How Taking a Vacation Can Help You Deal With Stress and Trauma

Photo: Stocksy/Rob and Julia Campbell

Sometimes getting out of town is the only way you can find yourself again. There’s a reason why Elizabeth Gilbert needed to fly off to Italy, then India, then Bali to move beyond her divorce, or why Cheryl Strayed found peace with her past on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s called gaining perspective—and travel can be an essential part of that process.

Like Gilbert, I’m working through my own breakup. And by "working through," I mean I’m struggling. Maintaining my clarity, strength, and drive takes a lot of deliberate effort—not to mention a good amount of palo santo wood. (You fellow spirit junkies know what I mean.)

I’m working through my own breakup. And by "working through," I mean I’m struggling.

So, this winter, finding myself dragging through my days and dreading my workouts (which are usually the one thing I can rely on to boost my mood), I decided it was time to go somewhere. Get out of town and out of my head—away.

Over the last 10 years, I haven’t been able to travel much. I have three kids, a mortgage, and plenty of responsibilities that keep me from flying off to do exciting, adventurous things like climbing up the side of an Arizona mountain cliff or rappelling down a New Zealand waterfall. But now, the one good thing my impending divorce seems to afford me is the chance to leave my kids in the hands of their father for a few days and have an adventure.

So I went to Turks and Caicos. To kite surf.

From a psychological perspective, it’s not that crazy of an impulse. Jennifer Tanner, PhD, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Health at Rutgers University, says that we are primed to want to hit the beach (or the slopes, or wherever your place of Zen is) when we feel stressed or overwhelmed. “At the micro-psychological level, when your brain has too much input and is overloaded, it naturally goes on vacation. It’s a defense mechanism, but another way of looking at it is as a coping mechanism.”

"It’s a defense mechanism, but another way of looking at it is as a coping mechanism.”

It works like this: We can’t deal with traumas or stressful situations, so our brains push whatever it can’t handle at the moment to our subconscious. It’s only when we are away from daily life (i.e. in vacation mode) that our brains finally have the space to process them, Tanner explains.

“Vacations also let you turn on a different set of senses. You smell new things and see new things, and the brain has to pay attention to what’s new," she says. "It naturally changes your point of view and causes your brain to have to adapt to new surroundings." That turns on your problem-solving skills, your sense of resilience, and your ability to adapt.  “You have a sense of being empowered," Tanner says.

The Shore Club Turks and Caicos
Photos: The Shore Club, Turks and Caicos

If traveling makes you feel empowered, you know what doesn’t? Kite surfing. Or, more specifically, failing gloriously at it on a beautiful Turks and Caicos afternoon, with my best friend filming me from the balcony of our ridiculously beautiful suite at The Shore Club.

The first part of my lesson with Kite Provo was on the beach. My instructor, Tina, walked me through all the moves we’d be doing with the kite out in the bay. Since I’m fit and did well on the sand with the different maneuvers, we both thought I’d do well once we got out on the water.

Boy, were we wrong. Every time the wind picked up I’d freak out and yank down on the kite when I was supposed to ease off. With each gust, I over-corrected, resulting in me being dragged through the water, face-first, at warp speed. “Let go, let go, let go!” Tina yelled at me through the headset in my helmet.

Divorce, life as adult—it's all shifting winds.

After an exhausting half-hour of not getting it, I turned to Tina and told her that while I was crap at kite surfing, I was good at one thing: finding metaphors for life. Divorce, life as adult—it's all shifting winds. Mine had kept surprising me, throwing me off balance, dragging me face-first. My tendency had been to seek control when there had been no possibility of it.

kite surfers
Photo: Unsplash/Mira Bozhko

Wind can knock you over—or it can make you fly. You can fight against it, or learn to harness it. I looked out across the bay at all the kite surfers zipping over the water with grace and ease and thought, it is possible. Maybe I would never get to do what they do, but I could be better at handling my divorce.

I’d planned on having a piña colada after my kite surfing lesson, a reward for all the hard work I’d imagined myself doing on the water. When I met my friend on the beach, she had one waiting for me. Part of me felt like I hadn’t earned it; the other part of me knew that while I hadn’t mastered a sport in an afternoon, I had gained some valuable perspective on my problems.

"Travel changes the lens from micro to macro."

And that happened only because I stepped away from my usual life for a moment. “Travel changes the lens from micro to macro," Tanner says. "When you leave your problems at home, you have a chance to get some distance from them, and you can manipulate something that’s farther away from you better than something that’s close. You can say to yourself, "What if it were like this, or like that?"

What if, indeed.

Looking for more reason to pack your bags? Read about this cool study on which destinations might give you the best stress-busting benefits and this writer's transformative trip to Bali.

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