How Travel Can Help Us Process Grief, Trauma, and Anxiety

Whether we are healing from pandemic trauma, personal tragedy, or other mental or physical health challenges, travel has an ability to play a critical role in the recovery journey, research shows.

Travelers detail the healing power of travel and of getting out into nature: here a coastside with evergreens

For one traveler, the beauty of the Oregon coast has offered a way to navigate grief.

Photo by Katie Musial/Unsplash

In February 2022, Adam Sawyer lost his whole world. A catastrophic fire burned down his house near Mount Rainier and claimed his partner’s life. In the year since, Sawyer has frequently set out into nature, often retracing the trails he walked—and journeys he took—with his late partner.

“I was purposefully going to places that she and I had traveled to together before. It seems like a means of self-flagellation, but it was also a way to really lean into the grieving process,” says Sawyer, who writes about travel and the outdoors. “I would go somewhere on a trail as far as I could go, and I would cry for as long as I needed to. In going to these places, it was a way of acknowledging the pain and acknowledging what I was going through and also bridging the gap sooner to get to where those memories were hopeful and pleasant.”

For Sawyer, traveling to places that were meaningful to him and his late partner, in addition to other “road trips to nowhere” or treks into nature (he’s been spending a lot of time driving up and down the Oregon coast, for instance, appreciating “the scenery and that zen of driving through pretty country”), has been an integral part of the healing voyage.

“Traveling to these places and trying to process those memories—when I do that, when I have those crying sessions, when I deal with the guilt in those places, it’s akin to getting it over with, like vomiting. I cried it out and I processed that and I understand what that memory means to me now and why I came here and I actually feel better,” says Sawyer.

Sawyer isn’t alone in having found some sense of hope or relief when traveling in the aftermath of trauma or tragedy. In July 2022, Hara Maderich was widowed after being married for 40 years “to the love of my life,” she says.

“Staring months ahead at a lonely Christmas and bereft New Year, I decided to go back to my solace, the ocean,” says Maderich, an AFAR reader who lives in Costa Rica. She booked herself and her best friend on a southern Caribbean Celebrity Equinox cruise over the holidays.

“New Year’s Eve was both spectacular and heart wrenching at the same time,” says Maderich. But, she adds, “realizing I was on a ship in the middle of the ocean, hearing live music, drinking champagne, and watching lasers and fireworks with tears streaming down was so much better than sitting home and crying alone.”

Maderich started 2023 with, quite literally, a new outlook—a breakfast view of a rainbow over Martinique “and a glimmer of hope that life going forward alone could be a new adventure with ports as yet unexplored.”

For many people, including Sawyer and Maderich, travel—escaping either to new or familiar places—can and does play a critical role in how they manage grief, loss, tragedy, trauma, mental health challenges, or physical health setbacks.

beach in Martinique

Waking up to a beautiful view of a new place can bring a fresh perspective on life.

Photo by Daniel Oberg/Unsplash

We’ve all been through a lot—travel can help

During the pandemic, at a time when many were experiencing the collective trauma and isolation of living through a deadly, global public health crisis, travel was one of the tools in the traditional coping toolbox that was made temporarily unavailable to us.

“Research has shown that there is a link between social isolation and loneliness to poor mental and physical health, which was then further exacerbated by the pandemic,” says Terry Randolph, a licensed professional counselor and chief program officer at Pyx Health, a female- and LGBTQ+-led telehealth service dedicated to helping those suffering from loneliness and isolation. “The pandemic rescinded the ability for [people] to physically escape their daily routines and responsibilities, leaving people feeling trapped and isolated. This ultimately impacted their mental health.”

For some, they were able to get an emotional boost just by thinking about the ways in which they might get away in the future. In August 2020, a survey of 263 U.S.-based adults commissioned by a coalition of travel companies revealed that 97 percent of people felt happier simply planning future travel.

And a small but growing body of research indicates that there are some very real mental and physical health benefits of travel that we can finally fully access again. A 2018 study conducted by a team of researchers in Austria who analyzed a group of 40 “middle managers” found that stress decreased and overall well-being improved for a period of 15 to 45 days after a vacation or getaway. One year later, a study published in the journal Psychology & Health concluded that higher vacation frequency reduced the odds of metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

“Traveling contributes to a happier and more fulfilled life, and it does more for our minds than simply giving us a break,” says Randolph.

The health benefits of travel

According to Randolph, there are “numerous lasting benefits travel can have on your mental state.” They include:

  • Lowered stress and anxiety: Travel provides a mental reset, which reduces your overall stress and anxiety levels.
  • Better relationships and connectedness: If you are lonely, traveling is a great way to form closer connections and stronger bonds with both your travel companions and new people you meet along your journey.
  • More creativity: Experiencing new cultures, food, and arts can broaden your perspective and open your mind to fresh ideas and ways of thinking, which can be applied to your work and home life.
  • Improved physical health: Often people are outdoors more when they travel and walk around new places to explore, which can improve their overall physical well-being.

In fact, the gains are so pronounced that in January 2022, Canada’s national parks service Parks Canada developed a program called PaRx that allows doctors to actually prescribe travel by way of a free annual pass to Canada’s national parks for patients who could benefit from time spent in nature.

The program “is a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges,” Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister who oversees Parks Canada, stated in a press release about the nature prescription program. “Medical research now clearly shows the positive health benefits of connecting with nature.”

Mountains beside Lake Louise at Banff National Park

Last year, Canadian doctors began prescribing time in national parks.

Photo by Jacky Huang/Unsplash

Learning from new people and new surroundings

As Randolph mentioned, it’s not just the beautiful places we visit on our travels that can calm and inspire the mind and body, but also the meaningful connections we make on our journeys that contribute to our overall well-being. Michael Brein, a social psychologist who specializes in travel, has interviewed thousands of people about their travels and the effects travel has had on them. He’s observed several significant takeaways in terms of the social connections we make when we travel.

When you travel “you extricate yourself from an environment that is pathological or [where] you’re totally immersed in your problems,” says Brein, who adds, “Let’s face it, when we’re at home in our everyday workaday lives . . . it’s not that fulfilling nor does it provide us with new ideas.”

According to Brein, one of the key benefits of travel is that it offers invaluable learning opportunities. When you travel “you are more curious and more open to new experiences … you learn to relate to people better because you have a need to interact with new people. And therefore you have an influx of new ways of looking at things.”

A January 2023 study published in the Journal of Transport & Health confirmed the important role travel plays in accessing “social participation” and the connections between that social participation and our overall health. The study found that when people didn’t have access to opportunities to travel beyond 15 miles from their home, they were more likely to self-report poorer personal health than those who did.

For Sawyer in Oregon, he acknowledges that while he often sets out on solo missions, travel also provides him with a crucial outlet for meeting and interacting with new people who can offer a distraction from his grief or a new perspective on life.

There are some times when “I also absolutely need other people. I will just go to some local dive bar wherever I’m at and just hang out and chat with the locals and just lose myself in them and their stories and what they have going on. And it makes for a wonderful diversion,” says Sawyer. He adds, “I felt some guilt over this early on, but it’s OK to compartmentalize a little bit to get through and have a normal day where you’re laughing with people, you’re enjoying dinner. You’re traveling for fun. And that’s also been a great relief, too. It’s OK for me to take a time out and go actually enjoy a place with other people.”

An escapist mindset

Red rocks at Grande Staircase-Escalante in southern Utah

Finding a much-needed break from reality in southern Utah

Photo by John Fowler/Unsplash

This past fall, when a dear friend of mine was going through the stress and trauma of losing her mother to rapid onset dementia, we decided to escape to southern Utah for a few days. We enjoyed a canyonland-filled hiking trip that offered her a small but meaningful break from the daily worries that had consumed her life. But even as we were able to find joy, awe, relief, and laughter among the stunning desert landscapes, we also knew this retreat was temporary and that whatever problems she faced would be waiting for her back at home.

While some might view travel as simply a means of running away from one’s problems, experts believe there is a notable difference between escapism and embracing a healthy attitude toward any escape.

“Escapism is defined as ‘a desire or behavior to ignore or avoid reality.’ During traumatic experiences, many people will ‘escape’ the situation mentally to avoid further stress,” explains Pyx Health’s Randolph.

Travel in and of itself is not the solution to our problems, and for many people travel can also be laced with additional stresses, fears, and anxieties. But depending on how we apply the knowledge and experiences we gain when we travel into our healing journeys, there is evidence to suggest that it can have a more lasting effect. And there are also ways in which we can integrate an escape-like mindset into our day-to-day lives—for instance, we can take staycations to parks and cultural landmarks close to home, or take mental breaks from our work lives by seeking new activities and experiences similar to how we would when we’re traveling (learn how to play tennis or join a local hiking group, for example)—to help re-create those benefits even if and when we cannot or do not want to travel.

“To transition travel from just a temporary fix to a more impactful one, you have to really be willing to incorporate lifestyle changes that promote less stress and anxiety,” says Randolph. “The daily use of activities that replicate the escapism effects of travel can help create lasting improvements to mental and physical health.”

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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