Why Digital Nomad Life Can Be Hard on Your Mental Health
Let’s be honest about what digital nomad life is really like — and why it’s not always easy.
There’s a lot of hype out there about how amazing the digital nomad lifestyle is. If you read enough blogs, you could be forgiven for assuming that working remotely consists of nothing but sunsets, cocktails, hammocks and boat trips.
But it’s not always perfect.
I wanted to talk about the challenges of the digital nomad lifestyle and how this life can be extremely difficult when it comes to emotional wellbeing and mental health.
The digital nomad lifestyle comes with its own mental health pitfalls, which are quite different than those that someone who lives in one place might face. I know that this is something that not a lot of remote workers talk about — perhaps because of the stigma that surrounds it.
Let’s break past that and talk about about what digital nomad life is really like — and why it’s not always easy.
Your Life is Perfect — How Can You Be Struggling?
Before I get into talking about the mental health struggles of the digital nomad life, I need to address the elephant in the room.
That is, the often repeated refrain of “Who are you to complain?”
One of the main issues for digital nomads who are struggling with mental health issues is being ignored or not taken seriously. When your life involves a constant stream of gorgeous places and bucket-list experiences, many people will assume you can’t possibly feel BAD in such enviable circumstances.
You might even feel guilty yourself — how dare you feel depressed when you’re living a lifestyle that so many people fantasize about?
I think that, due to this sense of shame, not many remote workers write honestly about how they are feeling. Instead, they share happy selfies from the beach in Thailand and pretend everything is always great. The last thing they want to do is come across as ungrateful or spoiled.
However, this is quite counterproductive — and it stops us from addressing what are actually very real and serious issues.
Mental Health Issues Don’t Discriminate
Just because you’ve figured out how to run a business remotely and travel the world, doesn’t mean you’re invincible when it comes to mental health struggles.
Mental health problems are extremely common and some studies estimate that one in four people will experience a mental health problem within their lifetime. So, a least a quarter of digital nomads around the world are experiencing these issues. (In fact, perhaps more… as the isolated and unpredictable lifestyle of full time travel can make these illnesses more likely.)
Yet, even so — there is still a stigma about these issues — which makes it difficult to talk about them.
As Alex from Alex in Wanderland writes:
“Every lifestyle involves sacrifices. And this one, for all it gives me, does lack in some things I’ve grown to feel the absence of — the comforts of a routine, the depth of long term friendships and relationships, the stability of regular employment, a place to call home, a sense of balance. The truth is, for me, much of 2014 was spent on the brink of burnout.”
Lack of Routine Can Be Unsettling
There’s a good chance that you signed up for the digital nomad lifestyle because you craved a break from routine. You wanted every day to be different than the last and you feared being stuck in a rut or becoming a slave to your own predictable patterns.
However, the truth is that (at least a little bit of) routine is good for your mental health. Routines make you more productive for a number of reasons: they creature structure, they eliminate distractions and they help you find your rhythm.
Also, the unpredictable nature of freelance work can be unsettling and psychologically draining after a long time. When you are freelancing, you don’t necessarily have a stable, reliable source of income. This can be a constant source of low-grade anxiety — as you’re always worrying about whether or not a client will decide they no longer want to work with you.
Add in the often stressful logistics of working from the road, such as WiFi troubles, visa situations, language barriers, transport troubles, nightmare accommodations and illnesses — and some digital nomads can start to miss the comfortable, predictable days of the 9–5.
This lack of routine can have an adverse affect on your mental health over time… triggering depression, anxiety and other issues.
Why Travel Can Trigger Anxiety
You know what can make anxiety much worse?
Being in an unpredictable situation in an unfamiliar environment where you don’t have much control over what happens.
Sounds a lot like many travel situations.
Being on the road full time can make anxiety disorders a lot worse, as the act of travel and the disruption of your routine will create a constant, low-grade trigger.
Anxiety often comes from a fear of not being in control, so one of the ways to combat this is to plan ahead. Arrange your accommodation, your transport from the airport and a list of things to do during your visit in advance.
In this post, “How Not to Let Anxiety Stop You From Traveling,” Lauren writes:
“Travel can be stressful and disorienting, and it’s often the lack of routine that increases your risk of anxiety. In order to feel like you have some control over your life, create a routine so that there’s always a part of your day when you’ll know exactly what will happen.
Try setting an alarm every morning and then heading out for a morning run. Although you might be doing it in a different location every morning, the simple act of doing the same thing day after day gives you something to expect and look forward to.”
Studies show that the best way to deal with anxiety is to repeatedly expose yourself to your fears, rather than avoiding them. So, although travel can trigger your anxiety it can also help you to overcome it — as it gives you so many opportunities to step out of your comfort zone and do something new.
Every time you confront your fear, you will gain a sense of power and accomplishment, while your anxiety loses power over you. Plus, every time you confront your fear, you will accumulate evidence of your ability to cope with the situation.
A Nomadic Life Can be Lonely
“Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.”
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Human beings need friendships. They are essential for our mental health.
Traveling is great, but it’s not conducive to making meaningful, long term friendships.
If you’re only staying somewhere for a short while, it’s pretty much impossible to make deep connections. Of course, you can make the sort of warm, enthusiastic friendships that happen between gregarious strangers in a good mood who immediately establish banter in a pub.
While those interactions are fun, those aren’t really friendships. They might become the beginning of friendships, but they are not long term, deep, meaningful bonds between you and someone else who knows your story, understands your faults, accepts you for who you are and is committed to making time for you in their lives.
You can have fun anywhere, but you can’t instantly feel like you belong anywhere you go. It takes months, even years to build community.
Fun, fleeting short term connections can be really enjoyable — but they are like the “junk food” of connections. Over time, you start to suffer from emotional malnutrition and you crave something a little more nourishing.
Travel Burnout Comes From Moving Too Fast
Trying to rush around and frantically check items off your bucket list is a recipe for exhaustion and burnout.
As entrepreneur Kevin Keller writes in his article “Fast Travel Was Killing Me Slowly”, “The longer you’ve been ‘in the game’, the slower you’ll travel. You need to evolve as a digital nomad if you want to make this a sustainable endeavor.”
He describes the point where he gave up on travel for the sake of “seeing the world” and he started to slow down and focus on meaningful, unique experiences rather than checking off things to see and do.
Take an honest look at your planned itinerary and ask yourself whether you are trying to cover too much ground in not enough time. Traveling too quickly is exhausting enough, but when you add on your work obligations on top of that — you’re on the road to burnout.
Unhealthy Habits Affect Mental Health
It makes sense that poor physical health can also manifest itself as poor mental health. Although we make a clear distinction between mind and body — we really shouldn’t.
Getting a good sleep, participating in regular physical activity and eating a healthy diet are all important for maintaining your physical health — but these good habits will also affect your mental health as well.
There have been numerous studies that have shown how exercise improves mental health. A healthy balanced diet is also crucial for taking care of your mental health, as it includes the nutrients your brain needs to function properly. Sleep is the third essential ingredient in the mix and it is also essential for keeping your mental health functioning well.
However, it can be extremely difficult to stay on a good routine when it comes to sleep, exercise and healthy eating when you are a digital nomad.
You may be working long hours and sleeping in unfamiliar settings. Establishing an exercise routine can be more challenging because you can’t go to the same gym every time. There are also plenty of obstacles to eating healthy — especially when you are on the road and the only options are fast food and convenient snacks.
One of the biggest challenges of a digital nomad lifestyle is finding a way to deal with this and keep up healthy habits, even when you are constantly changing locations.
So, What Can You Do?
The digital nomad lifestyle is amazing and I would never stop anyone from pursuing this dream if they wanted to. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
However, if you do decide to be location independent — it’s important to understand that mental health is an aspect of your life that will require attention and care, no matter where in the world you are.
Here are some essential tips for taking care of your mental health while you are on the road:
- Make self care a priority. Take time to meditate, rest, relax and recharge.
- Find ways that you can incorporate exercise, quality sleep and healthy food into your routine — no matter where you are.
- Travel slower. Spend more time in each place and do fewer activities each day.
- Create a routine for yourself. It helps you feel grounded and can do wonders for your health.
- Put the effort into maintaining long term relationships, even from far away.
- If you have hobbies and interests, bring them on the road with you. They are really beneficial for your mental health.
- Don’t compare yourself to other digital nomads. Remember: When you follow someone on social media you’re watching their highlight reel — not what’s really happening behind the scenes.
- Take the time to head back home every now and then and visit family and friends.
- Set goals for your travel and business, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
- If you are feeling depressed, stressed or otherwise overwhelmed — talk to someone. Whether it’s a friend or an online therapist, it’s really helpful to talk about your emotional struggles rather than keeping them all inside.
Last but not least, remember that you don’t always have to be constantly on the move. Some digital nomads find that they are happier when they have a “home base” somewhere and they only travel for part of the year.
Here are a few more great blogs about mental health and the digital nomad life I came across while writing this article. I’m thankful to these bloggers and nomads for having the courage to speak honestly about this issue.
Have you struggled with mental health as a digital nomad? How do you cope? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.
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I’m a co-founder at TendoPay, a financing company in the Philippines, also co-founder at Candy Banners, a digital advertising studio and Stinson Design, the leading presentation consultants in North America. Previously founder of social game Predico and on the board of ad tech company Viewor.
Follow my adventures on Instagram @timgrassin