Travel helped me overcome depression and anxiety and it can do the same for you

This article was created for The Travel Project by Lauren Miles, a proud Aussie who is using travel to bravely overcome her mental health problems.

To achieve your full potential, you must first take a leap of faith.

Traveling is perhaps the most transformative experience of all. It provides new scenery, that bit is obvious, but it also propels the boundaries of your mentality, creating exciting opportunities for you to learn about the world we live in and humanity in all its wondrous forms.

Perhaps the most important asset of travel, is self-discovery – the process of finding out more about YOU. But what if you don’t appreciate the current ‘you’? Well, let me be the first to tell you how travel is the perfect chance for you to undergo a complete life change, as it did with me.

2016 introduced me to whole new meaning to life, and I’d like to share with you the reason why travel became my greatest accomplishment. It literally saved both my fragile mental health and my life, and if you've ever felt the way I did, it may save yours, too.

Maybe you are like the old me, involuntarily suffocating from panic which prevents you from making a big change. Or maybe you’ve once fallen down a much darker path, as I have also done.

Throughout my young life, I’ve suffered; I’ve been plagued by the nasty repercussions of anxiety, depression and self-deprecation. The consequences of all these emotions deeply affected my teenage experiences, relationships with those around me and even threatened my life on multiple occasions. I’ll probably sound cliché here, but in early high school I was the victim of progressive bullying which began a never-ending psychological torture. The agony that I experienced forced me into reclusiveness, emotional distraught and even self-harm which I endured for many painful years. I would constantly contemplate if my life was even worth living, because throughout these times I could see no positive future whatsoever.

But then something changed. A new age in my life slowly began to take light, and last year, one day in early June I found myself absentmindedly flipped through the pages of a Europe Contiki brochure. The pages featured stunning photographs of French vineyards, the Colosseum and the Swiss Alps, but what caught my attention most were the smiling travellers. And they were honest smiles, not fake ones – I had learned to understand the difference. A deep long thought led me into seeing a travel agent about a trip called ‘European Highlights’ which had intrigued me. I had the money, now I just needed the guts.

Firstly, let me tell you that never in my past had I ever consulted a travel agent, been on a plane or travelled this far, not to mention doing it all alone!

Perhaps one of my greatest anxieties was that I was to embark on this journey all by myself, without a friend to hold my hand through it. 

The concept of traveling alone to a completely new continent was almost too overwhelming and induced major panic attacks. I had all those fearful questions; how do I find my way around the airport & where the hell is gate B-13? How am I supposed navigate a city I’ve never visited? How can I visit Rome if I can’t speak a word of Italian? What if I’m too shy to talk to my new travel companions and end up all alone again?

Little did I know that this was the finest opportunity to break the shackles that were my deepest insecurities. But it wasn’t easy.

I remember standing in the Contiki Basement on the night I was to meet my travel group for the first time in person. It was an astounding thought knowing that they came from all corners of the globe including New Zealand, America, Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Taiwan, England, Scotland and even my home nation, Australia. But to my utter dismay I couldn’t seem to pull a simple word from my throat – ‘hello’. I hated myself for it, but I was too afraid of all these faces swarming around me. Watching them shake hands with uninterrupted eye contact fuelled my jealously and self-deprecating thoughts, why can’t you just be like them, stop being so silly! I remember my heart beating furiously against my chest as I masked my heavy breathing, in fears of embarrassing myself – an unwanted perk of social anxiety. And the irony of all this stress was that I had been so open with most of these people on our trip’s Facebook group!

In the face of my distress, I remember seeing three girls conversing on the other side of the room. I’d seen them on Facebook so I knew their names, but I was too frightened to speak up and say anything! But a subtle thought hit me - don’t ruin this.

I ended up finally walking over to the girls – an action which seemed to tear every strand of fibre in my body. I had no idea then, that these three women would soon begin to help change the course of my life, because they were the first stepping stones to regaining my lost confidence, and giving myself a new reason for living. Elicia, Kat and Jesse – if you ever read this I cannot thank you each of you enough for what you’ve all done for me.

Throughout the duration of my trip I saw some spectacular sights including the Notre Dame, St. Mark’s Square, the majestic Austrian mountains, and participated in new cultural experiences like eating escargot, shouting ‘prost’ at Oktoberfest in Munich, and the unique offerings of Amsterdam’s nightlife. Every countryside we drove through and every city that I explored found a way to make me smile and appreciate this journey I was on with all my new friends from around the globe.

a small village in switzerland

I had discovered all these new joys in life and I can remember a single, soul-stirring question lingering in my head on my plane ride home – what if I HAD chosen to end it all?

I knew the answers too; I’d have never met my new friends who I now hold most dear, I would have never witnessed the Eiffel Tower glitter at night in all its prestige glory, I’d have never stepped foot inside the Sistine Chapel & seen Michelangelo’s most famous artworks but most importantly, I would have never realized all the excitements and joys life had yet to offer me.

Travel enabled me to understand my own capabilities and all the possibilities the world presents, which I dare say are going to be thrilling. Now, unlike before, I’m ready to take the next steps into my future with full enthusiasm; attend university, meet new friends and continue to explore this glorious earth.

All it takes is that one epic leap of faith.

Traveling, especially alone, may be one of the most terrifying and mentally-challenging obstacles of your life, but that’s exactly why you need to give it try. Because through my experiences, there is nothing more liberating than taking your deepest darkest fears and moulding them into your greatest achievements.

Have you suffered from anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems, and have a travel story you would like to share with the six-two community? We’d love to hear it! Head here to find out more.