Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

It’s been over 9 months since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.

The first 1–2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people I had left behind to have this experience—especially my old private practice jobs and the patients I had there.

Once I settled in, however, the following seven months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore. I am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can. I am developing some excellent friendships too.

About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back and curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.

Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot into every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted. My elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that my lifestyle was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, age, or environment.

Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means Port Vila operates much more leisurely than Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.

The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.

The moment I arrived back in Melbourne, however, I felt stressed again and tired shortly after that. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but many people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as possible because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.

People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers I did smile at or said hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like, “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”

Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. For example, people from Melbourne often expect Asia, South America, or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.

My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see many of my friends and family again, and I hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.

I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

22 thoughts on “Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

  1. Our environments can be extremely detrimental to our health, our psyche, and our well-being. If we are in a place where we’re not comfortable or we are on edge or there’s something amiss in the atmosphere, then that can cause everything to be off. Which essentially bothers us internally. Seems to be a struggle when we look for a place to call home. This is a really well articulated post and the pictures are gorgeous as well.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. 1st Damon, let me say Congratulations on your achievements and also on being able to be aware of the factors you described.
        It is so true what you have explained in your blog. As always, thanks for sharing knowledge and thoughts..⭐️😃⭐️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting experience, and so much to reflect on! I seem to recall you indicating that you are high in conscientiousness, yet it almost sounds like the demands of conscientiousness were wearing you down in Melbourne.

    People look at me strangely too, but I’ve come to accept they’re merely transfixed by how my startling good looks combine with my aura of ageless wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it’s interesting. My conscientiousness score was in the 74th percentile the last time I did the IPIP-NEO in 2018. but it has been as low as the 47th percentile back in 2014. I’m not sure if it was the demands of conscientiousness necessarily, but it may have been. I’ll have to reflect on it more. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Strange how returning to what was is never the same. Many years ago now I returned to Melbourne my distant memory of my life no longer existed. From this experience I learned going back does not work. Have to keep moving forward to something new.

    9 months it has been so long. You seem to fit into your new niche very well. Let’s see where life takes you. Keep going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Half a world away I feel for you, and admire your life choices. In city life it seems to me our lifestyle choices are inflicted by the herd and our ability to make independent decisions upon such fundamental things as pace and association is reduced. If there is to be a future for mankind, it lies in Port Vila, not in Melbourne.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You dared to embrace the new island style; to do things like the locals do it. You chose to become one of them.
    In your beloved Melbourne, you didn’t need to choose any of that.
    You did things like it’s ‘normal’ to do things there. And you even took stress to be part of what life in Melbourne was all about. Even if you felt it in your gut that it shouldn’t be so, you could not bring the change you needed into your busy-ness in Melbourne.
    And now that you’ve experienced “island life mentality” and embraced it, you have changed your health. I love hearing this. Growth! Thanks for sharing this. Selma( selmawrites.com /previously intricate beginnings)
    Hey Dr. won’t you join my newsletter? I’d be delighted to update you and any of your followers on things going on in my life. Unethical, I know. Forgive me. But I am trying to build an audience. I have lots to say but hardly anyone to say it to… how did you do it, kind Dr.? I really want to know. Thanks for listening. I Wish You Miracles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your site is marked as private when I tried to look at it. Changing that would definitely increase how many people get to see what you write. Then make sure that you put a lot of tags into the post and share it on various social media websites (if you have them), such as facebook, twitter, linkedin. All of these platforms are making it harder to reach an audience unless you pay for it. On wordpress following, liking and commenting on other articles you like is a great way to build up a bigger following over time. Lastly, putting a call to action at the bottom of your articles can increase how many people follow you or share your articles. Good luck!


      1. Hello Dr. Damon. I always knew you were a ‘real person.’ Yeah, we never can tell these days. Intricaciesandfollies … I will never understand that! That was what got me here. I’ve since relocated and now blog under my real name at selmawrites.com That was a paid, guided-move into wordpress . org, I tell you. So if one MOVES why is it that I’m still at wordpress .com, is what I wanna know. But I’m tired asking. Marking it private is fine, I guess. But no one is home, really! Please come see me at selmawrites.com kind Dr. That one is NOT private. Your response has made my day. Thank you most sincerely, Selma Martin (in a new location.)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I 100% agree with where you are coming from as far as how our environment affects our health. I know my health was greatly affected by where I taught, and not the fact I taught. Every town or city is different, too. In New York City, many people walk with a purpose to get somewhere and get it done, look at you like a crazy person if you say “hi,” or walk while looking at their phones. Where I’m from in the US, the tradition of talking to everyone is beginning to fade away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a bit sad to hear that it is fading away. I think it may slowly fade away everywhere over time as we become more insular and feel busier and less time pressured. I hope it doesn’t, but the book ‘Bowling Alone’ by Robert Putnam suggested that social capital, or how connected we are in our community, has been on a steady decline since it’s peak in 1964. Smart phones have only increased this decline since 2012.


  7. I feel the same going from my home in the country to the city where I spent most of my life. The tension and traffic are awful there. I think a few people do well living in cities, but for most it’s not healthy .

    Liked by 1 person

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