Welcome to my third piece of travel psychology! After covering the origin of wanderlust and the psychology of homesickness, I was asked to get further into the “real” side of travel that is less often looked upon. That’s why I today want to talk about Travel Burnout and its effects.
It can be a serious matter, and this post only gives initial understanding and help. If you suffer from serious symptoms of burnout and depression, please consult a professional! Feel free to get in touch if you need any further assistance.
As always, I try to provide proper scientific background – however, the phenomenon of travel burnout has nearly to none specific research conducted until now. Hence, I did my best to adapt existing research to the travel context as well as tell about my own experiences. Feedback is always appreciated!
What is Travel Burnout?
We know that travel rarely is rainbows and beachside coconuts, even though beloved social media does a good job in telling us so. We travel because it is passion, because a new place is our geographical form of a crush. But nonetheless it’s stressful and can pretty darn exhausting – and here’s why.
The term “burn out” means literally that: A condition of strong emotional and physical exhaustion due to chronic overload, often caused by a job, but also common for stay at home parents – or travelers.
Many of the symptoms overlap with those of depression (e.g., lack of drive, tiredness, a feeling of senselessness), which leads some experts to assuming that there is no clear division between the two illnesses.
What are the Symptoms of Burnout?
„I felt empty and dull. I would wake up at night, completely soaked with sweat, and thought of all the tasks that were still unfulfilled. I couldn’t go back to sleep. And so the next day already started with being overtired and exhausted.“ (IG Metall, 2011)
The individual inflictions of a burnout can be quite different, but the following symptoms are the ones most often described (Burisch, 2014). I tried to adapt them to the travel context:
- Permanent Exhaustion: It’s almost impossible to relax. You feel overstrained, tired and incapable of managing daily tasks – like finding new accommodation, a place to eat, figuring out transport, etc. An increasing need of breaks comes along with a decreasing length of a relaxation sensation.
- Reduced Performance: Tasks are not as easily fulfilled as they were used to be. There’s rarely a feeling of accomplishment, while difficulties in decision making and concentration increase. Compensating by trying even harder to take everything in and enjoy reduces energy and resilience further.
- Physical Symptoms: These don’t show an organic cause, thus we’re talking about psychosomatic symptoms – e.g., headaches, sleep and digestion problems, back pain, or a weakened immune system.
- Withdrawahl: You start to retreat from others, let go of hobbies and lose sight of friends and family.
- Meaninglessness: It’s a feeling of permanent exhaustion and dissatisfaction. Nothing really excites you or makes you happy, the indifference dominates. Excitement is replaced by cynicism, desperation and hopelessness.
In a travel-reality, this can look like the following:
You just can’t get excited about an upcoming trip, you try to procrastinate instead of booking, you don’t look forward to meeting new people or explore unknown places. Checking in and out becomes an almost unbearable strain, foreign food just doesn’t come close to mum’s apple pie, every market and temple start to look the same.
You constantly feel disappointed and as if you are just checking things of a list instead of really enjoying them.
But how can Travel cause Stress? It’s supposed to be Fun!
You’re living the life so many dream of, so be grateful and enjoy it!
Yeah. Right. Believe me, I heard this one quite a bit. I’m not the one to easily share when I’m exhausted and fed up with travel at times, but I hear it anyway. And I can’t even blame people for it.
But what I can do is understand what is bugging me. I can dig in deep and find the source and then work from there.
A burnout can develop in many ways. It mostly is a concurrence of individual (e.g., resources like family or hobbies) and situational factors (e.g., increased peer pressure).
Additionally, the following factors increase the risk of burnout:
- too ambitious goals
- conflicts with peers
- anxiety over financial resources
- a constant exposure to a lot of responsibility and time pressure
- personality related aspects (e.g., excessive perfectionism, low self-esteem and tendency to avoid conflict, missing coping strategies)
- big life events, especially if support by family and friends is missing
- societal factors – we see everyone travel, we see how everyone enjoys it, and perceive this as increased pressure
And honestly, if you just keep going from one place to the next, you get pretty darn sick of packing and unpacking every single time.
When it all comes together, travel burnout can result of too much traveling, too much pushing yourself, too much time on the road. You stop being excited about architecture or nature, because it seem to be just all the same.
Think of it this way: Even your favorite chocolate will make you feel sick if you eat too much in too few time.
via GIPHY (me preparing for stressful situations anyway)
Tips to prevent and treat a Travel Burnout
Go treat yourself a little and it’ll be fine!
Honestly, I’m sick of hearing that. I can’t deal with my problems by distracting myself with food or a spa treatment I can’t really afford.
And going on a treasure hunt to find a nice restaurant or massage therapist is really not what I wanna do right now anyway.
Travel Burnout – as well as early stages of feeling exhausted – is a normal reaction to an unstable lifestyle.
No, you’re not a bad traveler or have to get a ticket home or kill a bottle of red wine.
A mix of leaving home and routine and instead throwing yourself into something unforeseeable, meeting and farewelling new people every day, plus months of night buses and hostel kitchens and wrinkled shirts – that does that to you. Together with enough fried to last for a lifetime and more local beer than your supply of Advil can handle.
Just because you have the privilege to travel doesn’t mean it’s always gonna be fun.
Still, the whole travel culture conveys to always do something. And whatever level of exhaustion you are experiencing – this is your body telling you: Chill. You’ve done enough for now.
Excitement is not meant to last forever, so accept where you’re at as a part of being human.
Take a break from meeting cool people at a café or bar or beach every day. There will be more cool people, and cafés, and bars, and beaches.
Have your moody days, don’t talk to anyone if you don’t want to. Stop doing. Be exhausted.
And then handle this strategically. These tips are again travel-adapted from treatment guidelines for burnout (Institut für Arbeitsmedizin; Turnipseed, 2000).
- Create a routine, get some familiarity in a novelty-filled life. Like back home, I always start the day with 20 or 30 minutes of yoga and catching up on news, and that sets a positive tone, whatever the day might bring.
- Figure out how to best use your time. Are you a morning person? Then use that time – and don’t overthink afternoons spent in front of Netflix if that’s what you wanna do.
- Take time to reflect. I personally notice I like to have people around me all the time, and always do something. It’s vital for me to consciously sit down, breathe, and think. Or write.
- Don’t overplan. It’s not your goal to create an itinerary that would make a Fortune 500 secretary weep. And if you miss out on that castle or viewpoint, well, who cares? You’re never gonna see everything anyway.
- Stay healthy. Of course fast food is fast and yummy and I could never say no to some proper German chocolate. But over-indulging honestly doesn’t make me feel good either.
- Learn something new. If part of what you’re feeling – as mentioned in the symptoms before – is meaninglessness, you might be able to create a new purpose by maybe a language course or a cooking class. As travel often is sensual and emotional, a little intellectual spice might do the trick.
And most of all, never forget my friends:
Happiness and excitement don’t last forever. Neither will unhappiness and exhaustion.
Burisch, M. (2014). Das Burnout-Syndrom. Theorie der inneren Erschöpfung. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.
Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychiatrie, Psychotherapie und Nervenheilkunde (DGPPN) (2012). Positionspapier der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Psychiatrie, Psychotherapie und Nervenheilkunde (DGPPN) zum Thema Burnout. Berlin: DGPPN.
IG Metall (Hrsg.) (2011). Ausgebrannt – Betriebsräte als Lotsen für Burnout-Betroffene. Frankfurt am Main: IG Metall Vorstand.
Institut für Arbeitsmedizin. Burnout – ein Leitfaden des ifa. Baden (Schweiz): Institut für Arbeitsmedizin.
Turnipseed, D.L. (2000): Phase analysis of burnout and other psychological phenomena. Psychological Reports, 87, 341–345.