Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Sarah is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and is the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

8 min read

With so many of us deprived of travel for so long, holidays have taken on a greater appeal than ever. Never have more of us been dreaming of jetting off to a sun-kissed island for a week of doing nothing or being enveloped in a warm hug at the airport by much-missed family.

Whether your idea of heaven is lying by the pool, wandering tropical rainforests or slaloming through crisp powder snow, all holidays have one thing in common: they offer us an escape which is sorely needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many feeling trapped, isolated and unable to escape the seemingly constant flow of bad news relating to rising cases, tougher restrictions and economic challenges. One of the major causes of stress is a lack of control, and not since the last World War has most of us lived in more uncertain times.

Of course, we all have stories of holiday disasters – lost luggage, poor food, long queues. Yet somehow these never put us off travelling. Why? Because the positive emotions triggered by the excitement of a holiday is a powerful draw.

But when we can finally travel again, COVID-19 will have taken a heavy toll on our mental health – rates of depression have risen significantly during the pandemic and many people with severe mental health problems have struggled to gain access the help they need. So, while there's no question that holidays can benefit everyone's mental as well as physical health, many of us should be tailoring our holidays to maximise the chance of a truly positive experience.

The mental health benefits of travel

Stress-busting

Whether COVID-19 has seen you more overstretched than ever, or struggling with boredom because of isolation and enforced idleness, a holiday offers a chance to escape the everyday demands. Whether you're relaxing, exploring or experiencing, there's good evidence that a change of tempo and routine allows you to recharge and rejuvenate.

And the benefits come on quickly – almost 9 in 10 people in one survey saw their stress levels drop within a couple of days, regardless of what their health was before the trip.

Reconnecting

In these busy times we live in, there often isn't enough time to just sit down and chat with your loved ones. Social isolation is a major driver of depression and anxiety, and it's quite possible to feel isolated even if you live with others, if you're not communicating with them in a meaningful way ('Whose turn is it to put out the rubbish?' doesn't count!)

Going on holiday with family and friends offers a perfect opportunity to reconnect and spend quality time together, making positive memories which last.

Broadening your horizons

New experiences are good for keeping your brain in shape. Without regular stimulation, our brains tend to stagnate and the risk of cognitive decline is increased. Passively taking in information – such as by watching television – does not appear to hold the same benefits as actively taking part.

Activities that stretch your brain – whether learning a new skill (from a new language to lock-picking) or searching your brain recesses (crosswords and sudoku) – help keep your brain sharp. But so does travel.

Immersing yourself in a new culture – taking part in local activities rather than confining yourself to the UK-friendly resort – also enhances your creativity, which could translate into better productivity when you return.

Recuperation

We all need time to recharge our batteries – and holidays can help do just that. But not all holidays are equal in this regard. Getting enough (good quality) sleep, free time, the opportunity to meet other people, exercise and warmer climates all add up to a greater chance of feeling more rested and renewed. Having health problems when you are away, and a bigger time-zone difference, tend to reduce the health-related benefits of holidays.

Relaxing Loungers With View

The mental health risks of travel

Travelling isn't always a positive experience, and most of us can think of an example where we're been frustrated, worried or concerned during a trip. This is far more likely if you have existing mental health problems: although mental health issues certainly shouldn't stop you from enjoying a holiday (and you may have more to gain than ever if you're under pressure), you may need to take extra precautions.

Mental health problems are among the most common causes of health issues among travellers: they're also a common reason for 'medical repatriation' – needing to be brought back to the UK from a foreign destination.

Relaxing Views Fjords

Mental health problems and travel – what increases the risk?

Several factors, related both to your mental health and your choice of destination, can make it more likely that you'll suffer mental health problems while you're away.

Some apply to everyone:

  • Language barriers – especially if you're alone and don't have anyone to help.
  • A sense of isolation – particularly if you find yourself in a completely different culture.
  • Jet lag and sleep deprivation.
  • Travel delays or disruptions, lost luggage eg.

Others depend on your personal circumstances:

  • Becoming physically unwell during your holiday can have a disproportionate effect on your mental wellbeing.
  • If you're taking medication for mental health problems, not taking it regularly can have an even greater impact than it would at home.
  • Recreational drug and alcohol use is always a risk for your mental health, but there are additional risks abroad – counterfeit alcohol, spiked drugs, being under the use of drugs and alcohol in an unfamiliar setting.
  • If you're travelling for an unwelcome reason (such as a funeral) or haven't chosen the travel (eg business or work) you may be more likely to find travel stressful.
Beautiful Countryside

How can you risk-proof your holiday from mental health problems?

Whether you have mental health issues or not, you can still benefit enormously from a holiday. But there are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of crises. Some are suitable for everyone:

  • Stay in regular contact with family and friends at home if you're travelling alone. Set up a regular time to contact them, so they'll be alerted if you miss the engagement.
  • Think about your stressors and plan your holiday accordingly. If you react badly to lack of sleep, time your flights and any trips to ensure you get enough sleep. And consider a destination that doesn't include a significant change in time zones.
  • Keep alcohol intake to a minimum and avoid it completely if it might interact with any medicines you're taking (your pharmacist can advise).

If you have existing mental health problems:

  • Make sure you take out specialist travel insurance, which will cover a worsening of your existing condition.
  • Check you have enough medication. Order your repeats from your GP well in advance.
  • Keep taking the medicine. Take into account time zone changes to keep your dose as regular as possible.
  • Make sure you're allowed to take your medication with you. Some countries have restrictions on the medication you can bring into the country, or may require proof that it has been prescribed for you. Check out our article on travelling abroad with medication and follow any steps it recommends.
  • Be aware of your warning signs. If you're travelling with others, confide in someone about possible signs to look out for so they can seek help on your behalf.
  • Keep a list of local health service contact numbers.
  • Don't overdo it. Sleep deprivation has a negative impact on everyone's mental equilibrium. Remember, you're there to enjoy yourself!
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