When some newbie decides to jump into the amazing new world of digital nomadism – their Instagram and Facebook fill up with amazing pictures.
They see temples in Chiang Mai, they take selfies at the beaches of Bali and post awesome food pictures from the local food markets in Singapore. This all looks amazing, and trust me, IT IS. Digital nomadism is an amazing trend, one I really hope and believe will spread more.
However, as the weeks become a month, and the first month becomes month three, things change. You often see less and fewer posts, and the whole thing becomes a bit less romantical. It gets difficult.
This is difficult because you’re sorta doing every else is dreaming off – you’re TRAVELLING. And if you travel, you’re not allowed to be sad!
But this is called realism.
I remember a very good friend of mine moved to Paris after he dropped out from his studies. I was eating lunch with him and a fellow good friend. Our mutual friend said something very smart:
“It’s an amazing idea you’re moving to Paris. You will learn so much about yourself and get memories for life. But what you soon will realize is that the monkey will follow you. It always does“. And the monkey did. The monkey came slowly, but surely.
And this is what I would call travel depression – or even digital nomad depression. This is not something we talk enough about – and we should – because it’s really difficult.
Digital nomad depression hit the happiest people
I consider myself one of the happiest people I know. Whenever I write a bio, it usually includes “Happiest person on earth – guaranteed“. I’m also friends with many very happy people, especially people who at one time or another jump into the digital nomad lifestyle.
To me and the people I know, the word depression seem far away. I’ve always seen “depression” as something that hit other people.
However, the first time I took my suitcase and went away for months back in 2011 – alone – something scary happened. Starting out I was super happy. I absolutely ****ing loved Hong Kong. I tried new things. I shared lots of beautiful pictures. But week after week, it got more difficult.
I didn’t really notice it. Everything for more difficult slowly. I just remember I slept more, got more drunk when I partied and didn’t feel as happy. I also realized I started doing more stupid stuff like browsing irrelevant shit, watching movies or worse.
After I had been away for two months, I could see I was not myself. Despite I had met new people, I still felt alone. I had started to eat worse and gained some kilos. And I was unproductive.
This pattern is scary. I don’t think I’ve ever had a depression, but I think this comes close.
The scary thing is that it’s not a special one-time thing. When I was in Hong Kong, I thought this was something I just experienced. Maybe I was bad at making friends, or maybe something was wrong with me.
However, since, I’ve seen this happen to most people who do digital nomadism – especially first-timers – for longer periods. I’ve seen good friends who are genuinely positive and happy people become distant and desperate.
What is the depression and why does it hit you?
I think the underlying pattern is that those people who try out the digital nomad lifestyle, are people who have a lot of pretty good things going for them. They often have a great job, many friends, an active social circle, do sports and have an interesting and active life.
When you take this person and move the person – who is often alone – thousands of kilometres away from home it’s a very different environment. I believe it’s because of a big change in social structure and lifestyle.
In regards to the social structure of your life, it changes a lot as:
- Meeting good friends as a traveller is difficult. People keep moving cities, so you never build any real deep relationships, compared to the friends you have at home
- You don’t have your family nearby
- Your friends are often not online when you are. Because of the time zone difference, it’s difficult to really communicate
- We have social norms from the country we origin, and while we sometimes are tired of them – we also love them and live by them. In different cultures, it’s romantic the first month, but then you miss your own norms and culture
- (For the singles out there) You can meet up with someone local and go on a date, but you never really truly commit because you’re going to move away soon anyway
This is pretty bad by itself, but this gets enhanced by the fact your lifestyle is difficult too:
- You don’t live in a “home”. Airbnb’s and Hotels are just not that cool after a while
- If you stay shorter periods, rooms are often much more affordable. While rooms are great for shorter periods, it does not reflect a place where you feel home. This means that even though you might live good, you’re never home
- You never get to be a local somewhere. Either you stay for weeks and basically don’t even get to know when your local store is open, or you stay for months which is enough for basics but not for building a social circle of great friends
- When you’re somewhere new, you don’t know how stuff works which take a lot of energy. When you’re home, you know when stores are open, how transport works and what restaurants are good. If you move every second week (or even every 3 months), you never really get to understand a place
While it can maybe seem like a pretty small thing to take half a year somewhere, it’s actually A BIG move. All your social activity and structure from home is gone, all while your surroundings and day to day activities are very difficult too. Yet, half a year – or shorter – is a LONG time.
This starts out as being romantic and fun as it’s a new thing, but it easily grows into something you fight.
How to combat the travel depression
All while this post might seem very negative, it’s not. I just think there are PLENTY of very, very positive posts about digital nomadism already. I love the concept and hope to do it for many, many years in the future in my own way.
I also think it’s possible to combat this travel depression. And even if you don’t combat it, acknowledging it exists and knowing what is going on, is a big help. To me, the solution is to find “your own way”. Here is a list of things I’ve found very helpful, which I think is pretty generic advice:
- Getting a social circle first is important. Go the extra mile and try: language schools, meetups (PLENTY of options on sites such as Meetup.com and even Facebook groups), events, Tinder or your local co-working space. Don’t say no, even to shitty events. Just go out there, knowing that it takes time
- Exercise. I cannot stress this enough
- Stay longer time in one place OR stay a very short time. Staying somewhere 3 weeks is a horrible combo because it’s so long you need to get to know people but it’s so short you cannot build a social circle. I would say 1-1.5 weeks or stay at least 2 months somewhere is the optimal
- Stay central. If you don’t live walking distance from the activity in town, it’s going to suck quite a lot because you are going to go out a lot
- Eat healthy. It feels like a vacation at first and then our brains usually connects that with “let’s drink every night and eat all the junk I can find”. Don’t. It’s not sustainable for weeks or months
- Go on adventures. You have a unique chance to try new things. Even if you end up skipping some work days, go to that island or try that weekend cooking course
These pieces of advice might seem generic and easy, but like with most simple stuff – the trick is following them. If you actually get a social circle going, live healthy and either commit to a place or stay so short it feels like adventure – chances are you’re going to have a better time.
My trip to Berlin
To sum it up, I want to share a bit about my most recent experience.
In October this year, I went to Berlin with a couple of really good friends. I’ve been through many digital nomad experiences, so I thought I was so experienced this wouldn’t cause any trouble. I’m from Copenhagen, so Berlin is LESS than an hour away.
So I did the following things which were supposed to make it really easy and enjoyable:
- I lived together with a friend in a shared apartment the first month
- I joined language school the FIRST week
- I signed up for a marathon in December so I was forced to do sport
- I planned a week home in Denmark midway – part business part pleasure
- I moved every month and stayed a month in 3 different places in Berlin
- I signed up for a co-working space together with my friends
The first month went smooth. All of us talked about we should maybe even live in Berlin permanently.
We had fun every weekend.
We went to different events, and tried new things.
But then reality hits. Slowly.
Suddenly the language is difficult.
Not having a washing machine in your Airbnb isn’t that romantic.
Swiping Tinder to find locals to meet with, gets a bit old (and is very difficult in Berlin, by the way).
Then the travel depression hits. I didn’t even notice it. It sneaked up like a smart ninja. I started getting the feeling I’ve talked about in this post.
These feelings lasted for the better part of a month, until I realized this. Just by acknowledging this, it helped. It became easier, because instead of being angry at myself, I could just accept that’s how it is right now. Travelling is difficult.
I applied my own tips. I applied my experience. It helped – a lot. But not enough – the travel depression still hit me.
Because in the end, that’s how life is. It’s not that easy. It’s not easy to move to a new city. You are going to miss your friends. You are going to miss your family.
Yes, IF I had been much better at going out and meeting people, IF I had attended more events… Lots of IF’s.
But that’s not the point. Because in the end, is it really that easy if you stay at home, too?
If you stay at home, don’t you have challenges too? They maybe look different. At home, you might be concerned about your lack of adventure, your performance at work or a thousand other things. The only difference from above, is that your challenges at home at different.
At home, you maybe seek more adventure, when you’re out you seek stability and friends.
Which is the point. We always seek the greener grass on the other side – digital nomadism is no different.
We just have to accept it and enjoy all we can.