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Commentary: My love of travel

Exploring the gardens of Schloss Hellbrunn in Salzburg, Austria.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
courtesy photo
Exploring the gardens of Schloss Hellbrunn in Salzburg, Austria.

Travel is essential for my mental health. Whether it's physical travel like the short-term study abroad course I recently led to Austria, or travel through yoga which I try to practice several times a week. Both types of travel push me to an edge that I am often unwilling to approach in my everyday routine. These types of travel also require me to move my body in ways that are often uncomfortable -- whether it be squeezing my long legs into ever shrinking legroom on planes or tackling chair pose, which I try to avoid at all costs because it is hard.

I know for some travel can be anxiety inducing, but it has the opposite effect on me. Once I make it through the TSA pre-check line, my stress level drops because I recognize that I no longer have control over anything but how I react to what is going on around me. (Insert eye roll - I never have any control over anything.) I can physically feel my shoulders relax as my blood pressure drops. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I am such a Midwesterner that I arrive at the airport hours before my flight and enjoy sitting back and watching others rush to their gates!

Traveling to new places can be good for when everyday life stresses you out. Dan Brennen, a medical doctor, writes that travel provides a mental reset, which reduces your overall stress and anxiety levels.

It can also build stronger relationships and connectedness. Some of my fondest memories and closest friendships were formed while traveling. If you are lonely, take a step into the unknown and travel alone. You never know who you are going to meet along your journey.

Several years ago, while taking students to Germany, we were on a bike tour of Berlin. One of the assignments for the course was to talk to strangers. One of my students started up a conversation with a fellow tour group member who happened to be an American on a business trip to Germany. Over the course of the tour the two learned more about each other and at the end exchanged contact information.

This student was so enamored with Berlin, that they found an internship for the summer and spent an additional three months working and touring around the country.

When it was time for this student to look for their first job out of college, she contacted the individual she met on the bike tour about job possibilities with their firm. She landed an interview and when she was asked “If she could thrive in a new environment?” she responded “Absolutely. I flew 4,000 miles away from everyone that I knew and spent three months and I had a great time.’”

For many others, travel—escaping either to new or familiar places—can and does play a critical role in how they manage grief, loss, tragedy, trauma, mental health challenges, or physical health setbacks. After a particularly hard several years dealing with family drama, our little family decided to reimagine how we do holidays like Thanksgiving by journeying to places that bring us joy, rather than following the traditional template. Thanksgiving is much less stressful now than it ever has been, which is good for all of us.

According to Terry Randolf, a licensed professional counselor and chief program officer at Pyx Health. “Research has shown that there is a link between social isolation and loneliness to poor mental and physical health, which was then further exacerbated by the pandemic. The pandemic rescinded the ability for [people] to physically escape their daily routines and responsibilities, leaving people feeling trapped and isolated…ultimately impacted their mental health.”

When I couldn’t physically travel, I traveled via zoom to my Macomb Yoga Coop community which allowed me to check in on my mental health. When you visit somewhere you want to go, you’re more excited and your cortisol levels decrease. ‌ Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. By lowering your cortisol levels, you are resetting the body’s immune system. You can make your travel plans big or small. They don’t have to be expensive or exotic for you to get the most mental health benefits from them.

As Emma Fleming, one of the graduate students on the trip to Austria so aptly observed, “The trip to Austria was truly a life-changing experience. For me, leaning into the experience of being uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations is really where I found I did the most learning, growing, and connecting with others.”

Life is short and the world is wide. Happy journeys to us all.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. Her research focuses on collaborative action for sustainability.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.