Tag Archives: Psycom

Maintaining Mental Health While Living Nomadically (Part 2)

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As I mentioned in Part 1 of my series Maintaining Mental Health While Living Nomadically, life on the road can be challenging. From rig breakdowns to loneliness, from inclement weather to lack of funds, a nomadic lifestyle can be difficult. Dealing with mental health issues can be one of the challenges of life on the road, especially without the infrastructure that may have helped keep issues in check in the past.

Last week I covered some of the physical steps you can take to help maintain good mental health (or improve your mental health if it’s not so good at the moment). From getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods to exercising in sunlight, I outlined steps you can take to keep your body and mind doing well. Today I’ll go a little deeper and share ideas for advanced activities aimed at maintaining and enhancing mental health.

#1 Have a support system in place. While you’re doing ok, set things up in advance of a crisis. Stock your pantry with healthy foods so you don’t have to think too hard about eating if times get tough. Have spare cooking fuel available too. Make sure you always have plenty of drinking water on hand. Have sleep aids (over-the-counter options like Benadryl, Aleve PM, and Unisom SleepTabs and natural remedies like melatonin, valerian root, and magnesium) available for short-term use if sleeping becomes a problem. Make a list of people you can contact for support if you are feeling down. Maybe you want to write out your mental health plan to refer to if you get too anxious or depressed to remember how to nurture yourself.

#2 Deal with stress. According to National Institute of Mental Health article “5 Things You Should Know About Stress,”

Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge… can be stressful.

Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

Don’t let stress build up. Deal with problems as they come. Don’t let bills, mechanical problems, health issues, and relationship challenges pile up until you have so much on your plate you think your head will explode. Believe me, I understand that hiding under the covers feels simpler than dealing with the problems of life, but most of these problems will not go away on their own. Dealing with each problem as it arises will be easier than dealing with multiple problems that have each reached a crisis point.

For more suggestions on dealing with stress in your life (and the anxiety it often brings), see Mary Elizabeth Dean‘s article “How To Reduce Stress And Anxiety In 10 Steps” on the BetterHelp website.

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#3 Meditate. The Psychology Today article “Meditation and Mental Health” by Samoon Ahmad M.D. states,

There are physical benefits [of meditation] that appear to be backed up by clinical evidence. According to these studies, meditation can help individuals sleep better, cope with some symptoms associated with mental disorders like depression and anxiety, reduce some of the psychological difficulties associated with chronic pain, and even improve some cognitive and behavioral functions.

Want to reap the benefits of meditation, but you’re not sure where to begin? Read “Meditation 101: Techniques, Benefits, and a Beginner’s How-to” for explanations of different meditation techniques and instructions for a simple meditation for beginners.

#4 Live in the present. Whether or not you decide to meditate, you can practice living in the moment. The Just Mind article “Minimize Anxiety & Depression by Living in the Now” references author Eckhart Tolle and his idea

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that learning to exist in the now frees us from pain while connecting us to the infinite calm of our essential being. [Tolle] attributes human suffering — depression, anxiety, guilt, worry, fear, and more— to our tendency to live in our minds instead of in the present…

Luckily, there is an escape from the pain caused by the mind’s continual creation of and rumination on psychological time. If we embrace the present moment, we unchain ourselves from this suffering and are free to enjoy the peace of true existence — the joy of the now…

Tolle teaches that the easiest way to start living in the now is by noticing the sensations in our bodies and by paying attention the world around us as it unfolds…

#5 Be grateful and track your gratitude. According to the Positive Psychology article “The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief” by Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, BA,

[p]sychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone.

(Emmons & McCullough, 2004)

Another article on the Positive Psychology website (this one by Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc.) lists 28 benefits of gratitude including a strong positive impact on psychological well-being, self-esteem, and depression; enhanced optimism; improved sleep; and reduced blood pressure.

The Mental Health First Aid article “Being Grateful Can Improve Your Mental Health” by Rubina Kapil explains that

Research has also shown that “by consciously practicing gratitude, we can train the brain to attend selectively to positive emotions and thoughts, thus reducing anxiety and feelings of apprehension.” The simple act of reminding yourself of the positive things in your life can invoke feelings of thankfulness and optimism that make managing stress, depression or anxiety easier.

The article then lists several exercises for practicing gratitude including the following:

Try to appreciate everything.

Find gratitude in your challenges.

Keep a gratitude journal.

If you need some suggestions for starting or maintaining a gratitude journal, Courtney E. Ackerman’s article “Gratitude Journal: 67 Templates, Ideas, and Apps for Your Diary” offers lots of information and guidance.

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#6 Practice Positivity. The WebMD article “What Is Positive Thinking?” answers the question this way:

[p]ositive thinking, or an optimistic attitude, is the practice of focusing on the good in any given situation….

That doesn’t mean you ignore reality or make light of problems. It simply means you approach the good and the bad in life with the expectation that things will go well.

The article says positive thinking can lead to “better mood, better coping skills, [and] less depression.” More importantly, positive thinking is a skill that can be learned! Check out the article to find out how to nix the negative and put positivity in action.

#7 Laugh. In the Psych2Go website article “5 Mental Health Benefits of Laughter,” author María Emilia Guzmán explains that when we laugh, our bodies release hormones that enhance good feelings and balance moods, while working against hormones related to stress.

When we laugh, our bodies produces endorphins, which are considered to be the “happiness hormone”. We also release the hormones dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are in charge of our motivation and balance our mood.  All of these substances fight several mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety

…laughter also combats hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones are released as a response to stress, increasing our heart rate and causing general discomfort.

If you’re feeling low, listen to a funny podcast, read a funny book or article, or watch a funny movie. If you’re laughing, you might just feel better soon.

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#8 Interact with animals. The HelpGuide article “The Mood-Boosting Power of Pets” says that studies have found the following benefits of spending time with animals:

Pet owners [sic] are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets…

Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax…

One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that pets fulfill the basic human need for touch…Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe you when you’re stressed or anxious. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and most dogs are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost your mood and ease depression.

If you don’t live with an animal friend full-time, consider pet sitting, volunteering at an animal rescue, or spending time with a friend or family member’s pet.

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#9 Maintain contacts with humans, too. In the Medical News Today article “What Are the Health Benefits of Being Social?” author Maria Cohut, Ph.D. quotes psychologist Susan Pinker who says,

[f]ace-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, and well into the future, so simply […] shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress.

The article continues quoting Pinker who says that, as a result of social interaction

dopamine is [also] generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain, it’s like a naturally produced morphine.

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How’s a nomad to stay connected to other people? Attend gatherings like the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and the ones listed by Vacay Vans for 2020. Read my blog post “How to Avoid Loneliness on the Road” to learn more about Meetup groups, the Wandering Individual Network (WIN), Loners on Wheels, and a dating site for RVers. Some groups, like RVing Women and Sisters on the Fly, allow gals to hit the road together. Other RV groups like Xscapers and Escapees accept people of all genders and relationship statuses.

#10 Volunteer. When you volunteer, you not only get to interact with other living beings. According to the Able To website, there are 6 more mental health benefits of volunteering. Some of those benefits include reducing stress by “tak[ing] our mind[s] off our worries and putting our attention on someone or something else,” combating depression by “keep[ing] the mind distracted from a destructive habit like negative thinking or being overly critical,” and making us happy because “feel good [sic] hormones and brain activity spike during volunteer activities.”

#11 Engage in a hobby. The CBHS Health Fund website offers the article “Here’s How Finding a Hobby Will Improve Your Mental Health.” Some information gleaned from the article:

Western Australian adults…who dedicated 100+ hours a year to their [hobbies] reported significantly better mental health than those with 0-99 hours dedicated…

658 young adults took part in a daily diary study, recording how much of their time was spent on creative exercises, and how often they felt positive moods (joy, alertness, interest) and negative moods (anger, fear, contempt, nervousness, anxiety)… More time spent with creative activity produced higher levels of positive affect.

Even if you live in a very small space, you could take up photography, writing, painting on small surfaces, knitting or crocheting with limited colors of yarn, making jewelry, or bird watching.

#12 Ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help if you need it. Talk to a trusted friend or family member. If you are in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, call the free, confidential 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. (You can also chat with a trained crisis worker if you go to the Lifeline’s website.)

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If you don’t know how to do something related to life on the road, go to the Cheap RV Living forums, read old posts, ask questions, and seek advice. There are also lots of Facebook groups for vandwellers, RVers, and nomads, but with Facebook comes trolls. I don’t recommend Facebook for anyone in a fragile state of mind.

#13 Use technology to your advantage and try online therapy and mental health apps. According to Talkspace,

[o]nline therapy lets you connect with a licensed therapist from the privacy of your device — at a significantly lower cost than traditional, in-person therapy.

Because online therapy and mental health apps don’t require you to go into an office to see a therapist, you can connect to a counselor from anywhere you have internet access. Sounds like a perfect arrangement for nomads who may not stay in one place for long.

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Interested in online therapy and/or mental health apps but have no idea where to begin? Verywell Mind offers a list (complete with in-depth reviews) of “The 9 Best Online Therapy Programs of 2020” compiled by Amy Morin, LCSW. The Psycom article “Top 25 Mental Health Apps: An Effective Alternative for When You Can’t Afford Therapy?” by Jessica Truschel highlights mental health apps available to smartphone uses dealing with issues ranging from addiction to anxiety, depression to eating disorders. There are apps to help with general mental health, as well those intended for specific issues. Many of the apps are free, but some do come at a monetary cost.

I hope among these thirteen additional suggestions you find some ways to improve and/or maintain your mental health. Not all of these suggestions will work for everyone, so plan for some trial and error while you try out different activities.

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Please remember, Blaize Sun is not responsible for your health and well being. Only you are responsible for you. Please seek the help you need. If you need to speak to a mental health professional, someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) may be able to help you find resources in the area you are in.

If you found this post helpful, I’d love your support! Hit the donate button in the toolbar to the right or go to Patreon to become my patron.

Maintaining Mental Health While Living Nomadically (Part 1)

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Maintaining mental health is important no matter where you live but can be extra challenging while living nomadically. Some people hold themselves up with the routine of the rat race; when that routine is gone and there are fewer mandatory activities to occupy their time, mental health problems they’ve kept at arm’s length can come crashing down. Some folks have unreasonable expectations about vanlife; when they realize living on the road isn’t an Instagram-worthy life of ease, depression can creep in. While some people choose a nomadic life so they can live in solitude, for others the lack of human companionship can lead to isolation and the problems it causes.

When you’re living on the road, you may have fewer resources to fall back on if a mental health crisis hits. Trust me, life will be easier if you maintain your mental health rather than having to bounce back after a crisis.

What Is Mental Health?

Before we work on maintaining our mental health, we should have an idea of what mental health actually is. According to MentalHealth.gov,

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

Positive mental health allows people to:

Realize their full potential

Cope with the stresses of life

Work productively

Make meaningful contributions to their communities

In the name of staying on an even keel and realizing one’s full potential, today I will share tips for staying mentally healthy while traveling full time.

#1 Keep your expectations reasonable. Living nomadically is not going to solve all your problems. (Stop reading and let that sink in for a minutes, friends.) Vanlife is not always going to be waking up to beautiful locations and ladies in bikinis. Sometimes the weather will be bad, your head will throb, and you’ll find one of your tires is flat. (Sometimes all three will happen at once, but if you want some tips on circumventing the flat, see my post “10 Ways to Avoid and/or Prepare for Tire Disasters.”) Things go wrong no matter where or how you live.

Don’t rely solely on Instagram for your vanlife information. Read posts and join the forums on the Cheap RV Living website and/or watch videos on the Cheap RV Living YouTube channel to learn about the gritty possibilities of life on the road. Join Facebook groups for RVers and vandwellers and research showering, cooking, and toileting while living on the road. If possible, know what to expect from this way of life before embarking on the journey.

#2 Eat well. Sometimes cooking while vandwelling can be a challenge, and it’s tempting to just eat potato chips and ramen noodles day after day. Eating a well-balanced diet can help improve and maintain your mental health. According to the article “Food for Your Mood: How What You Eat Affects Your Mental Health” by Alice Gomstyn,

The connection between diet and emotions stems from the close relationship between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract, often called the “second brain.”

…Your GI tract is home to billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters, chemical substances that constantly carry messages from the gut to the brain…

Eating healthy food promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn positively affects neurotransmitter production. A steady diet of junk food, on the other hand, can cause inflammation that hampers production. When neurotransmitter production is in good shape, your brain receives these positive messages loud and clear, and your emotions reflect it. But when production goes awry, so might your mood.

The article suggests eating whole foods such as fruits and vegetables; fiber-rich foods like whole grains and beans; foods rich in antioxidants such as berries and leafy greens; fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh; as well as foods rich in folate, vitamin D, and magnesium.

If you need some ideas for healthy eating while van or RV dwelling, see my posts “How to Eat Healthy on the Road (When You Don’t Have Time to Cook)” and “What to Eat When You Can’t (or Don’t Want to) Cook.” If you’re having trouble affording healthy food, see my posts “10 Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re On or Off the Road)” and “10 More Ways to Stretch Your Food Dollar (Whether You’re On the Road or Not).”

#3 Stay hydrated. According to the 2018 article “Dehydration Influences Mood, Cognition” by Rick Nauert, PhD on the PsychCentral website, a

study shows that even mild dehydration can influence mood, energy levels and the ability to think clearly.

An article on the Solara Mental Health website, “Water, Depression, and Anxiety” outlines how dehydration contributes to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. The article recommends

11.5 cups (92 oz.) of water per day for women, and 15.5 cups (124 oz.) for men. If you have a hard time stomaching plain water, try adding a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. Avoid beverages as much as possible that contain sodium, as sodium dehydrates you: soda/diet soda, energy drinks, etc.

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#4 Avoid alcohol, especially if you’re prone to depression. The Mental Health Foundation‘s webpage about alcohol and mental health explains,

regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain. It decreases the levels of the brain chemical serotonin – a key chemical in depression. As a result of this depletion, a cyclical process begins where one drinks to relieve depression, which causes serotonin levels in the brain to be depleted, leading to one feeling even more depressed, and thus necessitating even more alcohol to then medicate this depression.11

Better to avoid alcohol altogether than to start a downward spiral. Best to deal with underlying issues that might be leading you to self-medicate.

#5 Get good sleep. According to Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine‘s Get Sleep website,

University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood.1

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The Get Sleep website’s Adopt Good Sleep Habits page has lots of tips on eliminating sleep problems. Recommendations include

maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule

avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals that interfere with sleep

making your bedroom a comfortable sleep environment

establishing a calming pre-sleep routine

going to sleep when you’re truly tired

not watching the clock at night

not napping too close to your regular bedtime

exercising regularly—but not too soon before bedtime

To find out the steps to take to accomplish each of the above recommendations, visit Harvard’s Healthy Sleep website’s page Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep.

#6 Consider caffeine carefully. Caffeine can do more damage than just interfering with your sleep. According to the Everyday Health article “7 Causes of Anxiety” by Chris Iliades, MD, because caffeine is a stimulant, it can be bad news for people who already suffer from anxiety.

Caffeine’s jittery effects on your body are similar to those of a frightening event. That’s because caffeine stimulates your “fight or flight” response, and studies show that this can make anxiety worse and can even trigger an anxiety attack. And as with the symptoms of anxiety, one too many cups of joe may leave you feeling nervous, moody, and can keep you up all night.

The PsycomAnxiety and Caffeine” article by Maureen Connolly says,

Too much caffeine can also make you irritable and agitated in situations that normally wouldn’t affect you. And if you already have increased anxiety or suffer from panic attacks, caffeine can cause these symptoms to become worse.

Of course, not all caffeinated beverages are created equal. In the article “Coffee Has Surprising Effect on Mental Health,” author Gajura Constantin explains

not all other caffeinated beverages can leave the same impact on the human brain. For instance, some caffeinated beverages like cola, can cause a higher risk of depression due to their high contents of sugar (simple carbohydrates).

Constantin also says a study conducted at National Institutes of Health indicates

People who consume four to five cups of coffee every day are likely to stay active and happy all day long, when compared to those who do not drink this beverage at all…

Coffee is considered the best mood-lifting agent due to its powerful antioxidants. It can help you initiate a fight against depression…

You should make your decisions about caffeine based upon how your body and mind react to it. If daily coffee leaves you feeling good and still able to sleep well at night, go ahead and have it. If your caffeinated beverage of choice leaves you feeling jittery, irritated, agitated, and anxious, you might want to cut it out.

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#7 Get some exercise. The Help Guide article “The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise” by Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A. says

[r]egular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood…Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a difference.

The article goes into detail about how exercise can benefit people dealing with depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD, PTSD, and trauma.

How much and how often do you need to exercise to experience the benefits? The article says

[y]ou can reap all the physical and mental health benefits of exercise with 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Two 15-minute or even three 10-minute exercise sessions can also work just as well.

…Even just a few minutes of physical activity are better than none at all. If you don’t have time for 15 or 30 minutes of exercise, or if your body tells you to take a break after 5 or 10 minutes, for example, that’s okay, too.

#8 Spend time in nature. Don’t limit your exercise time to the gym; get outside too. According to the 2015 article “Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription: Nature” by Rob Jordan,

…the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

In a previous study…time in nature was found to have a positive effect on mood and aspects of cognitive function, including working memory, as well as a dampening effect on anxiety.

For more information on why you should go outside, read the TripOutside article “13 Remarkable Health Benefits of Getting Outdoors” by Julie Singh.

If you’re living nomadically, it might be easier for you to get out in nature than it would be for someone living in a sticks-n-bricks in an urban area. If you have the choice, head out for free camping in a national forest or on BLM land. (Not sure how to camp for free on public land? Read my post “Free Camping in the National Forest.”) Once you’re there, hike, bike, or just sit outside and bask in the beauty that surrounds you.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

#9 Getting outside also allows you to expose yourself to sunlight. According to the article “5 Ways the Sun Impacts Your Mental and Physical Health,” getting some sun can improve your mood and help you sleep better.

Researchers at BYU found more mental health distress in people during seasons with little sun exposure…the availability of sunshine has more impact on mood than rainfall, temperature, or any other environmental factor.

Getting some sun increases your serotonin and helps you stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and sun exposure can also help people with anxiety and depression, especially in combination with other treatments.

…Working in tandem with serotonin is melatonin, a chemical in your brain that lulls you into slumber and one that sun also helps your body produce…Try to stick to traditionally light and dark cycles, getting sunlight during the day so you can catch some zzz’s at night.

So there you have nine things you can do to improve and maintain your mental health. If you would like to learn about more activities you can engage in to protect your mental health, see the second part of this series.

Please remember, Blaize Sun is not responsible for your health and well being. Only you are responsible for you. Please remember any outdoor activity holds some risk. Exercise can be risky too if you are not accustomed to it. Talk to your doctor if you are unsure of how much or what kind of exercise to do. The sun can burn you. Be careful out there.

If you found this post helpful, I’d love your support! Hit the donate button in the toolbar to the right or go to Patreon to become my patron.