I just got back from a week-long vacation, and I’m feeling the glow. The post-vacation glow. The new-eyes-on-the-world, problems-back-in-perspective, heart-full-of-ease glow.
Do you know the glow I’m talking about? Not every trip brings it on. Sometimes you can come back from vacation feeling like you need a vacation to recover from vacation. Sometimes it feels like the hustle and stress of getting to the destination outweighs the relaxation. But, when you can get a long enough break from your daily routine, when your vacation busy-ness isn’t your routine business, and when exploration is balanced with relaxation, you can get the glow.
Why? What’s that glow all about? Since planning my trip I’ve been thinking about the mental health benefits of traveling. These benefits are “soft” and difficult to define so there isn’t a big body of research to back them up (see link at bottom for articles that do review what research literature there is). However, based on the research that has been completed and what I have learned from my clients who travel, this conclusion is safe to make: travel is good for your mental health!
One note before we get started: travel alone can’t fix depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Research shows us time and again that therapy and medication are the best treatments for mental health conditions. For some people, travel can exacerbate symptoms such as panic and dissociation. If you have a mental health condition and are planning long-term travel, you should have a mental health care plan in place long before you leave. Know yourself before planning any big travel, and if you are seeing a therapist, talk to them about what kind of travel will suit your needs best.
And now, on to a shortlist of the mental health benefits of travel!
A shift in perspective. There’s nothing like changing your context entirely to shake up the way you see the world. When we abandon our usual scenery, eat new foods, and meet new people with different ways of life than our own, we can see our own daily lives more clearly. This can mean that problems that looked insurmountable at home look like mole hills from vacation. Or that you realize your gratitude for some of the comforts of home. Or maybe your partner/child/second cousin Sally who was on your last nerve at home is actually great company on vacation. A new perspective can lead to less stress and more contentment in the moment, as well as better problem solving when you return home!
Self confidence. Most vacations are going to require you to problem solve at some point or another. No matter how detailed of a planner you are or how relaxed the destination, when we’re out of our context, unforeseen problems come up. This can cause some momentary stress, but can really enhance your problem-solving skills and belief in your own ability to handle challenges! You might also find you like yourself more on vacation. Last year I took a vacation all by myself for the first time in years. Despite my fears beforehand that I would be lonely, I actually found that I really enjoyed my own company. Confidence boosted!
Social engagement. The benefits here are multifaceted. Travel gets us to engage with the world and people in ways we don’t usually at home. We might find ourselves exchanging small talk on a plane or getting advice from fellow travelers at a resort on where to go for the best meal. This (sometimes involuntary) engagement is a strong antidote for the isolation of depression and the anxiety of social interaction. Another social benefit of travel is that when your return, you have a ready-made conversation topic. This can help the socially anxious feel prepared to have something interesting to say in the short-term and can fuel travel-related conversations for years to come.
Less stress, more mindfulness. Away from the day-to-day stressors of grocery shopping, feeding the dog, washing the dishes, answering round-the-clock work emails, and the constant visual reminder of that one house project you haven’t completed… you can breathe. You can breathe without planning what you need to do before the next breath. And if you can breathe, you can be present. I strongly advise vacations where you put up your out-of-office notification and avoid touching work during your vacation. If that’s not possible, set a designated and limited time each day when you will deal with work. With daily stress off your mind, there is space to just be where you are. To be mindful: being aware, on purpose, in the current moment, without judgement. You can be mindful anywhere and anytime, but we often tend towards it more naturally while on vacation.
The before and after. A study from Cornell shows that even just planning a trip can increase happiness. Exploring different hotel options, considering which town to visit, and perusing menus of local restaurants before your trip gives your mental health a boost before you ever even leave for vacation. The effect of this travel anticipation is stronger than the effect of anticipating a big-ticket purchase of a material object. And afterwards? Ah, the reminiscing! The photographs! The remembered flavors! Travel can lower your levels of stress even after your return from vacation. I personally find that looking at pictures from trips taken even years ago boosts my mood!
Are you ready to plan your next trip yet? Because you could be improving your mental health already if you are! What type of vacation gives you that glow? Is it adventuring to every corner of a new city? Challenging your body on hikes each day? Relaxing on the beach uninterrupted for days at a time? Whatever your personal travel style, if you immerse yourself in the anticipation, unplug from work and stress while away, engage with the world, people, and culture around you, make a point to be present, and balance the busy with the relaxation, your mental health will thank you!