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Van Life Mental Health: 5 Tips for Self Care

What Can Cause Anxiety on the Road?

After months or years of dreaming and preparing, you’ve finally made it – just you and your van (and maybe your dog?) out there on the highway. No one to bother you, no office drama to deal with, no schedule to keep and no events to attend. Complete freedom. Complete solitude…so much solitude.

The truth is that van life – especially solo van life – can be taxing on your mental health. Constantly uprooting yourself, and living in a small space with limited amenities can make even simple daily tasks more difficult. Couple this with a lot of alone time, and you could end up with a surefire recipe for anxiety, depression and loneliness. So what can you do to take care of your van life mental health?

5 Tips for Managing Travel Anxiety

1. Remember that a one week road trip is not the same as living #vanlife full time.

on cellphone in campervan

There’s an expectation going into an adventure like this that every day will be spectacular. When we sit at work, miserable in our office job, it’s easy to imagine that every moment on the road will be filled with natural beauty and new experiences. That the road alone will provide the dopamine hits we’ve craved.

Those feelings might be true for a week-long vacation, but when this is your full time life, it comes with all of life’s regular hang-ups and grievances. Of course, many days will be amazing. But some days you’ll wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Some days you’ll be stressed about money. Some days you’ll be desperately searching for a good camping spot

The important thing is to remember that it’s normal to have bad days, so don’t beat yourself up or feel ungrateful when you have one. Don’t feel pressured to make every day a miracle! Sometimes you just need to spend the day in your PJs watching Parks and Rec reruns – even if the Grand Canyon is right outside your window! That’s okay. Let the bad days happen, and let yourself move on from them.

2. Make physical exercise a priority.

woman hiking in forest

Physical exercise is incredibly important for mental health, but it’s often hard to get in a decent workout when you’re living in a tiny space. Being able to adapt your workout and set realistic expectations is key to maintaining your van life mental health.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to do the workouts you might be used to when you’re on the road (have you ever tried to set up a barbell and squat rack inside a Sprinter van? Yeah, it’s not gonna fly.)

Some days you might be in a forest where there are miles of gorgeous hiking trails, but some days you might be stuck somewhere where it isn’t even possible to get out for a walk (that’s when it’s really useful to have one of these gym memberships for van life).

So what can you do? Get creative! Basic exercises like push-ups and core work can be done pretty much anywhere, even in the tiniest of spaces. Can you mount a pull-up bar in a doorway or on the ceiling? How about yoga on the roof? Have fun with it! Try something you’ve never tried before – for example, if you’re spending a lot of time in the woods, maybe you could get some aerial silks that will hang from a tree branch!

Whatever you do as far as your physical exercise goes, remember to take it easy on yourself and set realistic goals. Van life presents unique challenges, so start small and take pride in slowly building a routine that works for you.

3. Do at least one productive thing every day.

cleaning-campervan

If you’re like me, you need to feel productive to feel sane. As much as I love hiking, exploring new places, and sitting around watching Parks and Rec in my PJs (see tip one), I also love accomplishing tasks, cleaning, fixing stuff and improving my space. And the great thing about van life is there is always something to clean, fix or improve.

In fact, sometimes there’s so much to clean, fix or improve that it can be a bit overwhelming. So make a list, and try to accomplish just one thing on it every day. Some days you’ll be traveling long distances and won’t have time to do much – that’s fine, pick something small and check it off.

4. If you’re not already, consider finding remote work.

working on laptop in van

Having some kind of work to anchor me does wonders for my mental health. Now, hear me out: I understand that one of the main reasons people get into van life is because of burnout at work or feeling stuck in a miserable job. Trust me, I understand. I was there. 

But the stress of no income can quickly become worse than the stress of a bad job. When I left my corporate job without another lined up, I instantly felt the pain of spending money without earning any. It prompted me to start reaching out to old contacts, update my Linkedin profile, and start looking for remote jobs on Upwork. 

When I looked for work this time, I let myself explore new types of jobs and be more picky than desperate. My goal was to have some kind of income to help balance out my expenses, rather than a full-time job with benefits and only two weeks PTO. I learned a ton about myself and got to explore my options without the constant pressure or need to make money right away, which was an amazing gift.

Consider creating a profile on a job site or joining freelance Facebook groups so you can browse remote job opportunities! 

5. Invite a travel buddy along for part of the trip.

female friends in a van

I’m not suggesting you pick up a random stranger in a rest stop bathroom! Obviously, meeting new people at vanlife gatherings is a huge part of the fun of van life, but safety is paramount (especially for solo female travelers.)

There are sites and apps (I like Sekr) that can connect you with like-minded people who are looking for adventure. One of my favorite aspects of van life is meeting up with fellow nomads and sharing a camp spot together, while still having our own vans to return to at the end of the day. This way, I get the enjoyment of good company but still my alone downtime and privacy. It’s also an excellent layer of safety and peace of mind. 

You could also consider inviting a friend or family member along on your van adventures for a week or so. I have a few solo female traveler friends who have hosted their moms in their tiny homes! Or, maybe invite that friend who’s been jellin’ on your cool adventures already! Road-tripping with your BFF is going to be much cheaper than, say, going to Cabo for a week– and the memories you’ll make together will be unforgettable.

Remember that Van Life Won’t Solve Mental Health Issues

Giving yourself space to decompress and work through your own mental health can be very helpful. But the rigors of van life can also exacerbate existing issues, and can even shine a light on problems you didn’t know were there.

There’s a saying that goes “Wherever you go, there you are.” If you’re looking at van life as a way of escaping your existing anxiety or depression, you should know that no matter how far you drive, those problems will follow you. Van life is not a solution for existing mental health issues, and if you are already struggling with anxiety, depression or other pressures, consider talking through them with a mental health professional before you leave.

A popular choice for road travelers is a mental support service called BetterHelp, where you can remotely connect with a therapist when needed.

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Taking care of your mental health is an important and often overlooked part of the van life experience. Ultimately, your mind is as important as your van’s engine or tires – if it’s in bad shape, nothing else on the trip is going to go well. Taking a few simple steps to keep your mental health in good shape can mean the difference between a difficult, challenging slog and a long and satisfying adventure.

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