Digital Nomad Depression + 4 Ways To Cope
The experience of traveling the world for an extended period of time is the adventure of a lifetime few are fortunate enough to experience. But what happens when you come home?
When I returned home to LA from my 3 month digital nomad trip to Europe, I was obviously a bit sad, but excited to see my family and friends again. I had tasted wine and made pasta in Tuscany, Italy, I’d sunbathed on the beach in Costa da Caparica, Portugal, and window shopped strolling the Champs Elysees in Paris, France. There were so many great people and new friends I met along the way that the extrovert in me was in heaven. I explored my surroundings each day and would come home in the afternoons to work when the sun went down. Each day felt like a vacation. My heart was full. I walked everywhere I went, I said yes to every invitation without having to check my schedule, I ate bread and dessert, I didn’t count calories, I slept in everyday. The icing on the cake was that I felt and looked healthier than ever. (To me, the European lifestyle is pure magic!)
Many people dream of coming to Los Angeles, the place that has been my home base for 9 years. The sunny weather, the palm trees, the glitz and glam vibes make LA a coveted vacation hotspot. Yet when I touched down at LAX in late July, I felt an immediate pang of panic in my gut. “I don’t want to be here” I thought. The feeling didn’t go away after a few days, or a few weeks. When I arrived back at my apartment, I felt something I’d never felt in my life before: overwhelmed by all of my belongings. (I don’t have an excessive amount of stuff, but suddenly having a living room full of furniture, a closet full of clothes, and a kitchen full of doodads felt excessive.) I’d been happily living out of a suitcase for 3 months and hadn’t felt like I was missing anything, only to come home to SO MUCH STUFF. It all felt so unnecessary and I had the immediate urge to sell everything. (I decided it would probably be a good idea to sit on that idea for a little while before acting on it.)
I was exasperated at the 2 hour drive to see friends on the other side of town (something that we Angelenos unfortunately get quite accustomed to). I missed being able to walk everywhere. I missed communally watching soccer games in Lisbon’s Placa Commercio with thousands of others and rooting on Portugal. I missed the vibrant digital nomad community and the ease at which I was meeting new people - at coworking events, at bars, in public spaces. I found myself feeling sad, disconnected, irritable, and lonely. The “reverse culture shock” of coming home had really impacted me for the worse. This was more than just a bad case of jet lag, and it lasted for months.
While I am very aware of how fortunate I am to live where I live and have what I have, these feelings were not about ignorance or lack of gratitude. Every city has upsides and downsides to living there. But the unusual thing for me was to come back to a place I had absolutely loved for nearly a decade, only to feel upon reentry that it no longer held the appeal it had to me before. LA didn’t change. I changed.
After about 2-3 months, and lots of energy spent focusing on my healing, the depressed feelings passed. In the midst of it all, it felt like I’d feel that way forever. Now several months later, I’m fully readjusted back to normal life in LA, but ready to reflect upon my experience.
Many other digital nomads like myself who have travelled for extended amounts of time have also experienced what I call “Digital Nomad Depression.” The more digital nomads I meet, the more I’ve come to understand that digital nomad depression is more common than we realize. Digital Nomad Depression is not an official diagnosis recognized by the DSM, but I see value in defining the phenomenon for the thousands of nomads like myself who have experienced without knowing what to call it.
Digital Nomad Depression: Symptoms that include grief, sadness, irritability, low motivation, low energy, loneliness, disconnection and apathy experienced upon reentry into one’s home culture after an extended time travelling (at least 4 weeks).
I’m not referring to the traveler depression that can happen to people when they are away from home and community for extended amounts of time. (Lars Holdgaard wrote a blog post that does a great job describing traveler depression.) Specifically I’m talking about the experiences and feelings that can occur when someone has returned to their home city or country.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with feelings of depression after a time of extended travels, feeling better is possible. Here are some tips to help you cope from someone that’s been there personally and also happens to be a mental health professional, too.
Seek help. Talk to friends. Find a licensed mental health professional that you feel comfortable with. You may find it comforting and validating to reach out to fellow digital nomads that know what it feels like and can say “me too.”
Acclimate your body. The physical impacts of the adjustment on your body should not be overlooked. It can be jarring to switch time zones and you may experience difficulties with sleeping, appetite, and overall daily functioning. Helping your body regulate can help boost your mood. The best ways to do this are: practice mindfulness, movement (even a 10 minute walk daily can do the trick), diet (avoid things that make you feel icky, such as excessive sugars). Try to step into the sunlight for 20 minutes during daylight hours to get a healthy dose of Vitamin D (many of us who have desk jobs are deficient).
Focus on what you can control. Part of what can feel debilitating is the sense that you are trapped. But the truth is, you’re only as trapped as you allow yourself to be. Remind yourself that you’re in control of most of your daily decisions including where you are. I poured myself into my writing and work projects and gave myself permission to have quiet time, too.
Build new relationships and experiences. It’s healthy for our brains to experience novelty and newness. Treat your current surroundings as if they are a new place you’ve never been before. Take different routes to get from Point A to Point B. Scope out different neighborhoods. Explore different social groups and communities that pique your interest. When I found out that there wasn’t a digital nomad group at home, I took the liberty of creating once so I could form the community that I so strongly identified with when I was traveling. Act like your time in your surroundings is limited (because actually nothing in life is ever as permanent as we think it is) and make it a point to learn as much as you can in a finite amount of time that you decide beforehand, such as one month, or three months.
Have you experienced Digital Nomad Depression? Was your experience similar to mine? I’d love to know your thoughts - please share below - and as always, let’s be kind and supportive with one another.