Why Travel Is Good for Your Mental Health


Why Travel Is Good for Your Mental Health

Jean Kim M.D.

Travel is great way to rejuvenate your mind.

After graduating from college, I went alone and joined a three-week budget tour of Scandinavia. I probably matured more on that trip than in my four years of college, just by virtue of facing unfamiliar people and situations, which greatly helped some strong social anxiety I struggled with. Our tour group itself came from all over: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, and more. As a “budget” tour, we had to sleep in tiny cabins and hostels and sometimes cook and clean our own meals together outside. The low point was when I got horribly ill from stomach flu at the top of Norway and endured walking back and forth several hundred feet from the small cabin to vomit in an outside bathroom with arctic winds blowing across the rocky, hilly tundra under the midnight sun. Nonetheless, the experience made me grateful for little things afterwards, like having an indoor bathroom, or being able to hold down your meal. I also saw gorgeous and amazing art, architecture, seascapes, history, and ate the freshest seafood. I still remember the most delicious soup I’ve ever had, at the Finnish border: made of reindeer broth. Afterwards, I understood why some Australians apparently followed a cultural tradition of working temporary jobs for half a year to save up money to spend on traveling for the other half: living to travel.

While the practical reality of money, health, and job and family obligations certainly matter and affect people’s ability to travel, whenever possible, travel is a worthy and sometimes underestimated goal for our daily existence. Americans reportedly often decline taking any eligible vacation time during the year and tend to overwork themselves. Still, several articles and studies have noted the significant psychological benefits of travel. Travel acts beneficially on multiple levels.

Travel disrupts your routine and introduces novelty to your brain, which improves cognition and helps reactivate reward circuits. You have to think about how to get through new neighborhoods, new transportation patterns, new customs and rules. Initially, such changes can be stressful and frustrating, as anyone who has dealt with minor annoyances like different toilets or trouble getting change back for large bills knows. But ultimately, your brain can benefit from being put on its toes; according to Brent Crane’s article in The Atlantic, the cognitive flexibility helps stimulate neuroplasticity. This, in turn, can help generate creativity that persists even when travelers return home and helps with innovative idea generation at their jobs.

Travel helps on an interpersonal growth level as well; seeing different people and cultures and encountering them directly as individuals and human beings opens yourself to becoming more tolerant and flexible about unfamiliar ways of life. Your sense of empathy can increase, which can help you feel better able to negotiate interpersonal issues back home as well. You can also learn and appreciate things to seek out and continue enjoying at home, like a delicious dish or new genre of music.

Travel itself can be a break from stressors piled up back home; a literal escape where you can focus on your own pleasure and yourself can be a welcome change of pace, and help reduce your body’s stress hormone overdrive. Even when you return to stressors back home, the memories encoded by travel help maintain a “zen space” you can revisit whenever you need. Mindfulness techniques often recommend returning to a beautiful or peaceful memory to help restore calm and balance anywhere you are.

Overall, travel is a way to even temporarily provide the goal of living life for its own sake, apart from the drudgery of daily responsibility and routine. It helps with personal growth and appreciation, and can also benefit mood and intellect. If you have the means to build travel into your schedule, by all means, do so.

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