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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Waters

How China Saved my Mind

I know that traveling to improve your mental health sounds like just running away from your problems, but sometimes you have to retreat to win a war, and that's what improving your mental health can turn into, a war against yourself.

For some people poor mental health is something that creeps up on them. A person who seems totally fine can one day have something that makes them snap and then the battle with mental health begins. Then when you look back on it a year or two later you think, 'was I actually okay?' I always thought I was okay, I always thought my life was just how I wanted it to be but then when certain artificial things started fall apart in my life, I began to fall apart, realising I was not who I wanted to be. I was always angry, I struggled to be active, I was getting in fights and was really not a good person to around. I was clearly suppressing some serious issues, or maybe just ignoring that these issues were coming out and impacting my life for a while, it just took one more thing to bring it all to the surface. I was told I had anxiety and depression, the reason I share this with you is because I never went to suppress my emotions ever again because I know what that can lead to. I have and still am going through my battle with mental health, some days I feel awful about myself, somedays I decide to go over everything I have ever done wrong, and every time I go to do anything I think I am not good enough, but I am so much better then I was.

I can pinpoint one trip that started me on the journey towards being myself again, and that is my 2 month stay in China teaching people English. This wonderful trip combined two of my favourite things, traveling and teaching. For those of you who don't know me I have wanted to be a teacher since I was about 12 years old and I joined this program to get a TEFL qualification. Teaching is a great way to travel the world and I can't wait to continue traveling and teaching at the same time once Covid 19 is over, but back to the story in hand. I am going to be going through how this trip, and travel in general, has helped me improve my mental health and hopefully it will give some people some ideas on how to improve it themselves.

Traveling helps you escape and takes you out of the 'real world.' It can help you disengage from the problems that you are having at home and get out of any environments that are detrimental to your mental health. Whether this is working 9-5, whether this is problems at university like for me, or problems at home, traveling allows you to get moments away from those environments. For me China is a destination that really allows you to escape. They have something called an internet firewall that stops you from seeing anything from websites, deemed by the Chinese state as illegal. This really lets you leave your phone off and get into your new life, without having any contact with your problems, unless you really want to go looking for them.

The other plus of China as a destination of escape, is just how different it is to my home country, the UK. China can almost seem like another world to the UK, the food is different, the language is unrecognisable, the customs are separated from any Western ideals. Our way of living is inherently different to the Chinese. Chenghai, the city that we were in, was especially different. Unlike Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou it had clearly very little contact with the West. Whenever we walked around town it was like we were celebrities, people would take photos of us, watch what ever we were doing and would always come and talk to us. My favourite example of this, the memory that really made me see how little these people had seen people like us, is when we were playing frisbee in the park. We ended up being surrounded by at least 100 kids watching us play and eventually joining in. It wasn't like we were the Harlem Globe Trotters of frisbee and doing loads of tricks, we were awful to be honest, but that really shows just how different we were to them and in turn how different they were to us. Go read my blog Two Months in a Mob Town for more on just how different this time was. The only really Western thing we saw often for about two months was a McDonalds, you can't escape the Golden Arches, no matter how hard you try. For those of you who have read my blogs I love this. I look for differences in culture that I can take home and add to my personal life to make it better. But I loved this for something else. It was so unlike home that it just let me dive straight in and never reminded me of stuff that I had been thinking about back at home. This was amazing at helping me with my mental health, it allowed me to just reset my mind and find who I was in this culture.

Travelling also allows you to meet like minded people who also love to travel. I found some of my best friends on this trip as well as meeting my current girlfriend who now lives with me, I have a lot to thank this trip for. The program I was taking part in was called Gotoco China, 30 students all living together and teaching in a Foreign Language school. We lived in an abandoned toy factory, that had been converted into 'liveable' conditions. It was a dusty warehouse with little to no comforts apart from beds and three beaten up sofas. We came to call it 'The Compound,' and I loved it. It was so bad we could do whatever we wanted in there, ever played a full cricket game in your house? It was awesome, just living in a place where you can do whatever and not worry about breaking anything, there was nothing to break. It also had an amazing roof top looking over the whole city, that is where we would go, often on a Friday night, to watch the sunset and then rise again, moments I will never forget. But really it was the people I loved. What's a game of cricket without teammates or opponents? What's a night sitting on a rooftop from sunset to sunrise without someone to drink with? These people allowed me to show who I really was, with no memories of what I have done before, I got a fresh start with these people. They showed me I was not a bad person, they showed me I was fun, they showed me I was compassionate and most importantly they told me how much they liked as a person, this helped me like myself again. I can't thank you guys enough, you know who you are. Our experience of being different to everything around us, living in pretty adverse conditions, and working from 9am-10pm brought us all together, we had gone through something amazing and they are going to be friends for life. Travelling allows you to find people like this, people that you will only see you for you, no need to ask for a second chance, they have never met you before. They will help you fall back in love with yourself.

Finally, travel opens your eyes to the wider world. This is going to sound harsh but it really isn't meant to be. You need to realise the world is bigger than you. By this I mean you need to look outside yourself. A lot of my mental health problems were when I would get inside my own head and just start thinking how awful I am and how I thought everyone was against me. Travelling helps you realise how big the world is outside of you. The wonders I saw across China made me marvel at how amazing the world is and how much there is to see. It took me out of my own head, I stopped thinking about myself and started to see how much I missed when I was inside my own mind. When things get hard I like to take myself to the top of a TV tower in Yangshuo, I feel like I had never seen anything so beautiful. The sun was setting over the beautiful mountains synonymous with that area of China. I have rarely felt this peaceful. I felt like I was on top of the world. I felt like all my troubles had washed away in this beautiful scene. Whenever I remember this stunning scene I am able to take myself out of my mind and remember the amazing things I could miss if I let these feelings of anxiety and depression swallow me up again.

I feel like travelling has saved me from loosing my mind on more than one occasion. It is amazing for stress relief to escape and relax, away from your everyday 9-5 and see something different. But for me the two months in China helped me find who I wanted to be again. I was able to escape and hide behind a firewall, retreating till I was ready to come and face everything again, I was doing something I loved in finding new cultures and learning new things, I saw amazing things that still help me get out of my own mind, but most importantly when you travel you find amazing people. I found the most amazing people on that trip. People I think about everyday. These people showed me how to love myself again. These people are going to be in my life forever. Thank you China, you will always have a soft spot in my heart.

Thank you very much for reading my blog guys. I am so glad I could share my journey with you and I hope you will continue to look at some of our others blogs from mental health week. I know we are not able to travel right now, but if you are dealing with serious struggles I urge you to reach out to someone and tell them you are not okay. I know how hard it is to go to your friends and family about how much you are struggling but these are people that love you very much, you don't need to travel to find these things that I spoke about in the blog. Reconnecting with old friends is something else that really helped me feel all the things mentioned above, so please if you are struggling reach out to someone, it is okay not to be okay. If you think someone you know might be starting to suffer with their mental health and you see them starting to change please bring it up to them, it will be hard to do, but it will be worth it.




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