Traveling Well or Disordered Abroad?
Text Ross Hunter in association with
Dr.Christophe Bagot, psychiatrist, therapist, psychopharmacologist
European Medical Center
Millions of people everywhere, but especially Passport magazine readers, spend time travelling. Travelling to other continents, their modern cities and ancient ruins and enjoying picturesque places is a wonderful experience, whether on holiday or while doing essential business. To discover new things and different ways of life, to meet different people, to try different foods and listen to different musical rhythms; all these enrich and broaden the mind.
But unfortunately, these joys are often outweighed by travellers’ problems that they bring with them on their journeys. Disorders such as anxiety, depression and stress are a few of the obvious issues that can accompany an individual or his family members who have the chance to travel or even move abroad. These are the possible downsides of frequent travel, and it helps to know how to recognise and get treatment for such disorders.
‘Know Your Enemy’ - some of the travel-related disorders which are all too well known to the world’s doctors.
“It’s all getting on top of me” – Depression
The most common complaint of the expat or frequent traveller is depression. The combination of worries such as financial problems, starting a new job or not knowing the language can sap the energy, blur the focus or make one irritable all the time, even with no obvious trigger point. The symptoms vary from person to person, but if you feel “down” for more than two weeks, and these feelings are interfering with your daily life, you should see a doctor. Treating depression is especially important because it affects you, your friends and your work.
“I don’t want to be here” - Social Anxiety Disorder
Many people feel shy or self-conscious in various social situations. Speaking in public, going on a job interview or even asking for a date can make anyone feel shy or anxious. The symptoms are familiar; your heart pounds, your hands tremble or you feel like you have ‘butterflies’ in your stomach. These anxieties are temporary, and life soon goes on as usual. But if you end up sick with worry, disrupting daily life and straining and breaking relationships, you may well have social anxiety disorder. It is an excessive, persistent fear of social or performance situations. Some shy people can be more daring when speaking in a foreign language, as if they were playing a new role, but others are too sensitive to judgement and imagined criticism, and will feel unable to speak a foreign language, even after many months of intensive study.
“Get me out of here!” – Agoraphobia & Claustrophobia
Agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces, is potentially the most constricting disorder for the traveller. It frequently involves panic attacks in public transports such as planes, trains and metros but also in lifts, airports and crowded places. Panic attacks can also occur in any place where you feel you cannot get out easily, shut in or claustrophobic; in theaters, concert halls and even business meetings, especially if far away from a safe place or home.
“I’ll just check once more before we go” - obsessive-compulsive disorders
Worries, doubts and superstitions are common in everyday life. However, when they become so excessive, such as hours of handwashing or driving around and around the block to check that an accident didn’t happen, then a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may be made. Travellers affected by OCD are likely to have more symptoms in the days or hours before travelling, but they may also feel significant relief once they arrive at their destination.
“There’s a lot of comfort in a cake” – eating disorders
Billy Bunter, the rotund hero of (fictional) Greystokes School did not see his insatiable appetite as a problem, but eating disorders are likely to be exacerbated by the stress of moving one’s home or by major travel. While anorexics and bulimics can be seriously distressed by being confronted with new and unfamiliar food in a foreign country, some bulimics have been observed to find some relief from their obsessions about food when away from home. Overweight people may feel psychological relief in a country where average weights are higher, while they could be seriously worried in a “slimmer” country. Unusual weight gain and loss are both common consequences of extended travel, and these should be monitored carefully, as should the anxiety that such changes may cause.
“Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” – I told you I was ill
The inscription on the late Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s tombstone applies to many. He was not by any means alone in worrying constantly about ailments, real and imagined. People suffering from hypochondria will avoid regions where medical service is scarce, and places where they would consider that their health is put at risk. They will frequently inquire about the closest emergency service in case they need help: constant counselling is both symptomatic and palliative.
So: “Don’t Panic”
The back of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy offers good advice. It is clear that being in foreign lands sometimes has a negative influence upon your health. Being aware of the risks is a good start. Lead a regular life, with good sleep and eating rhythms, and plenty of outdoor exercise, and keep in touch with your relatives and friends. But if you feel at least one of the symptoms summarized above, you should talk to a doctor. Don’t ignore these afflictions as they could worsen over the years and potentially ruin your lifestyle and career. Ex-pats and frequent travellers are more at risk, so they need to be more aware.