Lombok IndonesiaI've been traveling for a few years now and have noticed that during that time I've gone through several changes due to the psychological effects it has had on me. I've had a few discussions with other travelers who've shared their experiences as well. Additionally, I've done a little bit of reading about studies and more experiences. I've noticed some consistencies and inconsistencies in effects. So I thought I'd share what I've seen in the hopes that you'll at least be prepared for some of the emotional challenges and benefits of travel.

I experienced a lot of different emotions in anticipation to beginning my travels. There was the suspense and anticipation of experiencing places I'd only previously known of through television and what I'd read. Knowing almost nothing about the cultures of the countries caused some anxiety. I overcompensated for this in two ways. I tried to research every possible aspect of each location I planned on visiting. I found myself overdoing this. There's benefit to having a general idea of what to expect, where to go and what to see. But I was basically trying to become an expert on places I'd never even seen before and had no real experience of. This caused me to feel like I was still missing something and needed to keep searching for updated and more complete information. I didn't consider that what I was still missing was the first hand knowledge. The other way I overcompensated was in packing far too much stuff. I purchased a 65 liter mountaineering style backpack, and filled it with 50 pounds (23 kg) of things I needed very little of. You can read more about that, and how I've learned and changed, in other articles here on our site.

Once I began my trip I found that not only was I encountering unfamiliar cultures, but that at times I was introducing my own culture to others for their first time. That's something I'd not taken into consideration before. Without knowing it, I went through the four phases of the "cycle of readjustment" written of by Copeland and Griggs (1985). 1) It started with noticing how similar things were to my own culture, and finding the differences to be quaint or curious. 2) After some time the quaintness of those differences wore off and became a source of irritation, frustration, and my increasing impatience. It was unnerving to be in a culture with unfamiliar methods, values, cues, and meanings, because it induced a feeling of a loss of control. 3) In time I learned to accept and adapt to doing things a different way, which helped me feel less isolated than I had when I felt so much frustration. 4) Having reached the point of being truly familiar with my new environment, I now find myself feeling at ease and able to sincerely enjoy the countries and cultures I encounter.

Side Note
One study I read showed a strong relation between illicit drug use during travel and anxiety, psychosis, and depression resulting in the need for psychiatric care lasting longer than 6 months. None of the travelers in the study had prior psychopathology. It concluded that travelers should be better educated about the risks of using illicit drugs. I'd just say that the psychological effects of travel don't need to be complicated in such a way and I hope you'd not take the risk at all.

These four phases didn't happen quickly, and the transition from one phase to the next was gradual rather than abrupt. The second phase, characterized by feelings of irritation and impatience began to happen about 4 months into my trip. At that point I happened to be in Vietnam, which has had the unfortunate side effect of leaving me with a lasting lack of desire to return to that particular country as I don't have good memories of my experiences there. I suspect now that if I were to return I would find it to be much different than my memories tell me, and that I would have had the same negative feelings about any location I happened to have found myself in when that phase occurred.

There are still times, all these years later, that I feel frustration with the differences between my host country and that of where I was raised. Maybe there will always be moments like that. But they are certainly less often, and I find myself commenting to others that neither way of doing things is wrong, just different, and that both places could learn some things from the other.

It's this reason why I encourage those planning to travel to seek out accurate knowledge of the locations host culture. You can do this through books, magazines, some travel shows, online videos, and other mass media. If possible, talking with others who've been to the same place and have firsthand experience with the culture can be very helpful. With this knowledge in advance, when you are directly observing the host culture yourself you may pass through the phases of readjustment with greater ease.

Culture Means People
My experience has shown me that it's a common experience all around the world for people to surround themselves with others with whom they feel similar. It's logical that there is comfort in the familiar, we like to have our views validated and we don't like being disagreed with. If we engage those holding a differing view, whether peaceably or confrontational, we tend to see our relationship as an "us and them" one. Travel has given me greater cultural awareness and the tools needed to overcome differences. Most important is the eagerness and open-minded willingness to understand others, and to have respect towards those with values and beliefs that may be different than mine without surrendering my own or feeling that they are being threatened. This has been key to overcoming feelings of alienation and has gained me acceptance by those who are much different from me. It has allowed me to find our similarities rather than focusing on our differences. In turn, I'm now able to feel comfortable surrounding myself with those whom I would have otherwise felt to be too dissimilar to be at complete ease with only a few years prior.

Long Term Travel and Short Term Relationships
I'm not specifically referring to romantic relationships when I say that long term travel makes long term relationships difficult, or even impossible. Unless, like my wife and I, you have someone traveling with you, all the people you once knew are at a distance and all the people you meet will be in and out of your life quickly. You may find yourself to be one who's able to make friends quickly. But no matter if you can or can't, long term travel can start to feel like a sea of ever changing faces and that you can't or don't get too attached to those you meet due to knowing that you'll soon be saying goodbye. This may not be difficult during the short term, but can induce a feeling of loneliness over time. Everyone has their own personality, and yours may be different than mine. For example, I'm much more of an introvert and my wife is an extrovert. I can be content being by myself for a very extended period of time, as I find projects to keep my mind busy. I don't mind, and even enjoy, long periods of introspection. While my wife, although very introspective, requires the type of connection that comes from family and close friends much more frequently. Due to this, she needs more frequent visits back home with her family than I do. In short, you need to be aware that for some it doesn't take long, and for others it may not happen for a very long time. But for everyone, you can eventually begin to feel lonely in a crowd.

PhilippinesI've had people ask me if I ever plan on "putting down roots". By this, they mean to ask if I ever plan to stop traveling and make a long term home where I can maintain long term relationships. They ask this because they imagine the discomfort they would feel in my situation knowing that all relationships are either long-distance or short-term. I maintain contact with my friends and family through chat, email, and phone calls. When I was traveling solo I knew that I was comfortable enough with the long term travel lifestyle that I would only need the type of connection you maintain through direct physical presence by visiting once every 6 to 12 months. In fact I could still feel connected with those I love with visits as far apart as 18 to 24 months, so long as those visits were for at least 3 or 4 weeks at a time, and I reduced it to 6 or 12 months for their comfort rather than mine. But I could do so without ever feeling the need to stop. Now that I'm married I need to, obviously, take her feelings into consideration as well. So my answer must change from 'No' to 'Most likely, but only time will tell'.

The point is that long term travel has the potential of leading to a feeling of loneliness, and you need to have a plan for dealing with it in the event that it happens to you. It's up to you to decide if that plan involves putting an end to your travels, taking a long or short break from it, or whatever else suits your personality. But the psychological effect of loneliness can be devastating to some and can be difficult to overcome if you are not prepared. There is a long list of reasons to have a plan and preparations made for a last minute return trip back to your country of origin. I encourage you to have the finances set aside as a sort of self-insurance plan for such a trip.

Traveling Too Quickly
You might think that seeing as many places as possible in as short a time as you can allot for travel might be exhilarating. However, it causes me to get burned out and takes the joy out of what I'm seeing. I start to feel like I'm seeing the same thing over and over again with only slight variations that mean little to me. For example, like many people, I enjoy the architecture and design of places of worship that are different from my own beliefs. But if I see too many temples or cathedrals in too short of a time they just all start to look the same to me and there isn't anything memorable about the experience. It becomes pointlessly exhausting. I've found that if I stay in each place for less than a month it can take the enjoyment out of it. It's okay to move around within the area, meaning I don't have to sleep in the same bed every night for a month and can change accommodations without feeling like I'm traveling quickly. But it's a balance in which I've found a personal equilibrium at 30 to 90 days per location. This amount of time allows me to see a location slowly enough to be a relaxed and comfortable pace, where I can enjoy the sites and the people of the region, without getting the feeling that I've stopped traveling and discovering; I don't feel like it goes by in a blur, nor do I feel like I'm missing out on the next destination. Only you can determine what is your comfortable pace. I encourage you to find it so that you don't lose the joy of travel.

In addition to cultural awareness and understanding that has led to my increased tolerance of others, I find that I have increased flexibility and adaptability to situations and environments. I've certainly seen an increase in my communication skills, which was an area that needed improvement for a long time. I've become increasingly more independent and self-reliant, while also learning to accept help when it's needed and to not push others away just because I can do something on my own. I'm no great artist, but I do enjoy painting and drawing, and have found it true that the increased experience of diversity has also increased my creativity. I also find that I've gained self understanding which has allowed me to be more outgoing.

While it's true that there may be some negative aspects of the psychological effects of long term travel, I hope that making you aware of and prepared for them has provided some encouragement in the overcoming of them. There are so many benefits I've gained from it that saying the trade off is more than worth it is an understatement. I hope that you will find the same to be true.