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The psychological toll that perpetual travel takes on digital nomads

Aaron is now crowdfunding a book on resilience called “The Grateful Pessimist”, pre-order it here.

Being a digital nomad has become the dream of many. The lifestyle carries many perceived benefits, such as traveling to exotic places, the romance of adventure, breaking societal conformity and the freedom of working whenever you want to. But how realistic are some of these perceived benefits and what are the hidden costs?

As a psychotherapist and practitioner of Stoic philosophy, I am of the belief that this lifestyle can benefit many people and help them grow as global citizens of this fragile biosphere. You will create experiences that no money can buy, learn to adapt and thrive in difficult circumstances others would not, experience the type of existential freedom that few people can truly comprehend. I have also been lucky to form relationships that I would never have formed, should I have gone onย living in my little part of the world.

However, this article is not about the various positive aspects of becoming a digital nomad. As a mental health professional and someone who works with digital nomads on occasion (as well as living the lifestyle myself), I want to talk about the potential psychological issues that can arise when someone chooses this lifestyle.

Some of these issues can be prevented with some proper self-care (i.e. proper sleep/hydration, good nutrition and exercise), others cannot and will have to be dealt with as they are experienced. Regardless, these issues will derail your nomadic lifestyle if not attended to appropriately. The following are common issues that digital nomads may experience, once they begin long-term international travel.

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Sayulita, Mexico during Hurricane Patricia

Anxiety

We all experience anxiety, especially when doing something new or going somewhere new. It is the fear of the unknown and it is as old as mankind. If you do not ever experience anxiety, I want to hear from you because you are a psychological anomaly!

Again, anxiety is almost always temporary and based upon biological responses due to your brain detecting a threat (the brainโ€™s amygdala cannot distinguish between a physical and a psychological threat). An important statement to keep in mind when experiencing those anxious moments (e.g. sweating, increase heart rate, and racing thoughts) is โ€œthis is temporary and this will end.โ€ Repeat this phrase to yourself over and over as necessary.

At the same time, observe your breathing and if necessary, change the pattern to a more relaxed pattern. A slower breathing rate will affect your amygdala response. For example: breath in counting to four, hold for a four count, breath out counting to four, do this five or six times. I commonly experience these symptoms when flying and find a breathing exercise and keeping the above cognitive statement in mind very helpful.

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Sayulita Beach, Mexico with a fellow digital nomad

Loneliness

Another one of the most common issues any digital nomad will experience is loneliness. Unless you are traveling with a partner or family, you will feel lonely at times while traveling, especially if you do not have a strong grasp of the local language and unreliable internet. This is perfectly normal and expected.

The most common sense of loneliness is feeling โ€˜homesickโ€™, the more alien your environment, the more likely you will experience this form of loneliness. For many nomads, this is a temporary feeling. At some point, many long term travelers will form at least temporary relationships with locals who speak their language, tourists, expats or fellow digital nomads.

If you are not able to form such relationships, make sure to have a strong support network albeit from a distance: Skype with friends and family or stay in contact via email, text or WhatsApp. Writing a daily journal can also help process feelings of loneliness. If loneliness becomes pervasive, this issue can become a much greater burden, leading to the next issue: isolation.

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Day of the Dead street altar, Sayulita, Mexico

Isolation

When feelings of loneliness become much more intense and last longer in duration, feelings of isolation can arise. I once had a client who was an NGO worker. She had worked in various parts of Africa and survived various coups, poor resources and an attempted rape.

Since her duties required her to move around so much, it was difficult for her to form relationships with co-workers, she rarely spoke the local tribal languages very well and often worked โ€œin the bushโ€ with no access to the internet, only a satellite phone. Her feelings of isolation became so overwhelming that her organization had to bring her back from Africa to Washington, D.C. due to her deteriorating mental health.

By the time she saw me, her feelings of being cut off from the rest of the world still affected her relationships with others. She had difficulty trusting others. We had to work on readjusting her boundaries and allowing herself to be vulnerable at times, as well as expressing her emotional needs.

Again, daily journaling can help with these types of feelings, if you do not have access to either people you trust or professionals. Also, reading fiction where a protagonist is struggling with a sense of isolation can be very helpful.

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Malecon, Puerto Vallarta

Depression

A sense of isolation, left unchecked for long periods of time will often lead to depressive symptoms.

These symptoms include: sleeping pattern disruptions (sleeping too much or too little), low self-worth, anger outbursts (mainly in males), change in eating patterns (eating too much or too little), loss of interest in pleasurable activities and long bouts of sadness. There are times when depression is temporary and goes away, however, if you start experiencing suicidal ideation, this is much more serious and must be dealt with immediately.

Do not try and mask these feelings through substance abuse. If you are located in a country with a strong and vibrant health service which you can access, get help via the service. If not, it’s time to go home. Enlist the help of friends and family if needed to get you back home. Call and speak with someone from a twenty-four-hour crisis line, many exist in various developed nations.

Also, keep in mind that should you struggle with severe depression, this does not signal the end of your digital nomad career. With proper treatment and post-treatment self-care, you can live this lifestyle again in the future.

I used to work in a hospital and met a digital nomad who spent time in our inpatient psychiatric unit. Once she received treatment at the hospital and later found a psychotherapist out in the community, she was back on the road a year after treatment ended.

When living a digital nomad lifestyle, you may not experience any of these issues. Although anxiety and loneliness are extremely common, most will experience them only occasionally and briefly in duration. Sometimes, a sense of isolation can be solved by moving locations.

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Staying in Petit Hotel d’Hafa (Sayulita, Mexico)

I hope that this article does not dissuade you from becoming a digital nomad. I just want people who are considering this lifestyle to keep a sharp eye on their mental and emotional health. I know many digital nomads who work very hard on their business to the detriment of their own health. I want you to take care of yourself and be well.

Also, it is important to note that it is the struggles along the way that make this lifestyle interesting and worth living. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from the great American existential psychotherapist, Rollo May:

โ€œMany people feel they are powerless to do anything effective with their lives. It takes courage to break out of the settled mold, but most find conformity more comfortable. This is why the opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.โ€

Liked this? Read more articles on digital nomads.

The psychological toll that perpetual travel takes on digital nomads

Aaron Dutil is a professional psychotherapist and digital nomad. Find more of his thoughts on his blog, "Resilience In A Chaotic Universe" and follow him on Twitter.
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