how cruising on a sailboat actually affected my levels of depression and anxiety. Perhaps you’d find the same.
Decrease your depression and anxiety
A life of travel in a small vehicle or vessel might just help you feel better.
After all, nomadic travel life involves
- more time out in nature
- living a life of purpose instead of doing what others expect of you
- engaging your body and your mind in new activities
- opportunities to help your traveling community
- learning new skills
When I lived in a dirt house, I spent every possible moment outside. The instant the temperature rose enough to make sitting comfortable, I turned my front porch into my office. But I spend more time outside in the cockpit when I’m onboard Meander.
I’m always on the lookout for boaters who need help landing on a dock in high winds. Or making sure unexpected noises aren’t the result of someone else’s hull scraping against a piling.
For the most part, I found living on a boat and cruising decreased my depression and anxiety to a significant degree. Cruising has nearly eliminated my social anxiety. And it certainly didn’t hurt to leave upstate New York winters for months in the sunny South.
But full-time travel may not always boost your mood if you’re depressed or anxious.
Increase your depression and anxiety
A life of travel in a small vehicle or vessel might just make you feel worse.
Some people adopting a new, nomadic life experience
- the pressure to figure things out and blame when they don’t
- uncertainty about the future
- the feeling of being unmoored from your family or former community
- stress in relationships with their partner
Even people living the most idyllic life can experience bouts of depression and anxiety.
Depression is an illness that sits at the intersection of genetics and circumstances. So if you’re a sufferer and you set out on a life of full-time travel on your boat or RV, your life can both help and harm your mental health.
Just like any kind of life.
But even people who don’t normally suffer from depression and anxiety might experience moments of it in their nomadic lives.
Feeling Depressed Or Anxious While Traveling
Expectations are dangerous.
If you set out on a nomadic life expecting it to be nonstop sunsets and wildlife viewing, you’re bound to feel disappointed when your life becomes harder than you expected.
And disappointed expectations can contribute to exogenous (happening as a reaction to a situation) depression.
Even those of us suffering from chronic (endogenous) depression can have a depressive episode triggered by outside events.
So what should you do if your nomadic life coincides with a bout of depression or anxiety?
When you feel depressed or anxious
Over the decades, I’ve found relief in some seemingly insignificant actions. Maybe they will help you too.
Realize that pain is a sign
Just like physical pain, mental pain is your body and mind trying to tell you something.
Perhaps it’s just that you have some skewed genes giving you grief. But remember that your family members with the same depressive genes raised you as well. So some pain may result from relationships and not just science.
And a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean you will become depressed. It just means you may be more sensitive to incidents that can lead to depression.
Try to figure out what your pain is telling you without ruminating (a risky activity for depressed people). Writing about your thoughts can help without sending you down a rabbit hole of despair.
If you’re lucky, your writing will set you on the right path to feeling better.
Learn from depressed people
Plenty of seriously ill people have lived fulfilling (if challenging) lives. Some of them have written moving and thoughtful memoirs.
Yes, it helps me feel better to read and listen to talks by people hobbled by depression and anxiety.
For one thing, it makes me feel less alone. And it helps me realize that the bad feelings will end. And if the author I’m reading found a way out of darkness, I will too.
Links below may be Amazon links. I will earn a small amount if you buy something after clicking them.
William Styron is one of my favorite authors. His book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, is one of the most beautiful and horrifying books I’ve ever read.
Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened brings humor and an “oh yeah, I recognize that” sensibility to depression.
And Johann Hari describes how medicine failed to help him while researching the science behind what might in Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. (To get a peek at his ideas, check out his Ted Talk I embedded below.)
Wait to take drastic steps
Wait to take action until you have clarity. When you’re feeling low is not the time to make major changes in your life.
If you list your rig for sale or leave your partner or set off on a long voyage you’re ill-equipped for out of feelings of depression or anxiety, you will regret it.
I’m not suggesting that you might not need to take extreme actions to improve your life. But try to dig yourself out of the worst of the darkness before you make a plan to move forward.
On the other hand…
Stop… or start
Stop moving. Or start. Maybe you’re just stuck in your current routine. A simple change might help.
I find that when Meander is tied up to a dock for a long time, my mood starts to sink. It feels like I have all the negative sides of conventional homeownership (daily work, chores, maintenance). And I have none of the positives of living on a boat (travel, time on open water, constantly meeting new people.)
I know I would benefit from taking the boat out for a sail. But by the time I realize that I’m already feeling “stuck” and struggle with being able to prep the boat for sailing.
Likewise, if you’ve been traveling hundreds of miles each day (or for sailors–about a hundred miles a day) every day, you might just be exhausted by traveling.
Many nomads start out covering a lot of miles. But as they understand the lifestyle more, they find themselves hunkering down in a destination for a while.
Constant travel is exhausting and stressful.
If you’re feeling low or anxious after extensive travel, maybe it’s time to stop somewhere and just enjoy being still.
Don’t feel bad about feeling bad
Love the part of you in pain and express compassion for yourself.
I feel a lot of shame when I’m depressed. I can really beat myself up about not getting things done when my mood falls.
But one day I realized I was just making myself feel bad about feeling bad. What’s the point of that?
And if my friend told me they were in pain from a broken leg, I would never tell them they shouldn’t feel bad. I’d tell them to take care of themselves while healing.
We should all be as compassionate to ourselves.
Exercise or do physical work. As hard as it can be to push yourself to move, it does help.
On low days, I take breaks from “sitting still tasks” (whether watching a video or working for my virtual assistant clients) by getting up frequently and doing something physical. Sometimes it’s only swiping a dust rag over the navigation station. Others, it’s taking my dog Honey off the boat for a stroll.
No matter how tiny the task, moving off my butt helps my heart and mind.
Ask for help
Find the help you need to cope with your anxiety or depression.
If you’ve had a good therapeutic relationship with someone, see if they can follow up with you online or by phone.
Would some form of medication help? I met one world cruiser whose doctor prescribed a tiny dose of Valium to take only during severe ocean storms. Apparently, it took the edge off her fear while allowing her to function in dangerous seas.
Recognize the early signs of depression (irritability is one for me). Share what you’re feeling with your family and ask them for what you need to feel better.
Gifts of depression & anxiety for nomads
Yes, depression and anxiety bring their own gifts that can prep you for the traveling life.
If you’re experienced with depression, you also know
- not to count on things going exactly as planned
- understanding that sometimes it’s best to hunker down instead of riding out a storm
- recognizing the signals depression & anxiety are giving you when things aren’t right (happy people can tolerate awful circumstances for a long time)
- the importance of empathy, even if you’re less likely to share it with yourself.
Just think of how much all those happy people will suffer the first time they realize that they can’t control everything in their nomad lives. [grin]
Depression on Meander
I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety most of my life. Most of my close family has been treated for serious depressive disorders.
So what happened when I moved onboard and started cruising full time?
I felt like the person I always thought I was got to be herself.
Sure, I didn’t know much about sailing or boat electronics or weather. But I trusted myself to learn what I needed. I felt sure I would make good choices to keep us safe while I grew my skills.
I learned a lot about myself.
I also learned a lot about my partner. And in the close quarters of a 34-foot sailboat, I learned how his anxiety and fear affected me.
Exposure to my partner’s negativity and anxiety-related anger depressed my mood. But then it made me angry.
And if depression is anger turned inward (do psychologists still believe that?), turning my anger outward where it belonged was a huge leap forward for my mental health.
How will a life of travel on your boat or RV affect your mental health?
I don’t know. But I do know that if you are kind to yourself, pay attention to what your moods are telling you, and take the action you need to feel better you’ll make a great nomad.
Or you’ll return to a dirt home knowing that you listened to the messages your heart was giving you about where you should be and how you should live.