How Travel Helps Mental Health
You’ve packed your bags and are ready to hit the road — or maybe you’re planning a trip in advance of summer break. Either way, it’s likely that when you think about traveling, you also consider its effect on your physical and emotional well-being.
But what if we told you it could actually help improve those very things? In fact, there is evidence to suggest that traveling has tangible benefits for both our bodies and minds.
A study published last year found that people who took an extended trip reported less anxiety than those who didn’t. Another study published earlier this year indicated that tourists were more optimistic after their trips than before they went on them. And another study from 2012 showed that vacationers experienced lower levels of depression months later than non-vacationers did.
“I believe that vacations provide opportunities to refresh, renew, and rejuvenate,” says Dr. Lauren Blyer, co-founder and CEO of Travel Savvy Coaching & Consulting. “The whole point of going somewhere new is to take yourself out of your comfort zone.”
So, why do some people get stressed while others don’t? It may come down to how we view travel. For some people, seeing the world through fresh eyes makes them feel like explorers which can trigger feelings of excitement and adventure. But other people might not see themselves as adventurous travelers because they perceive their trips as being too long, expensive, or otherwise uncomfortable. That could result in feelings of dread or even stress.
However, a recent survey by TripAdvisor revealed that most Americans would rather go on a cruise than take a solo vacation. Those respondents felt cruise vacations were cheaper, easier to arrange, and offered better experiences than any other type of vacation. So if cruises aren’t really adventures, then what exactly does make the difference between someone feeling relaxed during a cruise versus stressed during a hike?
“If I’m doing something that’s active, and I’m moving forward with it, I won’t feel anxious,” says Dr. David Gullotta, licensed psychologist and director of clinical services at The Center for Mindfulness Therapy in New York City, noting that movement is key to reducing stress. When we move, he explains, our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates pleasure and reward pathways in our brains and triggers positive emotions.
Even though movement feels good, sometimes we need to slow down in order to truly appreciate a place. That’s where mindfulness comes in. While mindfulness meditation seems to be gaining popularity among people looking for ways to calm down, it isn’t just sitting quietly with closed eyes that will relax us.
Rather, mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening around us, accepting thoughts without judgment, and focusing on the present moment. You can try practicing mindful eating, taking breaks throughout the day, or walking mindfully through nature. In essence, mindfulness teaches us to pause and observe without judging whether we should keep moving forward.
That’s why it’s important to remember that no one needs to travel alone. “We all need connection,” says Boyer. She recommends connecting with loved ones back home, friends via social media, and colleagues via email. If you do find yourself dealing with loneliness, she suggests reaching out to local experts such as psychologists and psychiatrists who work with experts. They’ll be able to connect you with resources available locally.
When done right, travel can be a life-altering experience. However, it doesn’t have to make us feel worse. Here are Ten reasons why-
1. Travel gives us perspective
It forces you to look at everything differently,” says Blyer. She points to a famous quote by Albert Camus, author of the novel “The Stranger,” which reads, “He only sees the part of the wood that is already his own door.” By traveling abroad, we learn to see ourselves through different lenses. We become aware of our privilege and biases, allowing us to acknowledge these issues and be more empathetic toward others.
2. Travel can boost self-esteem
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to explore your limits. According to research from the University of Georgia, when you travel, you tend to feel more competent and confident in your abilities. Scientists say this happens because you want to reach goals outside your normal realm, so you push yourself harder than usual. This leads to higher self-confidence and satisfaction with your accomplishments.
3. Travel challenges stereotypes
Travel often requires us to confront stereotypes and prejudices firsthand. Doing so allows us to challenge negative beliefs and open up to new perspectives. “One of the best things about travel is that it forces you to engage with people who you wouldn’t normally encounter on a daily basis,” says Blyer.
4. Travel opens doors
Research shows that when people return from international trips, they’re more likely to volunteer overseas. One possible reason why is that returning volunteers gain insight into how other cultures operate, which can increase empathy and compassion for other people.
Another theory proposes that participants’ time spent away from home can also lead to greater awareness about global environmental problems. As many of us know, caring about climate change isn’t always easy. Learning about other countries’ environmental policies can give you hope and motivate you to advocate for solutions closer to home.
5. Travel Gives Us Freedom
Forget the cliché Everyone wants a little bit of freedom, especially when we travel. But having autonomy over our itinerary can also mean making decisions based on what we want instead of relying on a tour guide or schedule. “Being free to choose what you eat each night, where you sleep, and spending money as you wish can put you in control of your environment,” says Blyer.
6. Travel can spark personal growth
According to a 2018 report by American Express Global Destination Index, nearly half of Americans plan to take a vacation this year. Of those, almost two-thirds (64 percent) plan to travel domestically. Why? Because domestic travel offers an opportunity to grow personally and emotionally. “Vacations allow for reflection, introspection, and renewal,” says Blyer.
7. Travel can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
A few years ago, researchers discovered that people diagnosed with PTSD had lower cortisol levels before and after their flights compared to people who weren’t experiencing trauma. Since then, several studies have shown similar results. Experts say this indicates that travel itself can decrease PTSD symptoms.
This phenomenon is known as a jet lag reversal. The idea behind it is that jet lag disrupts circadian rhythms, which regulate sleeping patterns and hormone production. Researchers theorize that flying across time zones can reverse this effect.
8. Travel can relieve pain
“People often tell me that they take medication for headaches, backaches, allergies, and asthma, but end up canceling plans due to illness,” says Blyer. “They miss out on precious moments with family and friends because they’re concerned about getting sick.”
While it’s true that some illnesses are contagious, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t travel. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can still visit certain parts of the globe safely. To determine whether a specific area is safe, check CDC’s website. If you’re worried about contracting COVID-19, however, the agency recommends avoiding all forms of air travel, including domestic flights.
9. Travel decreases stress hormones
Although it’s difficult to prove definitively, scientists have established that exposure to natural environments causes the body to produce less stress hormones. Research has suggested that this occurs because natural settings activate receptors in our brain associated with relaxation, leading to changes in blood pressure and heart rate.
To reap these same effects, experts recommend visiting parks, beaches, trails, and other green spaces.
10. Travel promotes community engagement
Studies show that people who travel together are more likely to develop friendships and community involvement once they return. “Going on a group trip increases chances of meeting someone special,” says Blyer.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that every traveler is unique. Some people prefer to travel alone, while others thrive off shared experiences and support. There’s no right or wrong way to travel. What matters is finding a method that works best for you.