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
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.
#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
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 Psycom “Anxiety 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.
#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.
Not sure what sorts of exercise to do? Check out Petrolene Le Roux’s article “Top 15 Best Exercises For Depression and Anxiety” on the Home Gym 101 website. Some of the exercises covered focus on the body, while others focus on the mind.
#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.
#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.
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