A holiday can be more than a respite if we don't take the emotional kitchen sink, writes Juliette Sivertsen
Auckland health psychologist and self-compassion expert Dr Anna Friis says when she thinks about travel, she is often reminded of a quote by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn: "Wherever you go, you are there".
Holidays help refresh our minds. They can help open our eyes to new experiences or skills, and to grow as a person. But sometimes, especially when we feel particularly overwhelmed in life, a holiday can be just a temporary escape out of a lifestyle we want to run from.
When we say "I need a holiday", often we are wanting something deeper than a temporary pause on life. Sure, we can go to as many wellness retreats as we like, but unless it facilitates deeper or more permanent change, stress still exists on our return, exactly as we left it, waiting for us to indulge in it.
"If our thoughts are still entangled in something going on back home, or worried about something in the future," Friis says, "it doesn't matter if we are in a tropical paradise or in our kitchen, peeling potatoes."
Travel can be therapeutic but it requires a conscious effort to take the time to learn about ourselves, to be open to new experiences - and bring that openness back into our day-to-day routines.
What we really need for a healthy respite is some sort of inner journey. Travel may not be a cure for life's emotional ailments, but it can help facilitate the journey to healing. A break away from our routines can help create space in our minds to consider new ideas, and reflect on what aspects of our lives are serving us and what elements are a hindrance.
"Perhaps the opportunity of new horizons is we have fewer distractions and more space to practise being truly present with what unfolds," Friis says. "And maybe we get to take this practice opportunity back into our day-to-day lives."
And that's how to make travel therapeutic. Friis says when we travel to remove ourselves from our lives or to avoid or distract ourselves from an uncomfortable reality, it often makes our suffering worse in the long run.
"We come back to the same circumstances we were running from. What we resist tends to persist. We can't run forever."
The most memorable lasting travel experiences are when we are fully immersed in the moment, and our attention is captivated by the sensory experience at hand, says Friis.
"When we do this, we're enabling these positive experiences to be encoded in our brains as pleasant memories, thus filling our cup for when we get back to our daily lives."
But being present in travel takes a concerted effort, as our minds wander easily.
"Perhaps the real opportunity of travel is that we have fewer daily demands and perhaps more time to practise exercising our mindfulness muscle; being fully present to the sights, sounds, colours, smells and tastes of wherever we are and what we are doing," says Friis.
"Training our brains to be fully present, to feel what we feel and be where we are without wishing it were different, may be the best therapy there is.
"We also get that time to reflect on what we truly value and need in order to sustain ourselves and flourish; maybe we remind ourselves that we need to spend more time in nature, more time in meaningful connections, or get better at being less busy."
A psychologist's tips for therapeutic travel
Keep a travel diary
Take the opportunity of being away from your daily life to get to know yourself a little better. It can help to take a journal and write down a few notes each day on how you find yourself, what you are noticing, what's changing, what feels good and what doesn't.
Writing things down can be a really helpful reminder to give ourselves more of what we need in our lives when we get home and to begin cultivating ways of manifesting these values in our daily lives.
Be where you are
Practise stopping, multiple times a day, and notice how your senses are being stimulated. Give yourself permission to linger a little longer than usual with the incredibleness of simply being alive. In this way, we gradually fill our cup with positive experiences, which balances our brain's innate negativity bias - which is helpful for survival, but not too helpful for cultivating joy.
Begin the day with a meditation or a short gratitude practice. Notice what that's like and any cumulative effects. Maybe that's something you might want to continue to make space for when you get home.
Questions on keeping good mental health when travelling? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter at @j_sivertsen