What were you thinking? There’s no way you can do this for a year. You need to go home right now. You do realize this is a long time, right?
Those were only some of the thoughts that ran through my hazy mind after more than 30 hours of travel that found me sitting cross-legged on a stiff mattress in a hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I looked around at the pale pink wallpaper peeling away from the walls and recognized my own confidence peeling away from my spirit. I was exhausted and too anxious to challenge the negative thoughts. I tried to remember why I had done this, why it had felt so important to leave my small-town home in Illinois to seek out an adventure in Thailand; to go abroad to teach English when I didn’t even have a teaching degree; to put myself in a position where I would be utterly alone.
I had known this would happen. I was in my third year of university when I first decided I wanted to teach abroad after I graduated. But I was losing weight from the high levels of stress rattling through my already-thin body, and my doctor was ready to put me on anxiety medication.
I wanted a life abroad, but how could I possibly handle that when I could barely handle life at university?
Developing a support system while abroad is important, but many travellers don’t realize that mental health needs to be managed before departure as well. The transition to a life overseas can be brutal for those living with higher levels of anxiety or depression, and seeking support or tools beforehand can smooth out the process; like moving from a potholed road onto an asphalt highway.
Seeking support or tools before moving abroad can smooth out the process; like moving from a potholed road onto an asphalt highway.
In my case, when I realized how ill-prepared I was to live abroad, I turned to therapy.
I found Julie Clayton, a licensed clinical counsellor who had an office in nearby Alton, Illinois. During the two years that I worked with Clayton, she led me through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
"[CBT works to] address the person’s thinking and what they are doing that keeps them in a mental state of stress or angst,” explains Clayton. “Identifying unhelpful thinking patterns and distortions is especially important."
This therapy is usually suggested when a person is experiencing negative or destructive thoughts that are leading to unhealthy or unproductive behaviours. Ultimately, these behaviours lead to stress or anxiety that the individual finds difficult to combat as they are stuck in unhelpful cycles of thinking.
When I began to consider a life abroad, for example, my first (negative) thought was, “I can’t do that.” Without the support of counselling, that thought would have led me to toss out the idea completely. However, through therapy, I learned to take a moment before accepting the first thought as truth and to instead form more realistic versions of what was going on in my life by asking “is that true?” and “is that a helpful thought?”
A typical inner dialogue would have sounded something like this:
-I can’t live abroad.
-Is that true?
-No. I can, but it will be difficult.
-What part will be difficult?
-I won’t have my family to support me.
-Can’t they support you if you don’t live close?
-Yes, they can. But that support will look different.
-Is that a bad thing?
-Can you find other support systems in Thailand as well?
-Yes, I think so.
-And can you support yourself?
-Will it be ok?
“[An ability to analyze thoughts] can be invaluable when living in a foreign place, as you’re more likely to have a diminished support system abroad,” explains Clayton. Without people alongside you to encourage you each time you doubt yourself, it’s necessary as a traveller to know how to face the unavoidable inner conflicts, such as “there’s no way I can afford to do that,” or “feeling lonely is too difficult,” or “I’ll never make any friends.”
During my weekly sessions, I had learned how to pick out individual, negative thoughts, question their truthfulness, and lead my behaviours in a healthy direction. The thoughts that caused my anxiety were processed, one by one, slowly erasing potential unproductive behaviours and the extra anxiety and stress they would produce.
By the time I graduated from university, I was ready.
Adjusting to life in Thailand
As I ventured out over the next few days in Chiang Mai, I took in the sights and sounds of the city: the moat, emerald green with algae; the ancient wall drooping in its centre; and the three-wheeled tuk-tuks whipping through the streets, buzzing along just like my thoughts.
I found it difficult to centre myself, and doubts about my ability to complete the month-long TEFL course, find a job, make friends, and earn enough money to afford a place to live came and went, barely staying long enough to be identified. The signs, all written in the curly Thai characters, reminded me constantly that I was in a foreign place, that getting lost was a constant risk, that I had no one there to call if something did happen.
Each day, after returning to my hotel room, hundreds of thoughts were waiting for their chance to increase my anxiety. I let them fill my mind, but with the help of my therapy, I transformed the thoughts into realistic assertions.
Soon, I can’t do this changed to I have all the tools I need to do this.
My family misses me changed to my family is supporting me.
I don’t know anyone here changed to I can make new friends.
I did, indeed, make friends. In my TEFL class, after challenging the thoughts that normally would have stopped me from socializing, such as they might not like me, or I don’t know what to talk about, I met a group of four women that ended up being the brightest part of my time in Thailand.
CBT allowed me to find a core group of friends by teaching me how to be vulnerable without giving up self-confidence.
My years of therapy allowed me to find a core group of friends by teaching me how to be vulnerable without giving up self-confidence, which led to some of the deepest connections I’ve yet had in life.
Before leaving for Thailand, I had slowly weaned myself off of therapy, first going from once a week to once every two weeks, and eventually only seeing Julie once a month. By the time I arrived in Thailand, I was able to go months without checking in with her as I relied more and more on my new support system.
Challenging the stigma
Without therapy, I likely never would have developed the confidence or courage to complete a solo, seven-hour road trip on my motor scooter to Sukhothai or travel alone to Cambodia to see the incredible Angkor Wat. But those were the big things, and the key was starting small. I had to start by simply saying yes after years of saying no.
When my mind questioned whether I would be okay if I moved outside the city to teach at a rural school or whether I could go out and socialize with a group of more than three people, I said yes. When it questioned, two years earlier, if I could face up to the stigma surrounding “seeing a therapist” to dive into my own mental journey, I said yes.
But stigma still exists. “A misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of what happens in counselling can lead people to make up what they think happens,” says Clayton.
Only when we speak more about what happens in therapy will people begin to tear at the roots of their preconceived notions and open up to the idea of growing through such a source of support, one that all travellers can draw from—whether they suffer from a diagnosed mental illness or not.
After 14 months living in Chiang Mai and traveling around Southeast Asia, I went back to the US. I had learned patience through my students. I had learned how to be a better friend with each new connection I made. I had learned how to be independent each time I set out on a solo adventure. And I had learned how to be at peace by practising all the things Clayton had taught me—a peace I carried back to the US and then on to Chile, where I was able to continue my adventures as I questioned each doubt, one thought at a time.Add this article to your reading list