How many times, when finding yourself in a difficult situation, you heard something like, “You just need to go somewhere, change your environment, and meet new people?” Based on my experience, I know such advice can be annoying: going through hard times, you rather expect help, compassion, or at least something more practical, rather than, “You know, you should travel.” However, the surprising truth is that this is probably one of the most useful and practical pieces of advice you can receive.
Of course, you cannot abandon everything and set off to go on a world trip. All of us have duties, responsibilities, debts, connections, and these kinds of ties are probably the most effective means to bind you to one place. However, the advice to travel does not necessarily imply something like departing to Nepal, living among monks, meditating, and living on alms for years—or whatever else people usually imagine when thinking about travelling. In fact, small but regular journeys are available almost to everyone, and the positive effects they can have on your mental condition and your ability to cope with difficulties are as significant as if you undertook a long “spiritual” journey.
A huge part of our daily problems remains in the context in which these problems appeared, and thus you think about them regularly. When you are stressed, your thoughts obviously cannot be positive and optimistic. So, whether you want it or not, you will view your life situation from a rather pessimistic perspective, assuming the worst case scenarios, and so on. However, when you board a plane, fly over seas (or at least head to the neighboring state where you have never been before), you almost immediately start to feel your problems fade. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as the saying goes, and pulling yourself out of the environment where everything reminds you of your misfortunes can curative. Of course, I am not saying the easiest way to feel better is to escape from problems; I rather mean that taking a break, allowing yourself to breathe in some fresh air can give you a new perspective, or at least distract your mind from ruminating on the same situation over and over again. Having a good rest is a necessary condition of any recovery, and your mind definitely needs rest from time to time.
Speaking of new perspectives, when travelling, you will inevitably meet a lot of new people. Some of them will become friends of yours, some will remain strangers. Regardless of whether you prefer hotels or hostels, hitchhiking or airplanes, tropical resorts or ancient European towns, you will be always surrounded by people. A good idea would be to make some acquaintances and communicate. For a rather long time, psychologists have known that perhaps the most honest and sincere communication often occurs between strangers; this is called “the companion effect.” Use it to your advantage. Whether you need advice, condolence, or a person who would quietly listen to you as you share your hardships, there is no better opportunity to get all this then while travelling. Besides, at some point, you might discover that people you meet had gone through the same or similar difficulties; you will be surprised that you and your problems are not unique, that people all over the world suffer from the same things, have the same feelings, and behave in similar ways. This can be a powerful source of psychological support; knowing you are not the only person in the world going “through all this,” you might find yourself a bit invigorated, a bit more brave to power through your life situation.
Besides, when travelling, you learn to live in the moment. “Enjoy your life, live in the moment!” is the phrase usually associated with doing all kinds of reckless things, and is often used by hysterically-optimistic “positive-thinking” people around their 30s. However, living in the moment might imply something more than swimming with sharks naked, sniffing cocaine, or jumping from skyscrapers with a pilot chute. You might feel the moment as you watch the sun rise over the canals of Venice; you might feel it when contemplating the grandeur of the Great Canyon; you might live in the moment when you find yourself playing football with teenagers in Malawi. Every new experience, every impression you have is a gateway to the present moment—and this moment can be what you need to recover from a long period of stress and loss.
When travelling, you will have to learn to improvise and adapt to new situations on the go. Sometimes you arrive at a hotel you booked two weeks ago only to find out your room was given to someone else and there are no free hotels in the town left; sometimes you might have valuable belongings stolen or lost; or you might find yourself in a situation when the whole plan of your trip does not work, because you did not know what challenges you would face in a new country. When you are at home, where everything is so familiar and safe, you do not have the chance to improvise; you drift with the flow hoping it brings you to where you need. Any journey, however, is a fresh set of situations, circumstances, coincidences, all of which intertwine in the most peculiar combinations, so you cannot apply your previous life experiences to them; therefore, you need to adapt. You need to seek new decisions, sources of help, you learn to solve your problems, and solve them on your own—in a new country, you cannot afford sitting and whining about how unfair life is. You need to solve your problems: find food, shelter, transport, or whatever else you encounter on your trip. And these skills—improvisation and adaptation—are probably the most valuable ones in terms of problem-solving.
Travelling is not a panacea. It will not eradicate your pain if you have lost someone dear, or go through a divorce, or go bankrupt. It will not magically dissolve your problems: when you come back home, they will still be there. Travelling will do nothing about the unfair/complicated/rough world you live in. But it will do something to you. It will teach you that you are not alone: that millions of people around the world rejoice and suffer in the same ways you do; that they face the same problems as you do; that they fight and overcome obstacles in the same ways you do. Along with some psychological support and comfort you might get from this knowledge, you will learn to enjoy the simple beauty of moments: seeing or experiencing something for the first time will draw your mind away from mentally chewing on the same, old topics, and push your consciousness into the stillness of perceiving novelty. You will become more flexible and adaptive, because you will have no other choice: being a traveler will quickly teach you to improvise. All this, as well as other effects travelling will have on you, will help you recover from your mental wounds, get rid of the excessive stress, and give you the skills (and energy!) to deal with your hardships as you return home. In my book, this is worth the time and effort.
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