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Traveling Towards Wellness: The Healing Benefits of Travel for Mental Health

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

By: Tameca N. Harris-Jackson (Dr. Tea | She | Her), PhD, LCSW, CSE, CIMHP

I was in my mid 20's when I flew for the first time.

I had never been on a plane before. Vacations coming up weren't a usual occurrence. There was a family get-a-way to the beach once, and there were regular visits to the local amusement park, but "vacations" weren't things my family did. This was an activity for people on television (insert memories of National Lampoon's Vacation - hilarious!). More specifically, in my world, this was an activity for people who didn't look like me.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a sad story at all. Summertimes growing up were spent outside with friends discovering hidden treasures in forests; twirling a hula hoop on my hips; playing jacks, red light-green light, and jumping rope; catching fireflies, dancing and eating at "cookouts", and so much more. This is what we all did when I was coming up - and it was a great time.

It wasn't until I was in my mid-twenties and in my master's program that I felt the urge to get on a plane. Though I am not 100% certain what motivated me at the time, I am sure that exposure to learning more via education peaked my interest to experience more. So, without a clue but with a lot of desire, I planned and booked my first trip. A whole "long" plane ride from Maryland to Boston!

It was cold, grey, and rainy. My "southern manners" compelled me to smile and say hello to everyone I passed, only to be met with grunts and grimaces in return. I tried lobster - wasn't a fan (I'm vegan now, go figure!), and otherwise didn't find the weekend to be much to write home about. BUT - and this is important - I LOVED the experience! It was new and different. I was taking in a new environment and, for me , a new culture. It was invigorating, slightly anxiety producing, and - I wanted to do it again!

Fast forward to about a year into my doctoral program where they offered a brief, study abroad opportunity (since Boston, I'd made my way to Las Vegas but that was as far as I'd traveled). The entire process - from getting my passport, to financing it (whew!), to finding myself standing near the Eiffel Tower (*what?!?!) - unbelievable. It was a life altering experience in every way possible. I met new people, tried new foods, took in some of the most beautiful art I'd ever seen, and had memories to hold and cherish for a lifetime. After this, I was SOLD on traveling. I promised myself two things: 1) Whenever I had the opportunity to "go", I would, and 2) If I ever had the chance to help others go, I'd do that too.

After this...I promised myself two things: 1) Whenever I had the opportunity to "go", I would, and 2) If I ever had the chance to help others go, I'd do that too.

And so here we are - or here I am - decades later and several study abroad trips under my belt - that I have led (*insert Puss In Boots-type tear emoji here*)! I've taken groups of students and non-students to places such as Amsterdam, Greece, and Thailand. Every group and experience is different AND I can always guarantee one thing will remain the same - if you're open to it, the experience will change you in some beautiful and wonderful ways.

For me, travel has become healing. It is my self-care: my necessary care. When I travel, I use that time and new environment to reset. I focus on me; take inventory of who I am and where I am in my life; I set goals for my purpose; I relax (sweet, sweet relaxation!), and I take time to remind myself of mantra: "Heal. Travel the World. Love. Repeat." When I return, I am reinvigorated, I feel renewed, and I am ready to keep going until the next "wheels up" adventure begins.

The Healing Benefits of Travel

Travel isn't just healing for me. Research shows it can be healing for a vast number of us. For instance, one study found that women who take vacations at least twice per year report less tension, fewer symptoms of depression and fatigue, and report greater marital satisfaction. Another study found that women and men who travel more frequently had less heart health issues and that the benefits of travel can be felt immediately on stress - with a decrease report in feelings of stress after only two days of being away.

The healing benefits of travel - whether solo, with a friend, family, or group -are vast and include:

  1. The Power of Change of Scenery: Traveling offers a break from the monotony of daily life. Breaking free from routine and familiar surroundings can provide a mental reset, allowing you to detach from stressors and gain a fresh perspective on life.

  2. Stress Reduction and Relaxation: The change of scenery and exposure to new cultures can significantly reduce stress levels. Whether it's lounging on a tropical beach or exploring a bustling city, the act of travel promotes relaxation, helping to alleviate the physical and mental toll of chronic stress.

  3. Cognitive Stimulation: Travel engages the mind in new and diverse ways. Learning about different cultures, navigating unfamiliar landscapes, and encountering unique challenges stimulate cognitive functions, fostering mental agility and resilience.

  4. Connection and Social Support: Building connections with new people and forging meaningful relationships during travel can provide a sense of community and social support. Human connection is a crucial aspect of mental health, and the bonds formed while exploring new destinations can contribute to a positive sense of self.

  5. Mindfulness and Living in the Present: Travel encourages mindfulness by promoting a focus on the present moment. Immersed in new experiences, you become attuned to your surroundings, fostering a mindful awareness that can alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of calm.

  6. Increased Creativity: Exposure to different cultures, landscapes, and ways of life can spark creativity. The novelty of travel opens up new channels of inspiration, contributing to enhanced problem-solving skills and a more imaginative mindset.

  7. Personal Growth and Self-Discovery: Travel provides a platform for personal growth and self-discovery. Stepping outside your comfort zone and facing unfamiliar challenges fosters resilience, confidence, and a deeper understanding of your own capabilities.

Acknowledging and Navigating Barriers to Travel

Admittedly, access to abroad or other forms of travel may not be available to all. Financial resources, childcare and dependent needs, work obligations, anxieties, and many other factors can impact travel access; however, it is important to keep in mind that travel does not always require getting on a plane or even a long car ride. Starting with a "staycation" at or close to home can be a beneficial change in routine and scenery. Unplugging, taking time to "do nothing", or spending time with a friend or love one unapologetically could be just the right amount of emotional travel needed to make a significant change.

Unplugging, taking time to "do nothing" or spending time with a friend or love one unapologetically could be just the right amount of emotional travel needed to make a significant change.

For those ready to get out there but fear traveling or have a difficult time convincing friends or family to join you, there's support for you .

Talking with a mental health provider can help you work through some of the anxieties associated with travel (e.g., fear of flying). A Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT) or EMDR-trained therapist can be of great support to you in this area. If the issue is related to fear of solo travel, there are many agencies and organizations out there offering group travel experiences. Many women are often concerned about traveling alone for safety. Others have concerns regarding race/ethnicity, faith identity, sexual orientation, gender identity, health needs, and more. The good news is there are many speciality travel agencies that focus on group travel for those with shared interests and/or concerns. Healing Journeys is a group wellness travel agency I created specifically for small group, women and couple travel. The agency is affirming and inclusive and focuses on wellness travel, so locations visited are all vetted to provide the most inclusive and affirming wellness experience possible.

Gift Yourself Wellness

The saying goes "what we prioritize is what we put energy to". It's easy to say "prioritize yourself!", but in a society that tells you you're irresponsible if you sit and take time for yourself, and also that you that you don't love yourself if you're not up exercising and drinking water (no but seriously, drink water), it can be a bit mind numbing to keep it all together.

My advice: Start small - practice giving gifts to yourself; specifically, the gift of wellness.

Hand holding wrapped gift in front of a Christmas tree

One thing we're all pretty good at is getting someone we care about a gift - be it tangible or a gift of our words or actions. Well, the next time you're writing your list of who you would like to give gifts to, try adding yourself to the list and consider gifting yourself wellness.

For me, of course that means I am planning some form of travel experience. For you, that may mean gifting yourself a mini-vacation from the "to do list", taking yourself or a friend to lunch, or planning your first domestic or international flight. Whatever you choose, aim to ensure that your gift brings you peace, joy and warm memories.

And as you experience each gift, my wish for you is: may it support you in your total wellness: mind, body, and soul.


Dr. Tea


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