My first night on Boracay, I sat with a friend on a white sandy beach, beer in hand, waves gently coming in a few feet away. The air was warm, and we listened to live music from a nearby restaurant.
I had just finished my second year of teaching in South Korea and was taking the long way home to Canada. The small island in the Philippines was the first stop during about a month of travel, and it had drawn me in for the same reasons it appeals to most tourists: white beaches and relaxation. But the thoughts that began running through my mind were far from relaxing.
A jumble of worries quickly became more specific: I wasn’t employed in Korea or Canada. I was moving back home after more than two years of living overseas, where I had been financially stable, competent at my job, and free to travel around Asia whenever I had time off work. I had about upcoming commitments to normal people things: weddings and family reunions, big decisions on the horizon, and a crap-ton of important yet tedious tasks looming, like reinstating health care and paying taxes on foreign income. Things that are hard to process when you lead a weird, Peter Pan-esque lifestyle.
Playing vagabond during vacation from work was one thing, but holy shit what was I doing now?!
The worries were familiar. But I expected them to disappear on Boracay. I was drinking beer on a warm, white sandy beach! Wasn’t there an obligation to be stress-free? The surge of anxious thoughts combined with my “GTFO of this tropical paradise” attitude towards them was a little too much. A few tears welled up as I sat there frustrated with my own brain.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for me to begin to relax on Boracay, but that wasn’t the first or last time I’d faced anxious thoughts while travelling.
Honestly, I’m still in the learning process when it comes to dealing with major stress when I desperately want to relax (usually in transition periods), but these are some strategies that do help:
Don’t worry, be happy It’s OK not to feel OK
Despite what you may be feeling, or what well-meaning friends might tell you, there’s no need to dismiss negative thoughts simply because you’re on holiday. If you deal with anxious thoughts on a frequent basis, it’s unrealistic to expect them to vanish the instant you touch down in a tropical paradise. You may have packed light but… your brain is going to come with you on every trip, yo!
Just accepting that you don’t need to feel calm all the time relieves a lot of pressure and makes relaxation much more accessible. Plus, it’s easier to deal with your thoughts when they’re more manageable, rather than bundling them up to unpack when you get home.
Deal with those thoughts
Write. It. down. (Or talk it out.) Take note of your worries, whether they wake you up at night or surface while you’re working on your sunburn. Make a list of realistic things you can do (most likely when you get home) to alleviate your stress. I had a giant, growing to-do list in my notebook, but somehow the visual made the tasks seem more achievable.
If you have travel partners, bring it up to them. Let them suggest solutions and provide listening ears and hugs! Talking about what was on my mind in Boracay helped me calm down, and reminded me that I was employable, had options for the fall, and could definitely afford the trip I was on.
Minimize triggers that you can easily control
Take advantage of the extra free time you have to connect with your thoughts, but try to disconnect from the internet as much as possible. This is good general life advice, but it’s also key for not exacerbating anxious thoughts. Sure, you’ll probably go online to post some photos, but being connected all the time can remind you of the things you feel you should be doing. Just as your friends are probably not enjoying your gorgeous beach shots as much as you are, their posts about work and the ways they are generally contributing to society can be difficult to process from your nomad-in-transition vantage point.
Consider what else might be contributing to your anxious thoughts. A few days into my trip, I started taking anti-malaria pills. They gave me heart palpitations, made me even more over-the-top emotional, and caused paranoid thoughts! Needless to say, this did not help on my quest to relax, and the risk of malaria wasn’t high enough for the side effects to be worth it.
Do be happy about where you are
Because really, you are seriously lucky to be there! When you’ve recovered the mental energy, laugh about how at least you’re fortunate enough to be anxious on a tropical beach, rather than at your office, the campus library, or in bed at home.
I’ve had the privilege of dealing with extreme worry on 5 continents! Travel doesn’t make me anxious (although it does bring up new and unique anxieties), but it doesn’t relieve stress either.
There’s much more to the story of mental health and travel, but the moral of this particular one is that when you’re dealing with anxious thoughts, aspects of travel may exacerbate or temporarily relieve them, but a tropical paradise is (sadly) not a cure. As long as you acknowledge that, and are taking the steps necessary to get help or help yourself, keep travelling!
Boracay ended up being one of my most relaxing vacations ever! After accepting that I was feeling anxious and working through some of my thoughts, I got into a daily routine of lying on the beach, swimming, eating, rinsing and repeating. The worries did come back later on the trip, but I acknowledged them and dealt with them as best as I could.