How Travelling Can Boost Your Mental Health

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This feature is brought to you by Qantas, who are proud to play a part in bringing travellers together with the people they love from around Australia and across the globe.

Travel brings up a lot of feelings. Happy anticipation at a date creeping closer. Nervous excitement when the plane rumbles away from the tarmac. Frustration when plans go awry, countered by sweet satisfaction when you taste the meal or hike the trail you’ve been dreaming about for months.

But what about the deeper psychological effects of getting away? While direct research on the subject has been limited, most experts agree travel has powerful mental health benefits.

Before you take off


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Even before you’re stuffing your suitcase and heading to the airport, that act of planning travel and curating a bucket list can contribute to better mental health. Planning travel is the li’l carrot we dangle in front of ourselves, coaxing us through tough times and having something to look forward to has a positive impact on mental health. One survey by AARP also noted a related improvement in physical health, which saw subjects exercising and eating better as they prepared to tick something off their bucket list.

Full-spectrum mind-body health? Sign us up.

Let it all out


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For most, travelling is a chance to escape the daily grind and get into a different frame of mind. As Dr Tamara McClintock Greenberg, a clinical psychologist and author, explained to Forbes, “the stress of work and daily demands can distract us from what we find to be actually meaningful and interesting”. Travel provides an excellent outlet by literally removing us from everyday stressors and pressures.

Not only that, but research also indicates that it actually helps us handle stress in our daily life better. In one study, researchers found that, three days after a vacation, travellers felt well-rested, less anxious and in a better mood – which sometimes continued for weeks after they returned home.

Greenberg does acknowledge “that vacations can be very stressful for some”. If the thought of a multi-city sojourn has you in nervous sweats, Greenberg suggests taking “short, structured vacations” to get used to the feeling of taking time off. Anxious friends, we got you.

Travel brings out the best in us, including in our brains


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Do we become a different person when hitting the proverbial road? If you’ve ever felt the swell of bravery and self-expansion when you’ve been travelling, science suggests it’s not just in your head. When you’re travelling, everything is new: the people, the sights, the sounds, the situations. All this newness increases cognitive flexibility – it’s like using the world as your brain-training app.

Research also demonstrates that travelling and being out of our comfort zones challenges and strengthens the ‘openness’ dimension of our personality. As with stress, the benefit extends into day to day life, with improved emotional stability and less emotional reactivity to everyday changes.

As well as adaptability and resilience, travel can also boost creativity. (Does this explain why there’s so many travel photographers out there?) Not all types of travel are created equal, though. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, whose research explores the link between creativity and international travel, told The Atlantic that a key factor is the depth of engagement with local culture.

“Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment,” he explains.

Brains love nature


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So, we know that hiking can change your brain – studies have found a link between spending time in nature and decreased anxiety. But the positive mental health benefits of getting back to nature don’t stop there. With many of us increasingly concentrated in cities and urban centres, travelling is often one of the few times we can get back to and truly immerse ourselves in nature.

If you’re heading somewhere with a lot of green, try allocating an afternoon to the Japanese art of “forest bathing”. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, has numerous documented mental and physical health benefits. According to Dr Qing Li, scientist and author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, it can help us destress, think more clearly, restore our vitality and, importantly, unplug from technology and be in the present.

Get your priorities in order


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All good things must come to an end, but how do we hang on to all the mental destressing, detoxing and decluttering that we’ve done while away? It can be as simple as holding onto what you enjoyed about your time away, suggests Dr Greenberg. If you enjoyed the food in Paris, learning to cook some French dishes will help “re-create some of the feelings you had while you were on vacation”, for example.

Try to replicate the peaceful and joy-sparking moments of travelling in everyday life. If you loved a leisurely breakfast while or wandering art galleries while away, try making time on the weekend at home. Oh, and start planning your next trip, of course.

(Lead image: Simon Maage / Unsplash)

Qantas is proud to partner with Beyond Blue. If you’re struggling after returning from an amazing trip, read up on Beyond Blue’s tips on managing post-holiday blues.