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Traveller's fatigue
Posted by: HoboSylvain | 2014-10-16 18:19:46 | Palmar Norte, Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Keywords: health, lifestyle, preparation
For many of you, this is the first time you encounter this term. In a nutshell, it's a depressive state due to excessive travelling. I was aware of that risk before I left and I had a prevention plan. But I didn't stick to my plan and paid the heavy price. I'm still recovering but I'm definitely on the upswing now.


What?  Isn't travelling a good cure usually for depression?  In small doses, yes, because it takes you out your routine.  As everything else in life, excess of travel is rarely a good thing. 

Like any other mental illness, its cause and symptoms will vary from one person to another based on personal history and character.  Every long time traveller has its own definition and experience about the traveller's fatigue, here's my account.

Traveller's fatigue is a mood disorder a bit like the Winter blues experienced in Northern countries during the cold season because of reduced lighting.  In this case, the trigger is often lack of routine.

Routine is your friend

Even if a totally routine-driven life is boring for most of us, routine is necessary to your brain.  Just like you don't constantly worry if the floor you're walking on will hold your weight, you need not to worry constantly about where you will sleep, or eat.

If you're travelling at a fast pace (think here about short duration of stop at one given location, not in terms of transportation speed), your brain is constantly processing new environments, new people interactions.  It never has a chance to be in a familiar place where it can so perfectly remember where everything is that it doesn't see them anymore, reducing its processing load greatly.  Being in a familiar environment allows your brain to rest.

A common analogy I could use is when you sleep elsewhere than your house (or have recently moved).  You will notice every little sound the house makes.  After a while, you will not and will be surprised when a guest mentions them.

Now, imagine changing apartment or house every week, or more often.  Your brain will always struggle to master a new environment, to remember where's the light switch, which way to turn the key, where to buy water, how to get back to your hotel, and a hundred other details you don't have to think about when in a 'normal' life.  Now, add to this the fact you're in a different society, with a different language, rules and habits.  That is what causes the brain to overload.

In the same way, constantly being in new environments, seeing new things, new people forces your brain not only to process more information but to store it as well.  Instead of saving 100 new pictures a day, it now has to save 1 500 or 2 000!  That requires lots of disk space.   With time and repetition, the brain builds indexes so you know for example that your keys are on the table and you already know where the table is... so you know where your keys are in a 3D environment.  When changing rapidly your environment your brain doesn't have the time to build redundant indexes (the butcher is left to the flower shop but also right from the shoe store).  That indexing job is done during rest periods, when the brain is in a familiar setting and doesn't have to process every pixel.

If you don't allow your brain enough down time, it cannot fully index your memory content.  That leads to loose images.  For example, I can sometimes clearly see a street or a building in my mind, but I have no idea in which city I saw it, sometimes I don't even know in which country it was!  I then have to look through my pictures to find when I took a photo of it, then match the date to my itinerary to pinpoint the city.


I had read about that before my departure and I was aware of the risk.  I initially had planned to mark a pause every six months to spend a month at a single location to rest.  I did so in December last year, as I rested in Mexico City.  My next break was due in June but for logistics reasons I didn't took it.  I will never make that mistake again.  I'm already planning my next break for January in Ecuador, by the ocean, then every four months after that.

In terms of general symptoms, the fatigue will express itself through lack of interest and energy as you might gave guessed from its name.  The only remedy is to find some routine to put your brain on vacation.

If you do so quickly after noticing the symptoms, just a week of total rest (no sightseeing) will usually do the trick.  The longer you let it crawl on you, the longer it will take to get out of it.  The exact duration will depend on each individual, but a general rule of thumb I've seen is that it will take as much time to go away as it took to settle in.  So, if you let it grow on you for a month, it will take you a month to free yourself from it.  In my case, I let it install itself comfortably for at least three months, so I'm well aware I'm not free yet and that I'm still fragile, but I'm functional again!

Although I'm excited to soon arrive in Colombia, I know the first few countries will be hard on my system due to altitude.  Not only will I have to adapt to new heights I never slept at, and for long periods, but I will also face radical altitude changes, like going from Quito (at 3 000m or 10 000 feet) to sea level within only a few hours of bus travel.  That's also a factor why i 'm already thinking about the next break.

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left this comment on 2014-10-19 10:10:54

I remember years ago, I had 3 weeks vacation, which meant I needed to move from one place to another every 3 days, if I wanted to get the most of those 3 weeks. I remember, coming back home, feeling like I needed a vacation from my vacation. I had experienced what you've described in this post! I agree, routine is not a bad thing, it helps keep us focused on achieving goals. I agree, we can have a healthy routine which keeps us moving forward without being stuck in a rut and not moving forward. Having traveled across South America for the past 3 years, this time, I pretty much lived in 5 countries between 3 to 5 months. You're right, because of this, I gave myself the time needed to adapt to all the changes through a routine. I think what you're doing is great! The fact that you are aware and listen to your body to take a break to recovery is great!

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