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Travel and health – the value of a wellbeing focus

I’ve always just assumed that travel is in my DNA. I was born in Southeast Asia – beautiful Thailand to be precise – and lucky enough to have since lived as an expat in various places around the world. Although I’m now happily settled happily in the UK, it would be fair to say that there’s still a strong urge to get out there and see as much of the world as possible. I guess this is why people have what’s commonly termed a ‘bucket list’ – there’s so much out there and such a short time to cram in so many potential travel experiences!

Travel has been responsible for many things in life that I view as true blessings, which may be one of the reasons why the wanderlust never really subsides. It would take a while to make a full list of all the positive stuff travel brings, but here’s a shorter version just to give you an insight into the things I value about travelling:

  • Simple experience. Travel involves a fair bit of problem solving – from working out how to use unfamiliar and complicated public transport systems to organising your itinerary, it definitely works as a skill-builder.
  • Enrichment. Even just a short time spent in a foreign country can introduce you to new sights, sounds and food that stay in the mind and expand your cultural awareness. Getting a bit of local language is also handy. Learning some vocabulary and speaking a pronunciation that the language’s speakers can understand? These may not seem much, but they feel like a big achievement when you put them into practice abroad.
  • The social factor. Maybe it’s because being overseas make everything seem more vivid –especially in the early days of a visit) – but I’ve found that travelling is a great way to make friends. The shared experience of people far from home often seems to mean that the bond of friendship is never far off.
  • Of course, while adventuring off overseas is undoubtedly one of the single best decisions you can make in life, it still has its share of things that are potentially less than ideal. One country can differ from the next in so many ways that it is often surprising. From the food to the healthcare, the public transport to the culture, the one thing you can rely on is that a new country will have its differences form the one you just departed from. So before doing any travelling (or planning an extended stay as an expat) in a far-off location, it’s essential to look at the wellbeing aspect of being a traveller.

For short term stays abroad, the wellbeing factors that I concentrate on are mainly focussed around the following areas:

Physical health. This can be broken down into a number of areas – the first of these is accident and injury. While the vast majority of us take all the necessary precautions to avoid accidents, there is still a small risk that we all take just by going about our lives. This is where medical cover comes in. People going between European Union (and most European Economic Area) countries can get a free EHIC card. But be aware that these aren’t intended as a replacement for overseas health insurance. Another important point to note is that travel cover and international cover are different things. Travel cover is for short stays – whereas extended stays (such as work and study trips over a certain length of time) will mean you need international health cover. Both types usually provide medical repatriation (though you should check when you purchase). For those uninsured, the costs of medical repatriation can be eye-wateringly expensive.

The second area of physical health to consider relates to how lifestyle habits can be apt to change temporarily while overseas. For instance, familiar food may not be readily available – and it can be comforting to stick with the stuff we know best. However, it’s important not to get stuck in too rigid a set of eating habits. Always try to make sure that you’re getting the right amount of hydration as well as the necessary amounts of vitamins, fibre and so on. Conversely, there may in other cases be a temptation to over-consume food while abroad. It’s a feeling that undoubtedly affects many of us when presented with the wonders of, say, a French patisserie. Moderation is the key abroad just as it is at home.

The third area is fitness. Exercise has been cited time and time again as one of the very best ways of keeping a range of health conditions at bay. In new surroundings it may be difficult to keep your fitness routine exactly the same as it is at home, so depending on the climate (and how long your stay extends for) it might be worth looking into gym options. As always though, if you do want to join a gym it pays to shop around (and to avoid contracts that are longer than your intended stay).

The fourth area is what I’d term ‘complementary wellness’. While it’s right to think of health in terms of the hard science behind nutritional advice and medical recommendations, there’s also a world of holistic and traditional therapies out there, originating from a variety of places worldwide. Stuff like acupuncture and reiki come from long traditions of complementary medicine, and are widely accepted as beneficial by health experts.

Mental health. This is an area of wellbeing that for a long time was never fully discussed. Stigmas relating to mental ill-health meant that many were discouraged from seeking a diagnosis – and bravely soldiered on despite suffering from things like stress, anxiety or depression. It’s now fully accepted that getting help for mental health issues isn’t a sign of ‘weakness’ (as it was once perceived to be) and instead means getting on the road to recovery faster.

When you are spending time overseas longer term, the challenges can be greater than a short stay. Things like culture shock can be difficult to deal with – even when it’s quite mild you may not feel yourself for a while. Then there are all the usual stresses and strains of life, except that there’s all this unfamiliar stuff to cope with – the culture, language and so on. Luckily for the vast majority a bit of time and patience means that assimilation needn’t be too difficult. For those who are feeling that things are beginning to get too much, there are a number of options – one of these being counselling services. Make sure of course that you research the provider to ensure that what is offered is a professional service that suits your needs. And if your employer has an assistance programme for its employees, counselling may be on offer there too.

Looking at the pros and cons of travel, the benefits definitely far outweigh the drawbacks. Which is all the more reason to ensure that any stay overseas is as happy and healthy as it can be – and often this is simply a matter of doing some research and planning. Plus, being prepared also means having peace of mind – and that’s a great way to start off any new adventure.

Sources and links
1. EHIC guide (from NHS Choices site)
2. Telegraph (Travel insurance: do I really need it?)
3. Global Cures (from AXA PPP International)
4. Reiki guide (by Cancer Research UK)

Much more by Emily McLaren on her own website, Borders and Burpees.

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