Five Tips for Coping With Post Trip Depression

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I’ve got the post trip blues

I’ve been back in Australia for just under two months now, but I’ve only really started to feel settled since coming to my family home in northern NSW. There’s something about unpacking your suitcase into a chest of drawers, setting up your PC, and putting your passport someplace safe that feels terribly final.

I returned home after two and a half years away knowing that there would be post trip blues and that, if history was any indication, I’d be bouncing off the walls with cabin fever within a few weeks of being home.

The flurry of activity surrounding my best mate’s wedding, the bachelor party, and all of the catching up delayed the onset of it for a while, but it’s safe to say that I’m starting to feel the first few pangs of… how to describe it?

It’s a confusing cocktail of regret and sadness and happiness. A mix of nostalgia for the past and fear nervous anticipation for the future. Sadness for what has passed, but tinged with more than a little happiness for having had those experiences. 

Jumping for joy in the Philippines. Good times, good times.
Jumping for joy in the Philippines. Good times, good times.

An Expert Opinion

It seemed fateful, then, that I read Post-Trip Depression over on Nomadic Matt. I went over expecting to find some handy tips on how to overcome the monster that is post-trip depression, but found it was a more introspective and emotionally open piece about his own experiences with the dreaded post-trip blues.

When the initial hugs are hugged out, the stories told, and the reunions over, many of us find that coming back home isn’t really coming home at all. Our true home is being surrounded by the unknown.

The road is where we belong.

And, because of that, our gaze will always be on the horizon, looking, dreaming, and wishing for another opportunity to get away again. – Nomadic Matt

One thing that stood out to me, though, was how different our experiences were. I’m not quite as well traveled (or well read) as Nomadic Matt, but I’ve learned a thing or two about being away from home for extended periods of time over the past seven years, so it was with genuine surprise that I read that Matt (and others) have found that they return home to find things largely unchanged.

While their travels have changed them a great deal, they’ve come home to largely unchanged friends. There’s this frustration and sadness as the traveler comes to realize that the faces and places that used to feel like home don’t exist anymore. Not because they’ve gone, but because the person observing them no longer exists.

I can certainly relate to the feeling that I have changed a great deal, but for me every trip home has also meant learning about the people in my life all over again. The shops and bars I used to frequent may still be there, but my friends and family have had the gall to go ahead and change while I’ve been gone.

They’ve gotten married or ended long relationships. They’ve had kids or promotions or career changes. Some have lost weight, while others have lost interest in something I’d previously defined them by. As they’ve grown up they’ve drifted away from the games we played together in high school.

God as my witness, some of them have even started to enjoy AFL.

Maybe this is exacerbated by the fact I’ve got four younger siblings.

My family and I on vacation in 1999. We've all grown up!
My siblings and I on vacation in 1999.
The family in 2014. We've all grown up!
The family in 2014. We’ve all grown up!

I left with two of them just out of high school and one of them still in primary school. One of them now owns a house and seems well on the road towards a married happily ever after. Another has become such a gym junkie that it’s hard to believe we’re related, and the other has gone ahead and gone through puberty without me around.

I left him talking about cartoons and video games, and I’ve come back to a 15 year old boy who likes Dungeons & Dragons, girls, and video games.

Some things haven’t changed so much, I guess.

And don’t even get me started on the big changes. Two grandparents passed away in my absence, and the squalling babies that my sister proudly introduced me to are now running around grabbing things and saying words at me.

When I left, Ally was tiny! Now she's walking and talking and chucking tantrums!
When I left, Ally was tiny! Now she’s walking and talking and chucking tantrums!

What Makes it Hard

The point is, there’s change on two fronts.

While home might not have changed a great deal, it’s naive to think you’ll come back to things exactly as you left them. Unless you made a superhuman effort at maintaining friendships while you were gone (no easy task), you’re going to find friendships have cooled off a bit.

Some friendships – not the strongest to begin with – might have fizzled completely. Maybe it’s resentment at you for not making more of an effort, or maybe it’s just that people do change and grow apart as they grow older. Maybe the person has a much more demanding job now or maybe they’ve got a spouse and kids.

Some friendships stand the test of time and distance. My best mate and I catching up while he was in China.
Some friendships stand the test of time and distance. My best mate and I caught up while he was in China.

You may have left behind friends who got drunk every weekend and could play all day sessions of Halo at the drop of a hat, but you come back to find you need weeks of notice to get even the tiniest of social engagements locked in.

If those changes at home were all you had to deal with, you’d be laughing.

But it’s not just the people at home who have changed. It’s you as well.

Through your experiences abroad, you’ve changed more than you could possibly have imagined at the outset. You’ve learned about new cultures, broken down old suppositions, seen and done things that have altered your perception of the world, and (hopefully) grown into a more mature and rounded person.

The things that used to seem like the highlight of your week suddenly seem small and petty in comparison. The food you’d glorified in your head the whole time you were gone doesn’t quite measure up. Has the recipe changed? Or has your pallet been refined or expanded by the exotic tastes it has been exposed to?

It can all begin to feel like a bit too much. Whether you’re home for good or just for a brief visit, the post-trip blues can set in and the spiral into depression could very well follow.

Dealing with Post Trip Depression

This is my third time coming home after an extended period of time away. I’d like to say I’ve got post-trip depression licked, but that would be a lie. That being said, I have learned a couple of things that help a hell of a lot.

5. Start planning your next trip

A few people commented on Facebook to say that their favourite way to cope with post-trip depression is to start planning the next trip.

Solution? Book another trip, forget about these so called savings and run away to Australia for the next holidays. Right, I’ll be an adult another day. – PADIAlly

It can certainly help keep your mind off the past you’re missing so much if you’re planning for the future, but I’m of the belief that doing so robs you of the opportunity to fully experience the present. It’s all well and good to look towards the future, but don’t let the present and the opportunities it presents (pun intended) pass you by.

4. Catch up on all you’ve missed

The lovely Brianna, an expat who successfully made the return after years abroad, argues that it’s important to really make an effort to catch up with old friends. If you’ve been away a long time, many of these friendships may have been neglected – so take the time you now have to begin the process of building back to where you were.

The high school gang reunited earlier this year for my best mate's wedding.
The high school gang reunited earlier this year for my best mate’s wedding.

If you spent months or years pining for a certain food or a favourite place, go there! 

Break up these happy reunions and homecomings so that you’ve got things to look forward to not just for your first days back in the country – but your first weeks or even months.

While I’ve caught up with my family and many of my best friends already, I’ve got other friends and favourite places that I’ll be visiting over the next three to five months. Spacing them out like this, I’ve given myself small things to look forward to – meaning that the big thing (moving abroad to teach someplace new) isn’t all that occupies my mind.

3. Explore your backyard

It’s a sad fact that so many of the globetrotting set have explored precious little of their own country. Before you traveled, perhaps it didn’t interest you so much or it seemed too expensive; but now you’re back and you’re a much more worldly and adventurous person (hopefully), so use this time to have new adventures!

I’ve really enjoyed reading yTravel Blog’s recent updates as Caz, Craig, and the girls make their way around Australia. It’s inspired me to want to see more of the country so many people seem jealous of my having grown up in, and which I’ve often taken for granted.

A weekend trip to a new beach or National Park might not quite match up to the dizzying heights of seeing Angkor Wat or spending a day in London, but if you’ve got the travel bug, it ought to keep the little bastard satisfied.

Exploring at home might be more expensive than a backpacking budget has prepared you for, but use that newfound nous for sniffing out a bargain to make it work for you!

2. Get active

This holds true for major depressive disorder as much as it holds true for the post-trip blues. Exercise produces endorphins, and those wonderful bastards do a better job of cheering you up than comfort food, medication, and therapy combined.

It’s amazing how good you’ll feel after working up a sweat, be it from a social sport or something solitary like running.

It’s often hard to summon up the motivation to exercise when you’re feeling blue, but I cannot stress enough the healing properties (however temporary) of getting out and getting your blood pumping. I’m far from peak fitness, but the best I’ll feel on any given day is right after I’ve gone for a run or played sport.

Team sports are also a great opportunity to meet other people, and new friends are never a bad thing.

Go zorbing. Is Good.
Go Zorbing. Is Good.

1. Continue your growth

Traveling had a profound effect on you, I’m sure. You grew as a human being and learned so much about the world, yourself, and your capabilities.

There’s no reason that being home needs to mark the end of your development. Far from it!

Whether you enroll in a course, start learning a language in your free time, or take advantage of the stable location to revisit an old passion – it’s good to continue your growth.

While exercise keeps your body happy, it’s this kind of activity that keeps your mind occupied. Rather than sit and let it dwell on all you’ve left behind, exercise it with challenging tasks and engaging hobbies.

While home between Korea and China, I took a TEFL course to open more doors for me in the future.
While home between Korea and China, I took a TEFL course to open more doors for me in the future.

If you’re planning to get back out on the road, start studying the language or the customs of the places you’ll go. If you’re home for good and at a loss for what to do, start building up skills that interest you and/or improve your job readiness.

Doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing.

So, your friend has the post-trip blues…

We travelers are often so caught up in our own post trip malaise that it’s easy to forget that those around us might not understand how to help.

Or, worse, they feel responsible for our sadness. I know I feel bad when my mother takes my sadness at being home as a slight against her or the wonderful family I have.

It’s very rarely the present that has a recently returned wanderer upset. It’s the past they left behind and the fact that, in many cases, ‘here’ is not their natural habitat.

That doesn’t mean they don’t love being home or that they don’t care about the people who they’ve been away from .

A traveler does not hate “home” any more than a fish on land hates the air. They just belong to a different world.

Like all mental illnesses, depression – whether post-trip or full time – spits in the face of logic. I could come home to nubile nymphets and a pile of video games, and still yearn for the open road. No amount of cajoling, good-natured encouragement, or  tired pleasantries can change that.

The problem isn’t the people at home, even though at times it may feel that way.

Your traveler is lovesick and – as anachronistic as it sounds – homesick as well.

The best thing you can do for them? Indulge their nostalgia from time to time, try not to take it personally (although that’s like telling them to try not to be so sad), and get them out of their head. Whether it’s a board game night, a visit to an old favourite, or a weekend trip – get them out and about and they’ll thank you for it.

Remember, though: it’s not your job to “fix” them. Don’t beat yourself up if they take their time coming out of their funk or decide to jet off again. We’re a capricious breed.

Your Say

Have you ever dealt with post-trip depression? What methods did you use to cope with feeling down and out?

If you’re having issues with depression, don’t be too proud to seek help. Services like Lifeline and Beyond Blue are tremendous resources.

You don’t ever have to cope alone.

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