We’ve all been there. While traveling abroad there’ll come a time when you crash… emotionally, mentally, or physically. Whether it’s culture shock (or reverse culture shock), loss of motivation, or food poisoning, eventually you have your down day. Or down week. Or a longer increment of time that simply sucks. And you feel the defeat. You don’t want to complain, but you wonder, “How the hell did this happen?”
I felt this recently, in a miniature version compared to times in the past. I’ve been talking about it with friends and fellow travelers who’ve had it. Think of it like Expat Depression, or Traveling Blues, or Where-Am-I-Insomnia, or What-Have-I-Been-Doing-With-My-Life-Introspection. People document this stuff every day and charge you $30 to read about it. I’ve decided to write about it here.
Think of this both as a confession and a guide. Sometimes I get preachy. Ignore that. But if you’re having a sucky week and you’ve got that “WTF am I doing here?” thought bubble floating above your head, do not lose hope.
Be encouraged. We can be friends. You are not alone and you are not a cry-baby (not officially at least). This is where you determine if you’re going to make this into a valuable life lesson or the crappiest blog post ever.
So, let’s be friends. Come along with me on my journey through the mood trap.
When you’ve recovered from the food poisoning, or you’ve gotten beyond the feeling that you’re a walking cultural embarrassment, or you’ve shaken off the unease of being harassed by a gang of motorbikes, whatever you’ve been dealing with, you’re faced with your worst enemy yet: the mood trap.
Don’t let the mood trap win. Be proactive instead.
To lighten your mind you need to first beat up your body. Go for a run. Play tennis. Take a hard bike ride. Do a crazy dance. Go for a swim. Get an intense Thai massage. Do something to alleviate the pressure that’s settling all around you like a cloud of doom. Once you’ve conquered that trail, or sweated out that pollution, or been pummeled by a very strong masseuse, you are empowered. Your body knows it’s capable and your mind will follow next.
So, you’ve got a new thought bubble “I’m not helpless,” but it’s resting on top of that pesky “WTF am I doing here?” one.
You need to find a security blanket. And some comfort food. Stat.
It’s not self-pity, it’s not defeat, it’s recovery before the next step. Hopefully you’ve got a favorite t-shirt, a favorite book, or a pillow you’ve been dragging with you half way around the world. Put on that t-shirt, hug that pillow, or follow your favorite character into the depths of the city of blah blah blah, and tell yourself that even adults are allowed that little-kid feeling of an emotional band-aid.
Now go the market or scour the local 7-11 for your comfort food. For me, greasy fried bread and a sip of wine are the topical treatment to this mauvais-psyche-syndrome. Maybe for you it’s miso soup, or creamy coffee, or a packet of chocolate bars. In any case, make due with what you have in your surroundings. If you have to pay an extra 30 baht or 1 euro to get the familiar brand, so be it. And if you’ve recently survived food poisoning, you’ll understand why “comfort food” means choosing the stuff most familiar to your stomach.
So let’s say you find your greasy bread (extra points that it’s twisty and fun looking) and you’ve found your semi-sort-of-wine (it doesn’t exactly taste like it, but the letters are there on the label to reassure you). Enjoy the marvelous combination and limit yourself to a small quantity. This is not your go-to cure all, it’s a treat.
Now comes the hard part, especially if you’re the adept, loner type of traveler who keeps their feelings to themselves (or a blog). Find some people you trust to share your thoughts with.
This is sometimes easier said than done, especially if the mood trap is stemming from personal stuff at home or abroad. Hopefully some of the people you find are physically nearby and can offer you that close, insider’s perspective you need. Hopefully you also have people further away that you can air your concerns to (having access to a phonecard or airmail or the internet is a luxury you should make happen just this once). They can offer you that outsider’s perspective that you crave.
Be prepared for multiple points of view. A wake-up call. An emotional slap. A hug. A pep talk. Whatever you get, it’s exactly what you need. They might be in your family or they might be friends or they might even be a really kick-ass fiance, but you chose these people on instinct. They are your faraway outsiders to confide in and bitch to. They listen, hopefully non-judgmentally (but also totally biased with their concern for you) because they are the rocks in your life and they can be the stepping stones to crawl outside of your own head.
If you’ve still got the negative thought bubbles plaguing your airspace, it’s time to take some more risks. Vulnerability. You need a group session.
Bring people together who may or may not be experiencing their own mood traps. If you’re in a group, or were thrown together in a group, likely they will be experiencing a version of what you’re going through. If you can get together, hopefully with your greasy bread and a cup of coffee and some comfy clothes, or out at a pub or club with drinks in hand and good music playing around you, you can just talk and tell stories and laugh at your misery and pull each other up out of the pits of despair.
Do not make this an exclusive club. Invite everyone. Let’s face it, groups breed mob mentality whether we like it or not. If someone is down, eventually it touches everyone. Ask each person how they’re feeling and listen.to.their.answers. If you can bond with others in your peer group, I think you’ll find the world a lot lighter to bear. And if you can’t, learn not to take it so personally. Don’t waste your time on the negatives.
Your thought bubbles should be fading, but we’re not quite done yet. You’ve still got a length of time to spend abroad, and whether it’s a week or two years, the mood trap is always lurking. We must find the cause.
Recognize the triggers and be prepared for them: self-criticism, lack of creature-comforts, loneliness, feeling left out, lack of progress with the local language, lack of your native language….whatever, it could be one of a thousand things….and know that you’re not the only one who experiences them. Be honest and do not be ashamed. Understand yourself and you will be able to combat any mood trap.
In the end, it’s cheesy and cliche, but it’s true. Recognize what is and is not under your control and make your peace with it. Be positive. Love your life. Love the opportunities you’ve been given. No one else will ever be able to experience exactly what you get to in that exact moment. Make it unique. Make it real.
And just know that I love you all.