Autventures in Central Asia: Reflections on Autistic Travel and Mental Health

I am excited to write this blog post (though warning, it is long and becomes rambly in places)! It’s been precisely 3 weeks since I last sat down at my computer and with plenty of time and space and calm to do some reflecting. It’s also nice to return to doing the sort of activity I feel I thrive most in – hyper-focusing on some writing project I find meaningful, and thereby getting to use very different parts of my brain than I’ve been used to engaging when I was away. To my surprise, I also find that I actually have the spoons to be writing now, on the very morning after arriving back from Dubai late last night!?

Before I left for this trip I was experiencing feelings of depression and low energy (although nowhere near as intense as a couple of months prior). I’d definitely been doing a lot better, even if most of the underlying issues were still there and causing me quite a bit of worry under the surface. So how do I feel now? How has being away from home, autventuring through foreign lands, leading a quite radically different lifestyle for 3 weeks impacted my mental state? This post will explore some of the potential mental health impacts of travel from an autistic perspective, focusing mainly on the sensory and social stressors that we may experience moment-to-moment, as well as the deeper reflections and realisations that such a big change in environment and routine may provoke (update: also, having now actually written the post, I diverge into a lot of other random stuff too). Whilst I may make some general extrapolations, everything here is based on my own experience, and of this one particular trip at this specific moment in my life. 

Why did I go to Central Asia?

I have a confession to make. The reason I went to Central Asia is not because I wanted to go to Central Asia. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to Central Asia. I have nothing against it. It’s a perfectly wonderful part of the world, in fact. I just didn’t have that burning desire (or, if I’m being entirely honest, any desire) to go there. The reason I went to Central Asia (aside from the practical one that my Dad was going and I had the opportunity to go with him) is that I wanted to see how I would feel. And not how I would feel in relation to Central Asia either. But how I would feel within and about myself and my own life. (Selfish I know!)

This motivation is very much reflected in the travel journal that I kept. It’s not hugely long, but unlike what I imagine most travel journals look like, it contains extremely little about what I saw or did or even what I thought and felt in relation to those things. This makes me feel like a bad traveller, not to be interested in the places and people I’d journeyed so far to visit. Not to be in the teeniest bit interested to learn anything about the place, its history (big yawn, I’m sorry), the culture, the art, nor even the geography and landscapes (which at a previous time in my life would have greatly interested me). To feel that hearing any of this information constituted a massive and unwanted drain on my mental resources. To experience a feeling of relief at not being part of one of the many tour groups I saw, being subjected to a seemingly endless barrage of facts pouring out from over-animated tour guide mouths. 

I’m not sure why this was exactly? Whether it stemmed from a depression-related general lack of interest in things, or perhaps from an autistic either hugely-interested or not-at-all-interested dichotomy (with the majority of things falling into the latter category because such high intensity is not easily sustained beyond a small area).

To clarify, though, I should say that I was very interested in having the experience of being in Central Asia (or really anywhere that was not home or home-like). I think this relates to a desire to experience the (positive) sensory aspects of being in a place, whilst being less interested in knowing much about the place itself (which relates to learning all the meanings associated with it). (On reflection, perhaps this is quite autistic of me, because often sensing > interpretation?) Really, though, I just wanted the experience of travel, of having a break from normal life, of being somewhere different for an extended period, and it could have been anywhere really. Which I suppose is fine. I think you can still appreciate the experience of being somewhere without knowing or even caring much about what that somewhere is all about. (Though most would probably argue that knowing stuff or wanting to learn serves to enhance the experience, and in most cases I’d probably agree).

Central Asia is pretty foreign to me. And surely the more foreign the place, the more novel the stimulation, the more distraction, the higher the processing demands, the greater the potential challenges and discomforts. As a result of these two factors (writing mainly from a mental health perspective + being subject to a lot of stressors), my travel journal ended up being little more than a catalogue of complaints. Although plenty of great times were had, I undoubtedly find it easier to write about the niggles. Not that I don’t notice all the good. I just feel there is little need to write about it because there is no stress that needs to be released in relation to it, and writing, it seems, is primarily a way for me to release stress. In addition, I am quite bad at the sort of creative, flowery writing that might be needed to conjure up evocative descriptions of the beauty or interest of places. I don’t know what to say other than ‘that was amazing’ or ‘this thing is so beautiful’, which quickly gets boring to read (and write).

I could feel guilty about this. But writing about whatever was stressing me usually made me feel at least 50% better, so overall I feel it was a great coping strategy. Also, at this point in my life, now travelling with the knowledge that I am autistic, I feel all this ‘complaining’ can be put in its proper context, and seems more understandable  and justifiable in a way (not that there needs to be any justification to feel a certain way or anything, but it can certainly help).

Autistic travel stress

Autistic travel stress is not so different from autistic life stress really, except arguably more intense. Because travel is just life after all, but often with the intensity (in most respects at least) dialled up a few notches. Many of the things that may stress an autistic person in day-to-day life remain issues or become even more of an issue in the travelling life (although we may be leaving behind potential stressors such as work, certain people, other responsibilities, etc which may certainly be relieving).

So none of the sorts of stressors I’ve listed below are necessarily specific to the travel experience, although travel does usually mean there are more of these things, at higher levels of intensity and clustered closer together in time (eek!). Generally, I’d assume these issues are likely to be similar regardless of where you are in the world. No matter where I travel, I repeatedly find myself surprised by just how ‘the same’ most places are in relation to one another, in that despite the undeniably stark environmental and cultural differences between different countries and regions, the basics of life remain pretty similar wherever you go (especially in terms of the social side of life I find). So it makes sense for nuisances to be of a similar genre at home and away or between destination x and destination y.

I’ve already written in a more general sense about potential stressors in an earlier blog post on autistic travel anxietyHere, I want to talk about stressors with a greater level of specificity, which means I’m basically going to go ahead and list out everything that aggravated me about this trip (finally hehe)! At multiple points whilst I was away I felt the compulsion to start writing down the numerous bothers that had been stressing me that day. I don’t know why, whether out of frustration, as some way to relieve the stress, or to try make it more clear and justifiable to myself why I was feeling fed up.

I never wrote a list out at the time (it often felt like too much effort to get out pen and journal). I’ve tried, though, to compile an amalgamation of specific sources of stress in hindsight. Most of the things are sensory stuff (noise, especially). In fact, I think there was rarely a moment in which there wasn’t some sort of sensory disturbance, even within the relative calm of hotel rooms. It won’t necessarily be the case for every autistic person, but I think the list demonstrates the importance of the sensory environment (or at least in my own life). I hope the below isn’t to off-putting to anyone who is considering/preparing for a future trip, but I think it’s important to be open about how stuff can make us feel.

– Traffic, traffic, traffic, times thousands of instances of arrrrghh!! 😥

– Chattering voices. The single biggest nuisance after traffic, perhaps even worse than traffic? And not just chattering, but lots of the voices sounded so loud, or harsh in tone to me, aggressive even, like arguing (mainly the men I noticed). I hope this isn’t culturally insensitive (like how I felt annoyed at people ‘shouting’ to each other in the street a lot). Often I felt guilty and bad for just wishing people would zip it for a bit. But it really hurt my brain. And it boggled my mind sometimes just how much people can talk and talk and talk and seemingly not get tired of it?

– Why is every single seat so uncomfortable in some very particular way? (Solution: carry a travel cushion everywhere you go.)

– The mattresses in Uzbekistan are hard as rocks, the pillows are so fat and un-squishy as to be better off on the floor. Resultant back, shoulder and neck aches.

– Air-con in hotel room (in Dubai) is hella noisy.

– Eyes, eyes everywhere (although I desensitised to this quite a bit with time, and also Central Asia is very hassle-free and people generally do not stare or even look much).

– Gah small talk. I do dislike it. Especially when it becomes repetitive which is the case when you are meeting a lot of new people but only for short amounts of time (the same old questions keep re-surfacing again and again). And I feel bad for hating it. And for not really wanting to talk to most people. Because it’s so anti what ‘good’ travel is supposed to be about in most people’s minds. But, to me, it just feels pointless when I’m never going to see these people again (i.e. there is no payoff in terms of continued connection to compensate for the amount of anxiety and effort involved in initiating a convo or investing in one for only a short time). There were a few times when I did actually want to talk to some people, but interacting is hard. This (the frequency and apparent ease and pleasure in how people, especially with strangers or new acquaintances, interact with one another) is like the number 1 thing that makes me feel different to others and which still baffles me (even though I now understand the reasons for it).

– Extremely loud noise from a generator (in remote yurt stay in Kyrgyzstan), otherwise ruining an entirely peaceful environment.

– Constant un-packing and re-packing of bags every 1-3 days.

– What felt like a never-ending need to take off my backpack to retrieve/put back various items. Sometimes I just wouldn’t and so wouldn’t drink when I needed to, or take off a layer, or apply suncream or get camera for a photo. 

– Unbearable heat+humidity (in Dubai) (though after a bit we did acclimatise / learn the best outside place to be was in the pool and nowhere else).

– Some anxiety about losing/damaging valuables.

– Hunger – at wrong times, not being able to tell if I was hungry, hungry but also sick, hunger vs. stress of restaurant, lack of control or choice over food.

– Not getting/appreciating certain social rules (like around compulsory meals/socialising) and probably appearing rude for not abiding or declining.

– Cigarette smoke gahhhh

– Overwhelming petroleum smells (exhaust laws are less of a thing).

– Screaming babies on long-haul flights (high-pitched sounds penetrate earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones rather well). It’s simply the worst. sound. ever. Obviously everyone finds this irritating, but I was close to losing my mind a few hours in.

– Sleep deprivation and physical/mental tiredness from things like early morning flights, jet lag, failing to sleep, etc. Also just being tired for no apparent reason. (Often I found the tiredness really hit me on ‘easier’ days, perhaps because some of the adrenalin wears off. Stopping can make it feel worse sometimes).

– Achey joints from hiking.

– Feeling trapped in certain circumstances, like on flights or in restaurants, (though usually there is always some option for escape!)

– Getting a stomach bug, needing to puke, but not being able to (gross, sorry)

– Altitude sickness during a night at 3,000+ metres

– Painful dry, cracked and bleeding lips for the first few days

– A fair amount of motion sickness (mainly on flights)

– Communal meals and compulsory socialising, eek

– Completely running out of energy for talking a couple times

– Initial anxiety of stepping into a new hotel or restaurant and having to start interacting/make decisions straight away

– A vaguely uncomfy feeling of having too much unprocessed stuff in my mind, of not remembering things I’d seen or done, of feeling a bit detached and things feeling slight unreal? (This lessened with time though as I just went more with the flow of things.)

– Tour groups in Uzbekistan (so loud and so sprawling and so everywhere). I know I shouldn’t complain because I was being a tourist just like them, but all the chatter and movements in close proximity can be a distraction from appreciating the beauty of a sights I still can appreciate of course, but my attention flits around a lot, most often being drawn to all the people around me (probably because they are more stimulating than a wall of tiles – however pretty those are!). These super touristy sights in Uzbekistan triggered the most intense tiredness of the trip (and were a bit of a shock after all the nature and relative emptiness of Kyrgyzstan). I had to take a couple of ‘naps’ lying down in very public very random places to temporarily recover energy.

And… here is a brief list of things that helped 🙂

journaling, music, not knowing what the itinerary was more than a day or two ahead (to prevent overwhelm), allowing myself to ‘be autistic’ in whatever way (protecting myself from sensory things, not involving myself in conversations, stimming, not looking at people, having autistic badges on display, doing echolalia (namely of nice-sounding place names – ‘Tashkent’ dammit!), paying special attention to the beauty or curiosity of things, taking photos, talking to my to travel companion, and reminding myself that the time for sleep is never that far away!

 

Is autistic travel worth it?

A big question I kept coming back to throughout the trip was: Is this worth it? Is travelling, more generally, worth it for me? I have a conflicted, even somewhat of a love/hate relationship with travel. Because of all the stress involved it causes a lot of anticipatory anxiety (especially for solo trips). It, of course, involves a hell of a lot of discomforts during the fact. It also takes a lot of resources, namely money, time and executive function to research, plan and actually carry out the trip. 

Does this mean that autistic travel is just a bad idea, a recipe for what would otherwise be entirely avoidable heightened stress and anxiety? Well, no. Obviously not. I mean, to be sure, travel isn’t for every autistic person. It’s a very personal thing, just as it is for non-autistics. But generally speaking, travel is living life in quite an intense way (if by intensity we are measuring things like degree of sensory exposure, social contact and change in environment). Intense can sometimes mean bad, sometimes mean good and sometimes (probably most often actually) mean a mix of both good and bad within any one experience.

It’s often said that whilst travelling the lows tend to be lower, whilst the highs are higher, i.e. there is more stress than in normal daily life, but also there is a lot more excitement to compensate for this and make it maybe, probably, all in all, worth it? I would venture to say that the stress and lows are likely to be more profound for autistic travellers (as in life in general). But also, more controversially, that the highs may also be higher? Or if not higher per se, then perhaps the highs are distributed differently, so that we might take delight and joy in things that non-autistics do not to the same extent, or even at all (also as in life in general).

Examples of this for me might include appreciating the beauty of nature at what I feel is an above normal level of intensity. I really really enjoy zoning out on a long train or car journey, it makes possible some of my best thinking and just feels so damn nice :p And more generally I very easily savour pockets of rest and alone time, whereas others might be liable to boredom during the moments. Conversely, the very things that might rejuvenate many a non-autistic, and even the very things that are considered the ‘best’ parts of travel, could be precisely those things that most drain or worry us as autistics (e.g. socialising in a new group of people you’ve just met).

Regardless of the specifics, certainly the highs are still there in autistic travel. They provide the lure and tickle the itchy feet. They fuel the motivation to face the difficult side of travel. Here are some of my trip highlights, the things that made the stress worth it, the reasons I’m glad I got on those flights (all seven of them to be precise), and the reasons why I’m (probably…hopefully…) going to keep travelling in future:

– Revelling in the quietest, emptiest and surely most remote place I’ve ever been. I’ve never heard such silence! Remembering how calming big horizons and wide open people-free, building-free spaces are for the mind.

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Sunset at Lake Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan

– The beauty and diversity of the natural landscapes in Kyrgyzstan generally, from mountains, glaciers and rivers, to high altitude plains, lakes, canyons and beaches. All so unspoilt and devoid of development or even many tourists.

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High peaks of the Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

– Visiting mosque after monumental mosque along the old Silk Road through Uzbekistan.

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The intricacy, symmetry and overall splendour of the Registan in Samarkand, one of the greatest sights of the Islamic world

– Some of the food (with emphasis on the ‘some’ :p). Central Asia is very far from being a foodie destination, but we still managed to track down some nice places to eat.

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From the low of being served a single unseasoned boiled potato as main course, to an embarrassment of riches at various breakfast buffets (breakfast is serious business in this part of world, never to be underestimated :p)

– I generally loved being in moving vehicles. But the circumstances need to be right: high speed, constant speed, comfy seat. Made even better by: loud music, nice views out the window, window open with breeze on face, long journey to provide enough time to zone out. Not: stop/start traffic, the need to make small talk with anyone, conditions that make me motion sick. In contrast to the high/constant speed, I also learned that I absolutely love travelling on super rough roads where the vehicle is bumping and swerving around all over the place (because of the strong proprioceptive input I think). We had a lot of this in Kyrgyzstan and it was super. (Check out my YouTube vlog for a bit too much video footage of this)

– People watching. Especially from the side-lines where I can’t easily be watched in return! Because eye contact or even sense of being looked at can be uncomfortable.

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Here are some of the local goings-on during an international dance festival in Kiva, Uzbekistan

– Dubai – the skyscrapers, experiencing such a radically different (though admittedly highly intolerable) climate, the luxury hotels and pools (even if it did feel super over the top, almost embarrassingly so). Honestly though, I love a good metropolis almost as much as a wild place. 

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End of trip treat! Also I discovered infinity pools are stimmy as hell

I do want to finish this section by saying that post-trip aftermath can often bring the danger of rose-tinted glasses. In fact, I think the more time goes on, the more there seems to be a tendency to downplay or forget the stress that was involved and to romanticise the experience as a whole. This is related to the fact that post-travel, back in the comfort of home (and also during the last few days of a trip), I’ve found anxiety tends to be at an all-time low. I want to be wary of this and I’ll say more on this in the next two sections, through discussing how I felt coming home and on some stuff I’ve perhaps learned from being away.

 

Did this experience change me?

Sensory desensitisation

In terms of light sensitivity I noticed no discernible difference (perhaps unsurprising given that I rarely took off my sunglasses whilst outside). For noise sensitivity, I definitely noticed a difference. As an example, going through airports on the way out, I wore noise-cancelling headphones pretty much the entire time. And on the way back? I wore them hardly at all (except when I wanted to watch/listen to stuff) and it didn’t even cross my mind to put them on. So what happened? Well, basically, it was some type of noisy pretty much the entire time. It was impractical and in its own way energy-sapping to wear my headphones the whole time I was out. So I naturally did this less and less, starting with the quieter areas and telling myself I could put them on when I was near busy roads or crowds (though often I forgot or didn’t feel bothered to do this either). Towards the end of the trip, I then started noticing that I was noticing noises less (though this doesn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t being affected at a more subconscious level of course). Having said this, often my sensitivity would fluctuate and I’d get sudden surges of anger at things as they flooded my attention after the exposure became too much. Also, wearing headphones – especially with music – did make a big difference in terms of feeling calm and enjoying the experience more. So it’s very much a question of balance. Of trying to avoid developing a dependence, whilst realising the positive difference such sensory protection strategies can have.

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Sunglasses, headphones and a rather stylish electric purple gown with hood (the latter was not part of my sensory kit but courtesy of the mosque I was visiting ;))

Anxiety

At the beginning of the trip my social anxiety was high, as per usual. But then it inevitably lessens with time and exposure. Also, being tired (which I was a lot) tends to decrease social anxiety for me, probably because I zone out more from people, lose energy to pay attention, so I don’t see the cues and this reduces the input, the need for conscious processing and thus the anxiety. I also feel better able to manage my peopleing anxieties now than in the past, even if this is just through allowing myself to avoid and do less (though often this was only a product of having an understanding travel companion who took care of most things – solo travel doesn’t afford such luxury!). I was also generally a lot more chill than in the past in terms of worrying how others might perceive me, not comparing myself to what might be expected, and just letting myself be however felt best to me (knowing I am autistic helps a lot with this).

In terms of more generalised anxiety… honesty I feel it is more of an issue at home! Or at least when it comes to a certain type of anxiety. Because I have barely any spare brain space whilst travelling to think about much other than what is happening/is about to happen in the very short-term, most my mental energy is focused there. And whilst this can sometimes be stressful, it’s also not that bad because it is mostly manageable, it is over relatively fast, and it is mixed in with lots of good. Basically, it’s short-term sensory or people-related anxiety, whilst the more longer-term/existential worries are pushed to the back of my mind (and can even come to seem quite trivial and blown out of proportion if I did think about them). But at home, there is a lot more time and space to think. Perhaps even too much? Perhaps my issue is that I think too much. I guess this isn’t a problem per se, unless it is mainly anxiety and depression-filled thinking, then it is a problem. But, anyway, it seems travel might provide a perhaps healthy break from ‘too much’ thinking, replacing it with high levels of distraction in the form of doing lots of stuff in the ‘real world’ which essentially forces you to be in the present moment.

Depression

This is a biggie for me because it’s something that’s been affecting me a lot in recent months and something I really wanted to improve. It’s been a bit up and down, but overall the impact from going way was pretty darn positive 🙂 To be sure, there were times I noted in my journal that I felt depressed (even though they are hard to recall in my mind now, probably due to issues with emotional permanence). Stuff like ‘what is the point (in this trip, or in anything else)?’, ‘this is utterly ridiculous, what am I putting myself through?’, ‘I just need to lie down and for the world to stop’. Or failing to feel much excitement about things that should be exciting. Or feeling happy in the moment but then remembering it won’t last. And then feeling a bit guilty about all of this.

They were only mild feelings though and they didn’t pop up for more than a few hours here and there. They were most there at the beginning of the trip and also surfaced super randomly for a couple days somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons why. They seemed to come to the fore when I was alone and left with time to think (though not always – often I felt very at peace when I was enjoying alone time). And also when we stayed put for a few nights and had a couple slower days which perhaps reduced the anxiety and adrenaline, increased rumination and potentially gave space for depression to surface.

Returning to the issue of rose-tinted glasses, I’m actually surprised now, reading back on my journal, to see how much I mentioned feeling depressed, because that is honestly not my recollection of things now. Perhaps I was just journalling when I felt more negative, and not the many times I felt fine. I do remember finding it hard to pinpoint how I felt even at the time though, let alone in hindsight. A couple of times I described feeling a sort of happy-sad. Yet at other times during the trip I was thinking ‘wow, this is amazing, I feel so alive and free, and this is so beautiful and yah dee dah’. It’s hard to remember which one took place more. Either way, it’s clear that I could think very differently about my experience, including within a very short space of time.

Back home though, and in the latter part of the trip, it became clearer to me that the impact had been positive. In Dubai, especially, I felt so calm and confident and at peace and noted that my depression is ‘like a thousand time better, and has basically been a non-issue the entire trip’ (a slight exaggeration perhaps, but it’s how I felt at the time). I don’t know if this tells me my depression is indicative of a ‘life’ problem as opposed to a ‘brain’ problem (a simplistic dichotomy perhaps, but see this video (around 9 minutes in) for an interesting discussion on this in the context of travel). In other words, something that might only require a change in context or lifestyle, as opposed to something that follows you around almost no matter where you go or what you do and which may require a lot of work to constantly manage. I’m sort of hoping it’s the former, because that seems like it might be easier to change. This experience suggests it may have a lot to do with environment and what I’m doing on a daily basis, so that’s promising.

I am in no way trying to claim that travel helps (let alone ‘cures’) depression. I’m not even claiming it has for me. Clearly, the impact is hugely personal, dependent on the type of trip, the timing, the type of issues someone is facing in life, and so much more. It’s undoubtable that travel has the potential to impact negatively on mental health, certainly in terms of anxiety, but also for depression (especially if there are feelings of homesickness, loneliness, a sense of lacking purpose whilst away, whilst disrupted sleep, diet and general self-care routines may not help either).

But putting all this variability and ambiguity aside, how might travel conceivably help contribute to an improved mood, and even a renewed sense of purpose? These are some factors which I think had an impact for me:

High activity levels which provide almost constant distraction and lack of time or space to think about stuff, especially long-term worries. The mind is essentially preoccupied with the here-and-now and the need to process high levels of stimulation, much of which is exciting or at least novel. (Though conceivably living this way, especially for too long, could also backfire if certain thoughts/feelings accumulate and are left unprocessed.)

Seeing nice things. Especially for me, natural beauty. There’s something so intrinsically calming and humbling about seeing untouched nature on a grand scale. It provides perspective on your own life, and on human life in general. The same with architectural beauty. Or even stuff that is just novel or interesting, whether beautiful or not. Having seen things of beauty or interest can easily make an entire day feel worthwhile for me. Discovering and experiencing pleasing aesthetics and nice sensory things just feels so good and can even provide something of a sense of purpose.

Being around people a lot. This was in two ways. First, just seeing hundreds of people going about their lives each day (this provided not only distraction and interest, but also perspective – see below). Second, being in company almost 24/7 (though generally I didn’t like having to interact with strangers, only my travel companion :p) – this one provided distraction, a sense of fun and combatted feelings of loneliness.

Spending hardly any time online, specifically social media. I’m pretty sure this was important, because the few times I did go online, I felt anxious in the run up, overwhelmed by too much info and choice, and then sort of down after the fact. Having internet access makes it feel like there is always something you could or should be doing or checking up on, and this is not always such a relaxing state to be in. I appreciated times of having no WiFi or of simply deciding that I wasn’t going to connect (because let’s be honest internet is pretty much everywhere these days).

PerspectiveIt’s cliched as hell, but travel really does broaden your horizons. It shifts focus away from yourself. Honestly, for me, it made a lot of my usual worrying seem a bit trivial and unnecessary. It made me think I spend too much time inside my own head, worrying about things that don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Spending so much time out in the world, seeing so many people, getting insights into their lives, it seemed easier somehow to place things in a broader context, in their proper context. Also cliched, but travelling, especially to developing countries, usually serves to highlight your own privilege as a traveller, and often quite starkly. In particular, I was often struck by seeing the jobs and related lifestyles that so many people are busy doing and repeating over and over again. It strikes me because I know there is no way I could last even a week at most of these jobs and it amazes me how people find the stamina to keep working in these environments day after day. This amazement is related to my privilege as a middle class Westerner, but it is also related to my neurotype which probably makes certain conditions appear/feel more intolerable to me than the average person). 

I’m not sure where I was going with this in terms of depression… I think I’m trying to say that it’s natural to start feeling less self-absorbed when you are seeing so much of life and what other people are getting up to. Less thinking about myself, more thinking about the external world, leads to less worrying about myself and my life I guess? Also, I felt that my thinking became a bit clearer, that decisions about what I should do in life seemed suddenly obvious and straightforward whereas before things felt overcomplicated and clouded. So perhaps less thinking also means ultimately clearer thinking, who knows! Perhaps with less free time in which to indulge your own thoughts, it becomes more obvious to yourself where your thoughts keep returning to most, which shines a light on what is bothering you or what means a lot to you. And at the same time it seems to become easier to place these things in a wider context, and to perhaps worry about them less. 

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Perspective, because there’s a long road ahead (and lots of stuff either side too)

 

Returning home: What have I learnt?

During the last few days of my trip I was feeling decidedly ambivalent about returning home. I didn’t know whether I wanted to or not. I think I was feeling a bit apprehensive about it. I felt so much better depression (and even anxiety) wise. So naturally I was worried about returning to not feeling so great again when the changes of travel reversed themselves and I returned to my normal environment and routine. On the other hand, it sure felt like a very relieving prospect to be free from so many daily discomforts! Despite all the positives and excitements, I remember telling myself how I felt there wouldn’t have been much chance of me sustaining this lifestyle for much longer (I could well be wrong about this though, I simply do not know).

Returning to depression again, perhaps travel can help heal the more day-to-day blues, but what about a more lasting impact? What about returning home? Is travelling simply serving to temporarily plaster over problems, providing a distraction and escape, perhaps preventing us from doing what we really need to do, that is focusing on ourselves, the people we are close with, and our actual permanent life back home?

Post-travel blues is something that many people experience, and it can obviously be more of an issue for someone with depression. I did notice a dip in my mood returning home, for a few days at least. But it was nothing major, and it does seem to have stabilised already (around a week later). I do feel less at peace now than I did when I was away, especially during the latter part of the trip when I was feeling more comfortable. Returning home, things can just seem so incredibly stale and same-y. Repetitive, lacking in excitement and novel stimulation, boring and grey essentially. But this is entirely normal and to be expected given how stark the transition is, even after a relatively short trip.

I think I was (rather naively) hoping that this trip might provide a massive shock (in a positive sense) and reset to my system, helping me to realise what is really important in life, making me want to see the world, do lots of fun things, stop worrying about the things I’ve been consumed by recently. It has been positive, especially during the fact and shortly after. And it’s made me feel I can do more of this sort of stuff which is good. But ultimately the impact fades, and it’s bound to I think. If I’m back in a different environment, doing different things, it’s unsurprising that my mindset will shift accordingly.

I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose recently, a lack of which (or a sense of lacking) seems to be an important aspect underlying depression. The past few months at home I’d been struggling a bit with wondering what the point of things are. Travel seemed to relieve some of this for me (although, honestly, pre-departure I was already on an upward trajectory). I think it can be easier to feel a sense of purpose whilst travelling, or at least with respect to some aspects of purpose (because I think there are different sorts).

Travel definitely provides lots of opportunity for the sort of purpose that comes from doing a lot of stuff moment-to-moment and from hopefully finding satisfaction in that. Perhaps this could be termed more ‘low-level’ or short-term purpose, that which we experience in the present moment going about our daily lives, whether to achieve gratification or just because there is stuff which needs doing. Whether it involves positive or negative stimuli, this keeps us busy, engages mind and body, and provides distraction. Hopefully, through travelling, we are maximising the positive, so there is more seeing of beautiful things, doing of interesting things, and learning and growing in new, fun ways. As I mentioned above, experiencing beauty and interest in things can provide a powerful sense of satisfaction, and thus purpose through wanting to gain more of that satisfaction. On the other hand, travel can certainly be lacking in the other sorts of purpose. The ‘higher’ sorts of perhaps perhaps, like working towards some meaningful goal (other than ‘I want to visit all these places’), or of building long-lasting connections if we are moving about a lot or travelling alone. 

So I’m not so sure where I was going with this (again!)… But I’m actually going to write more about purpose (in the context of intense interests and other stuff) in another blog post coming soon! Back to what I meant to say…  which I think was about things I might have learned from my time in Central Asia and which I want to try to take on board in life:

The importance (but difficulty) of being out in the world and around people: I think it might help mental health-wise to be around people more. And in both the ways I mentioned above: just being around them, i.e. like strangers in public, and in having people to actually talk to (and who I want to talk to, and in meaningful ways) more throughout the day. Obviously it can be super draining to be having too many conversations the whole day, but I think it would also be nice to spend more time just in others company when talking isn’t necessarily the main focus, like working in the same room or parallel play.

Get offline/off tech in general. This one is also very conflicting to me. Because I love the internet and it is also hugely useful for many things. But also I know that doing more than a certain amount easily becomes bad and even counter-productive for me. So it’s ultimately about paying attention to the quality of online time (so I can get more done in less time) and balancing it much more with irl activity, especially social stuff.

Do more of what travelling is all about but without actually travelling (much). So like micro-adventures, to seek out nice things locally and doing more UK-based trips. Unfortunately I tend to both get easily bored with my local area, whilst it also seems like too much effort to travel an hour or two away to go somewhere new. I really like newness. Sometimes it even pains me to have to visit somewhere more than once (which I’m aware may be more than a little odd as an autistic?). But equally, getting to newness requires effort.

Seeking out nice environments extends to inside spaces as well. In Dubai we stayed in such an aesthetically pleasing hotel that was so modern and minimalist and I loved the decor and materials and the space and the light and the colours and the reflections and it all just made me feel so very very right which was fab. It reminded me how very important these things can be, especially perhaps when you are so sensitive to how the environment is set-up, even architecturally-speaking. It’s a bit tricky right now, but in the future I want to make sure my living space is to my taste, calming and uncluttered and light-filled and unfussy.

Desensitisation is a thing. And for me, especially, in relation to people: The more peopleing I do, the less anxious I am about it. It doesn’t necessarily make me ‘better’ at peopleing (however you might define that, or reject such a measure entirely hehe). I continue to navigate things autistically and that’s fine. I’m simply less worried about doing it. Things feel less raw and harsh because I’ve been getting so much exposure. (Note, this doesn’t affect the social exhaustion aspect though, except possibly besides less energy wasted through anxious anticipation or replaying). In general, the desensitisation, decrease in anxiety and increase in confidence was quite stark between the beginning and the end of the trip. I’m often surprised by how fast I habituate, how fast I forget, how fast things become the new normal.

Capacity – I also surprised myself by how much I did, by how little I opted out of stuff. I suspect I’m probably capable of doing more than I feel or imagine I’m able to. Even after once instance of 3 days with little more than 3 hours sleep I was still somehow functional and keen to go about visiting skyscrapers in downtown Dubai rather than sleeping in my super comfy hotel bed! I’m capable of doing a lot, even if I feel sort of on auto-pilot and half zoned out after a while. But then again, I want to remember that just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean that you should, that it’s worth the stresses involved. There’s nothing heroic about pushing yourself to do more and more and more (however our society can make us feel about this). Still, I have to say I surprised myself by how much energy I seemed to have. If I’d done even one day at home of the amount of activity I did in Central Asia, I would have taken the next day (or two) to recover. Whereas away travelling I repeated this day about 20 times in a row without any recovery days and was relatively fine. Perhaps this is simply because I didn’t really have a choice? Or I did, but knew I’d feel super bad and guilty for missing out on stuff.  Sometimes I so wonder whether there might be something about my home environment or lifestyle that is sapping the energy away from me? Even that low-activity levels can become self-reinforcing, in that they accustom you to a certain level of activity and anything more comes to feel like too much. It does make me question a bit how much is physical reality: I can’t do this (and I certainly don’t want to downplay that this is unequivocally very much the case for many autistic people), versus psychological and perhaps more the product of context or habitation levels: I feel I can’t, I don’t want to (which to be fair is still entirely justifiable!)

Transitioning between ‘in’ and ‘out’ states – between spending time exclusively in your head vs being in the external world of people – is one of the hardest things. The ‘out’ to ‘in’ transition is usually okay and feels very relieving (as long as there is sufficient time to relax and to be properly ‘in’ for a good while). The other way round is tricker. But I’ve come to learn that it’s the transition itself that is often the most jarring thing, more than the actual being ‘out’ itself. Unfortunately, though, the NT world isn’t really geared up for leisurely transitions most of the time. This also ties into a big reason why I think my anxiety is actually lower when I am travelling (and thus ‘out’ a lot). Because in the ‘out’ state you are already out in the world, the transition has already been made, and it’s usually the case that things are less scary when you are actually doing them as opposed to when you anticipated them. It’s the ‘in’ state combined with the knowledge of an upcoming transition to ‘out’ which breeds the most anxiety for me. This is important to remember because then I can remind myself that after doing the transition it’s usually not so bad.

A relationship between too much ‘in’, possible over-reliance on routine and increased anxiety? This is related to the desensitisation thing again: the more you are ‘out’ and doing new or challenging things, the easier it becomes to face such things. My anxiety about just about everything felt at an all-time low at the end of the trip. Then, on the way home, I found an interesting BBC documentary about anxiety (trailer hereon the in-flight entertainment system. It mentioned ‘safety-seeking behaviours’ and how experts think these can serve to reinforce and perpetuate anxiety, in that an over-reliance on routines and rituals is a form of ‘giving into’ the anxiety, and to your brain telling you that there is real danger out there which you need protecting from. It seemed to argue at one point that the fears of anxious people are essentially irrational. I can see the sense in this and that letting go of control and just doing stuff in the face of fear might help. But the other side of the argument looms large too (that the sense of control we might crave is necessary and adaptive in many circumstances), and especially I’d imagine when it comes to autism (e.g. routine is essential for getting things done and remaining calm for many of us). Anyway, whilst watching the documentary and bathing in my end of trip high, I was feeling stronger than my anxiety and like I could happily go and do anything I wanted to. If only these things lasted! Being back home has put an end to most of that feeling. But equally, I’m not sure still being away travelling would keep me feeling that way either. I’m pretty sure it’s something about being on the verge of ending a trip and coming home that creates that feeling of calm and confidence, and relief essentially.

As you can see from the above, there are potential and real conflicts everywhere, as ever. So if I can end with just one word-thought, it is this:

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An illustration which was hanging on the wall of the hotel I stayed at in Dubai – a handy reminder!

I don’t know if it’s part of a tendency towards black-and-white thinking or perhaps monotropism, but balance is something I find hard to achieve. My mind thinks in either/or a lot. Either I will travel everywhere in the world and never stop. Or I will give up on the idea entirely and never leave the country again.

I still haven’t come to a clear conclusion regarding how much I like travel and whether or not I want to do a lot more of it in future. But what about something in-between!? Most things involve both bad and good. They involve conflicts between what we want and what is possible or good for us, and between different sorts of wants and needs. In attempting to resolve these, to work towards the best of both worlds, balance probably holds a large part of the answer.

I know that I want and benefit from the excitements of travel, but equally I don’t think I could sustain the lifestyle for too long (especially for solo trips, the prospect of which still terrify me, which is a whole other issue). My life at home involves too little new stimulation. The travelling life is an over-abundance of stimulation. In my day-to-day life, I don’t see or do enough novel things that make me feel that sense of wonder or satisfaction.  I get that life can’t be a series of constant excitements – and I couldn’t handle that anyway – but I need more balance for sure. In an ideal world, I might teleport to another part of the world, spend a couple of days exploring, then teleport back for a few days of recovery at home, before rinsing and repeating. In reality, the solution probably lies somewhere in learning to pace myself better when I do go travelling, and – hardest of all – trying to bring some of the elements of travel into how I live my life at home.

The sad thing is that anything new eventually becomes not new (and rather faster than is expected, for me at least). What was once new becomes the new normal and the craving for something different begins again. This is the very nature of itchy feet… which I must admit I do have, even though I’m unsure about being able to handle/follow through with this itchiness! It’s a strange place to live sometimes. It can feel like there are two parts to myself which are inherently conflicting – the need/want to stay home vs the need/want to not stay home, and to actually go very far away from home.

Nevertheless, I have just revisited my old bucket list. It is unrealistically long, yet also underspecified as well as badly organised. So I’m updating it with fewer destinations and prioritising better with places I am actually serious about going (see ‘The Travel List’ section of my blog here in a bit if you’re curious!) Also, my sister has just jetted off to Asia for a few months. Next year she’s heading to South America and I’m contemplating joining her for some of it! There may well be more autventures yet to come… 😉

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On a flight departing from the UK at sunset. Yay for window seats!

One thought on “Autventures in Central Asia: Reflections on Autistic Travel and Mental Health

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