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Fernweh's Effects on Mental Health

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

While many may have never heard of fernweh, many travelers probably have. Granted, fernweh is a German word, but fernweh is a universal concept. Travelers love to gallivant about the earth; we happily, unapologetically, and with great honor travel to faraway places exploring the culture, the terrain, and embracing the unique adventures of each location. We attribute our love for travel to wanderlust and the desire to be a true citizen of the world. But, what happens when the world's borders closed?

What happens when traveling relatively safely is no longer an option? What happens when our wanderlust is left to fester and the thirst for new adventures in a new, far away land is unquenched? What happens when we have to have our moments of hygge and fika at home and not abroad/afar?

That is the reality for many avid travelers right now. They have reached a point of fernweh, and unfortunately, for some, it has drastically affected the state of their mental health. Traveling literally alters our minds. Yes, it allows us more perspective, broadens our experiences and memories, but on a chemical level, traveling alters our brains. Now, the alterations are not bad; however, if you become addicted to the rush gained from traveling, you can experience the process of withdrawal when you are not traveling.

Before the pandemic hit, I planned on posting a blog all about destination anxiety, and how as avid travelers, we should be mindful to not fall into that trap. But when the pandemic began, I noticed that many passed the point of destination anxiety and were experiencing legit mental health breakdowns. Once borders began to close, lockdowns were initiated around the world, some travelers were beyond the "average" level of distraught.

Before anyone thinks about getting judgy, let's examine why these high levels of distraught may occur and what happens to our brains when we travel. Your brain will begin to enjoy and anticipate (or maybe even chase) the high of travel. Think about it, your internal excitement (release of dopamine) in addition to your brain processing all the new sites, languages, and food. When we travel our brains are on high alert--making new connections, and interacting with new stimuli. I'm no neurologist, but I would equate our brain while traveling to a new land to a toddler's brain experiencing the world around him/her for the first time autonomously. Think about how excited that toddler is when he/she discovers something new. That's us on a trip!

Now, to be throughout, let's also address the use of travel as a release. Travel as a dose of therapy has been a personal favorite of mine because it helps put distance between myself and the stressor(s) and allows for a broadened perspective that inevitability makes me question upon my return, "Why was I even stressing about that?". The reason this happens is that you literally come back from a trip better, mentally (barring you were exposed to no major trauma during your trip) than when you left. When you travel your brain literally makes new connections (your brain "grows") and thanks to those new connections, your problem-solving abilities increase, as well as your memory and ability to focus may improve.

Essentially, the more connections your brain makes, the better it will function.

So, travel is good for us. But as my father has always warned, "It's all about moderation." And I know, no avid traveler wants to hear about moderation in our trips.

We were trying to catch them flights and not feelings, but now, we have all these feelings because we can't catch our flights.

Many travelers first dealt with an extreme case of "cabin fever" during quarantines. Shortly after that, some entered into severe depressions. It is important that while we enjoy the blessing of travel that we don't make travel the center of our identity.

There is a lot going on in the world right now, and while some are making the decision to still travel internationally to the few places that are allowing non-residents to visit, the fact is travel will not go back to what we are used to for quite some time.

So, here we are, left with all our baggage, and we must deal with it.

For those who used travel as therapy, now we must seek other ways to still partake in our self-care regimen without putting ourselves through unnecessary harm/risk. We have to look to other options of therapy because everyone needs a release, especially during this epic year of stressors, changes, civil disorder, economic turmoil, and social unrest.

Many travelers are still reeling, trying to make due with what they can, but fernweh can be a mighty monster to beat.

Thankfully, we live in a technology age, where we have virtual reality. If there are any travelers out there that are suffering immensely from not being able to travel, please don't just hop on a flight, despite the risk, or assume there's nothing you can do and spiral into a learned helplessness state. I encourage you to get a good virtual reality headset and travel the world virtually. Or check out YouTube and travel vicariously through other fellow travelers. Reflect on your previous trip's footage to help soothe you. Most importantly, break out of a strict monotonous schedule. One way you can mimic a travel scenario to your brain is to be a bit of a rebel, break schedule and have a mental break. If you can, get out into the fresh air, ride your bike, walk, or drive along the lakefront. Do something that gets you off schedule, out of the house, and appreciating life where you are. And, of course, talk to a professional if possible.

Mental health has to be maintained just as our physical health.

Stay tuned for a blog about the therapy I chose to replace my travel therapy that has helped me tremendously with my fernweh. I still dream of the trips I (thankfully) were refunded for and think about what I would've done differently if I would've known what was coming a mere month after my return from Egypt. While we can have manageable fernweh, I pray that any traveler that is dealing with depression due to our current circumstances is able to find relief.

Update: On August 13th, Amex Trendex released an article that included statistics from a consumer survey, which most recently confirmed the mental and emotional toll that the current state of travel has taken on travelers. Fernweh, as I mentioned previously, can be a mighty monster, but by simply identifying it and making strides to keep our spirits lifted, we can manage our feelings of fernweh in a healthy manner.

To read the full article outlining the results of Amex Trendex's consumer surveys, click here.



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