Digital nomadism is often presented as a dream lifestyle, a guaranteed ticket to freedom and adventure. And while working remotely and travelling can certainly deliver these benefits, this lifestyle also entails some major downsides, which are – unfortunately – absent from the glossy, glorifying content you see on travel blogs and on social media.
It’s important to discuss how some aspects of the digital nomad lifestyle can take a toll on your mental health. Before going abroad to work online, I pre-empted that moving around a lot and trying to be productive would be incredibly stressful – so I more or less based myself in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where it would be easy to get into a healthy routine. However, even though my travelling was limited, I still encountered some of the same issues that many digital nomads face. Being an expat can, likewise, be an overwhelming, stress-inducing experience. It’s a big move that involves a lot of changes all happening at once.
Of course, people’s experiences of the digital nomad lifestyle will vary, depending on all sorts of factors, such as personality type, personal issues, the life they’ve left back home, their routine (or lack thereof), general lifestyle, and way of travelling. Nonetheless, in speaking to various digital nomads and ‘digital expats’, I noticed some common challenges that people were facing. If you can honestly accept your vulnerabilities and prepare for these potential difficulties, then the digital nomad lifestyle could be sustainable.
But don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t work out or go as planned. A certain degree of persistence and experimentation with this lifestyle can resolve some of these issues. Other problems, on the other hand, may not disappear – and they could end up outweighing the benefits. Your mental health should always be a top priority because, without it, anywhere becomes a miserable place.
If you’re working in ‘paradise’ with a dark cloud hovering over you, then what may look like a dream to your peers is, from your point of view, actually quite a dreary experience. This doesn’t make you ungrateful. It just means you’re human and you’ve tested your sanity and stability in some way. Sunshine, rice paddies, and cheap tasty food cannot guarantee you happiness.
This is probably the most prevalent and persistent issue that digital nomads face while working on the road. Really, though, it applies to remote working in general. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a partner or friend who wants to follow this kind of lifestyle with you, you’ll most likely be travelling and working alone.
Of course, when you travel solo, it can be easy to meet and befriend people along the way. But when you’re working online, you may be working long hours in solitude. Moreover, If you’re constantly moving to a new place every few months, then it can be difficult to form deep relationships with the people that you meet. There will no doubt be other digital nomads who you connect with instantly, but if either one of you has plans to move on after a month, then the possibility of becoming close friends kind of goes out the window.
You could stay somewhere more long-term, which is what a lot of digital nomads do; but if you’re interested in visiting more places, then you should be prepared to have transient relationships. Many digital nomads find that a lack of deep relationships can make them feel intensely lonely and disconnected.
It can also feel isolating to be immersed in a completely different culture and be unable to connect to locals due to the language barrier. Being immersed in a new culture is, on the one hand, a thrilling experience – but it can be alienating as well. As social animals, we deeply crave a sense of belonging. When we don’t feel part of a close-knit group, we suffer.
As I have highlighted in a previous article on digital nomadism, loneliness increases your risk of developing a mental health issue like depression. And the effect of constant isolation on your mental health obviously becomes greater when you are already prone to, currently suffering from, or have previously struggled with depression.
Some ways of reducing or avoiding feelings of loneliness include attending regular meetups, working in co-working spaces, and visiting home every once in a while (if that’s feasible).
Lack of a Support Network
If you struggle to form deep connections while travelling and working, then you may end up without a support network. Back home, you can (hopefully) rely on friends and family to be there in times of need and distress. Whether you’re feeling burdened by an issue in your relationship or at work, you know who you can reach out to.
Now, it’s true that the wonders of technology mean that you can call home using Skype. But this kind of communication just isn’t as reliable or fulfilling in the same way that real, face-to-face interaction is. Dealing with different time zones and poor internet connections mean that you can’t necessarily have a long and meaningful conversation when you need it.
When you’re struggling with a personal issue, a crisis, or your mental health, your support network is paramount to adding some catharsis and stability into your turbulent day. Without an outlet for your struggles, they can fester. Opening up to someone you’ve only known for a week can be helpful but it can also be a bit awkward or inappropriate.
However, a bit of planning can go a long way. Make regular phone calls with friends and family a part of your schedule. Utilise online therapy if you need it. Also, if you’re staying in a place for a while, seeing a licensed therapist or counsellor in person can make a big difference to your well-being.
The idea of freelancing or being self-employed sounds pretty great on paper. But there are many downsides to both. When you’re freelancing, you don’t have a stable, reliable source of income.
Not having enough work can be a source of anxiety; as can having enough work, since there is always the possibility that a client – who provides you with a decent source of income – will stop responding to you, or decide they no longer want to work with you, or they consistently fail to pay you on time. The stress of freelancing can be extremely tiring.
Likewise, being self-employed can leave you feeling constantly exhausted. When starting an online business, you may find yourself working long hours every day – far more than you worked in your office job back home – with very little short-term financial return.
This is why it helps to build a solid client base before you book your one-way ticket to Thailand or to make sure you have enough money saved up, so you don’t burn through it all within a few months. Many digital nomads fail to be realistic in this respect and so have to go home much earlier than they would like to.
Fatigue can also set in if you move around too quickly as a digital nomad. Juggling work responsibilities and changing location weeks at a time may leave you feeling exhausted and burnt out. Work-life balance is not a given when you pursue digital nomadism.
It may be tempting to saturate your life with travel, but if this comes at the expense of a stable, healthy routine, then both your work and your mental health could suffer. Being tired all the time often exacerbates low mood, irritability, and anxiety. The importance of rest in protecting mental health can’t be emphasised enough.
Working on a Thai island or next to a paddy field in Bali doesn’t mean you can’t be stressed. While these types of environments are naturally relaxing, the digital nomad lifestyle is often accompanied by unique stresses.
These stressors include those associated with freelancing, remote work, and entrepreneurialism, which have already been touched on (e.g. insecurity and loneliness). But they also involve the logistics that come with travelling and working online, such as visa situations, language barriers, illness, transport troubles, accommodation nightmares, theft, loss of possessions, a broken laptop, an unstable internet connection (or Wi-Fi cutting out completely), so forth and so on.
Moreover, trying to stay in one location long-term can be stressful if you have to do ‘visa runs’. These can be time-consuming, expensive, and uncertain. There are cases of digital nomads being denied a new tourist visa because they have too many in their passport. So then you have to deal with the fact that you might need to leave a country, even though you feel settled there and want to stay.
Visa constraints and worries aren’t ideal if you’re trying to feel at home in a new country and focus on your work. In fact (I know this, speaking from personal experience), visas can be more than a headache and turn into a major source of anxiety. Although, I am an over-worrier by nature, which could help explain that.
When you’re working remotely while travelling, this can sometimes lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Working long hours, in a disjointed way, or during awkward times may lead to poor sleeping habits. This is sometimes a reality that you have to face when you have clients in different time zones to the one you’re in.
If you’re a digital nomad and without a real base, then it can be hard to find your bearings and get into a positive routine. Back home, you may have made working out, playing sports, or yoga a part of your life. But in a foreign country, where you are staying only short-term, you may fail to prioritise staying fit and healthy. After all, you have so many other things to take into account.
In addition – depending on where you are and where you stay, of course – you might end up eating out more than cooking. Being a frugal digital nomad also mean you’ll tend to stick to street food and cheap eating options. Besides, cooking for yourself may seem silly when you’re in a new country with so many new and interesting foods and dishes to sample. Preparing meals for yourslef is also time-consuming. However, sticking only to street food, having poor eating habits, or not paying much attention to your diet could impact your physical health, leading to issues such as low energy and fatigue.
Restful sleep, physical activity, and healthy diet are essential in protecting well-being. Indeed, physical health and mental health are inextricably linked. The digital nomad lifestyle can certainly be enjoyable, productive, and sustainable if a healthy lifestyle is consistently followed.
Many digital nomads struggle with homesickness, despite never wanting to go back home on a permanent basis. As a digital nomad, you may miss friends and family and the way you can completely be yourself around them. You may miss the inside jokes you have with your closest friends or the valuable family time you have during the holidays. Homesickness can really get you down during Christmas or on your birthday.
You may also miss certain food, home comforts, being able to speak in your native tongue, culture-specific humour, and all the other things that really only apply to your life back home. Home gives you a sense of stability, which you may only realise you’ve taken for granted when you spend enough time away from home. The lack of groundedness and familiarity you experience as a digital nomad may grow wearisome over time, and impact your well-being. Extreme homesickness can be a serious problem for many digital nomads.
None of these disadvantages mean that you shouldn’t at least give the digital nomad lifestyle a shot. But it is important to be realistic when deciding to work remotely in different countries. Otherwise, you may be disappointed to find that you’ve been sold a dream, which isn’t as rosy as it first appeared.
If you ever feel that your mental health is suffering while being away from home, ensure that you adopt some beneficial coping strategies. There is always a wise approach to mental health struggles, including going home when you need to.