It is said that the best journeys are those from which we return with a rested mind as the body will tire anyway. We talk to Małgorzata Wypych, psychologist and President of the Mental Health Centre, about how travelling affects our well-being. Find out how you can protect yourself from holiday stress and how travel can help you to take care of your well-being.
Can holidays be stressful?
Sure, let’s be honest. What are these trips really like?
Often not as colourful as we would like. Studies show that 60 percent of people are stressed by holidays. Holidays are a significant factor in the Stress Assessment Questionnaire. I travel a lot, but I usually come back from a trip tired and need a day or two to recover, to calmly take care of my apartment and to prepare for work. Similarly, my friends and patients find it useful to take a break after a trip to settle back into their everyday life.
What most often prevents us from enjoying a holiday or trip?
Many factors contribute to holiday stress. The first is the planning itself – someone has to take on the responsibility of deciding where we go and what we do. There is also the pressure to please everyone. If we are travelling with family or friends, there will be negotiations between those who want to see as many monuments as possible and those who prefer to relax closer to nature – such as peaceful walks on the beach or kayaking.
When we travel with children, it can be even more difficult. A change of environment, eating habits and lack of favourite toys, often combined with hot weather, can cause a young child to become overstimulated, i.e. grumpy and clinging to parents more than usual. Looking after a child on holiday is certainly no easier than it is on a daily basis.
So we haven’t even left yet and we’re already stressed!
Yes and another stressful factor is the journey itself. Many people, particularly the older generation, are stressed that they do not speak any foreign languages. That is why they often prefer holidays booked through a travel agency with a tour rep who will, if necessary, arrange things for them at the airport. Airports are also a stress hotspot. Being in a crowd for a long time activates the orienting reflex – we will subconsciously try to control our surroundings more carefully and check if there is a threat coming from somewhere. In this elevated state, the brain gets tired more quickly.
Is there any way to defend against this?
Yes, there can be. One of my main sources of fun at the airport is people watching. I notice a lot of people with caps or hats pulled over their noses and headphones on. You can see this as an attempt to create space around them, to cut themselves off from the excess of stimuli. You can also try changing your perspective. So just sit back, observe and celebrate this moment when people from many nations meet.
It’s always an interesting experience for me to see that, despite differences in appearance and culture, these other families behave in just the same way as our family does at the airport. Children whine, stick to their mother, looking for something to play with. Teenagers play music from their smartphone and immerse themselves in their own world. Parents, despite visible tensions between themselves, try to keep everything in check. These observations can teach us a lot and help us to calm down before the journey ahead.
What else should we be aware of when it comes to travel stress?
Our expectations. We often go on holiday with certain expectations – that we will relax in a beautiful place, that we will have a good time with our family, that any conflicts that existed before will be forgotten during the trip. However, the reality of the place can be far from what we imagine. For example, a hotel that looks nice in the photos may be located in a not-so-friendly neighbourhood.
Interpersonal tensions also tend to escalate on holiday. Under the stress of preparation and the pressure to please everyone, we become more impatient and confrontational – especially in the warm, sunny countries so often chosen for holidays. There is scientific evidence that high temperatures increase the levels of aggression. We also spend much more time together on holiday than we do on a daily basis, when we divide our time between work, school and extracurricular activities. When we are together almost non-stop, it is much easier for conflicts to arise.
So, fewer expectations, more preparation and planned breathing space after returning from a trip is the key to success?
Exactly. To really relax on a trip, it is worth asking yourself a few questions, the most important of which is “why am I travelling in the first place?” Also think about “when do I feel like I’m really relaxing?” “ Do I have the soul of an explorer who draws energy from sightseeing, meeting new people and different cultures?” “AmI looking for adrenaline, attractions and carefree fun? Or maybe I need a quiet morning – the whole family is still asleep and I can drink coffee on the terrace, take in the smell of the forest or the sea breeze and spend a moment in silence with my thoughts.” Answering these questions will help you to set expectations for your trip.
Subconsciously, everyone probably feels it a little, but few people ask themselves these questions directly.
Yet they are essential if we are to reap the benefits of travel. We often choose holiday destinations or experiences simply because they are trendy or because everyone else is recommending them. Or possibly because someone else has made a travel plan for us, and we feel glad that we can finally take a break from making decisions. And that’s OK! Just remember that we bring back much more than souvenirs and photos of beautiful views. We bring back emotions, memories of smells and colours, and what we learned from the people we met. It is worth consciously planning what experiences we will be looking for while we travel.
Is this the way to improve our well-being?
Perhaps, although it will be a little different for everyone. Some will need a long holiday, because it takes a week to really forget about work. For others, a few days away in an interesting place is enough to recharge their batteries. It can be said that a trip is a rest for the mind in the sense that it changes the areas of long-term memory used. At home, as a mother, partner and carer of elderly parents, I process very similar information and behavioural patterns every day. When I travel – be it with friends, alone or with my partner – I can give up these roles for a few days. No more thinking about what to cook for dinner, just which café to order my coffee and cake from. And that is what rest is – when overheated areas of the brain at work and at home rest,completely different areas become active.
So how do you travel to get the most benefit for your mind?
A good place to start is by thinking about the holidays I remember best and why. What was it that made me return from that trip happy? And how can I repeat it? Was it an adrenaline-pumping zip-line ride in the mountains, a leisurely bike ride along the lake shore, or maybe just an encounter with a different culture? The next step When planning holiday activities, should be to think about our own needs. We can plan ahead with our travel companions – sometimes it’s really better to split up and spend a little less time together than to be forced to visit another museum or sit on the beach when we feel like doing something completely different. Healthy compromises can really save a trip.
There has been a lot of talk lately about “travel therapy”. Is there a grain of truth in it, or is it a complete exaggeration?
Therapy is a strong word. Therapy is treatment – a long-term process that can take years. A few days or even weeks on holiday are not enough to change the habits of a lifetime. Travelling, on the other hand, can lead to deeper insight and self-reflection. When we travel, we deal with various stressors in foreign places, such as a delayed flight, a broken car, or communicating in a different language. We gain confidence in our own abilities, but also in the fact that there are kind people in the world – locals are usually happy to help tourists. When we return home, we may find that situations that used to stress us out, such as a child whining about not wanting to wear socks to kindergarten today, bother us less.
Małgorzata Wypych is the Managing Director of the Mental Health Center; psychologist, psychological intervention, and stress management specialist. She is an expert in cognitive-behavioural therapy, a solution-focused therapy, and a specialist in psychological support in organisations as well as an academic teacher with 15 years of experience, a TEDx speaker and the author of over a dozen publications on psychology in emergency medicine. She loves travel that lets you escape from everyday life.