The benefits of travel go beyond making memories and meeting new people. Getting out of your comfort zone and exploring a new place can have a remarkably positive impact on your emotional wellbeing. 

Even in these times when traveling far distances can feel uncertain, changing up your daily routine at a nearby town or locale on a weekend day can help to change your mindset and help to ease the stress of the daily grind. 

Here are seven ways travel can be good for your mental health.

A female hiker walking on rocky ground near Salto Grande Waterfall in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. In the background numerous snowy mountains are visible.
Life on the road offers ample opportunity to get active, which is known to improve mental wellbeing © sharptoyou / Shutterstock

1. It can help you stay fit and healthy

Physical exercise is known to improve mental wellbeing, and travel offers ample opportunity to get active. Whether you enjoy pounding the pavement on a city break, swimming in the sea or summiting mountain peaks, getting to know a new destination by embracing the great outdoors can boost energy levels and improve your mood.

Immersing yourself in and connecting with nature is another key way to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression – and while you can do this anywhere (even in cities), it makes sense to incorporate a little ecotherapy into your travels too.

2. It shakes up the status quo

Whether you venture abroad or simply to the next town over, taking a break from your usual routines with a trip away from home can help break negative cycles, get you out of a rut and reveal a world of possibilities beyond your bubble.

'When I'm in a period of depression, getting out of the house and out of negative routines (for me, wallowing on the couch and eating junk food) can help to clear my head and give me the space to properly consider the things my brain is telling me,' says David Owen, YA author and former travel editor. 'Going somewhere completely outside of my usual sphere, be that close to home or abroad, can be an effective way of gaining both literal and metaphorical distance. If nothing else, I have interesting stuff to go and look at and do as a distraction!'

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A black tuk tuk speeds along a street in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The vehicle and passengers are sharply in focus, while the background is blurred, giving the impression the tuk tuk is travelling as great speed.
Riding in tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka gave Emma a different perspective on handling stressful situations © Ruben Ramos / Getty Images

3. It gives you a different perspective

Experiencing different cultures can open your eyes to new ways of living. Something as simple as learning a new recipe or changing the way you spend your downtime can have a dramatic effect on your wellbeing. Travel can lead you to question and challenge the norms of everyday life at home, potentially inspiring you to make positive changes.

When I feel my own stress levels rising, for example, I like to think back to my experiences riding in tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka. As we overtook buses on blind corners, dodged death-wish pedestrians and got cut up by countless motorbikes, our driver remained relaxed and took it all in his stride, as did other road users. Despite the chaos, everyone was calm. After a few of these journeys, my own worries and bewilderment dissipated as I realized that the alternative responses – fear or road rage – serve no one. I try to apply this lesson to my life at home: you cannot control the actions of others – only the way you respond to them.

4. It increases creativity

It’s been scientifically proven that new experiences – particularly ones that allow you to immerse yourself in a different culture – improve the neuroplasticity of your brain, increasing creativity in the process. After a stint of grief-induced agoraphobia, Erica Buist traveled around the world to take part in seven festivals for the dead – and wrote a book about it.

'I helped build an altar for the dead in Mexico, danced in a parade in Nepal, learned enough Japanese to get by in Kyoto and in Madagascar, I got hit in the head by a corpse (it was on the shoulders of its dancing descendants)', she says. 'Every now and again I feel a shadow of not wanting to leave the house, but after all the experiences I’ve had, it’s hard to doubt my ability to get to the shops. Travel is stressful, even when it’s wonderful, and now when things go south it's almost like the travel I've done is a benchmark I know I can get back to.’

Stand up paddleboarding with a dog
Where better to recharge body and mind than paddleboarding a babbling creek? © AleksandarNakic / Getty

5. It lowers stress levels

Sometimes all your body and mind need is a rest – and where better to chill out than on a sun lounger somewhere warm? Sunshine is a great stress-buster, giving you a dose of mood-boosting vitamin D and increasing the brain’s release of serotonin, the so-called ‘happy hormone’. Leaving work stress and the everyday routine behind in exchange for afternoon naps, leisurely walks and the freedom to make your own schedule can do your mental health the world of good. Spending time away with friends and loved ones can add to the feel-good factor, while solo travel can refresh your sense of independence.

6. It boosts self-esteem and confidence

Travel isn’t always swaying palms and spa days. It can also mean navigating crowds in excessive heat, getting lost, struggling with language barriers or culture shock – all of which is extra challenging if you’re prone to feeling down or anxious. Claire and Laura from Twins that Travel have found that dealing with travel stress has helped them cope in their everyday lives.

‘For us, travel has become an unlikely form of therapy for our anxiety. By keeping our worlds "big", travel gives context to the smaller tasks in life that can often feel overwhelming when you suffer with anxiety. For example, the elation of stepping off a plane after getting ourselves to the other side of the world makes completing a short train journey seem easily achievable. Travel continues to keep our lives open and fulfilled, which in turn, leads to better mental health.’

A group of travellers, stood round a large table, grind herbs into bowls as part of a cooking class in Battambang, Cambodia. The girl at the end of the table, facing the camera, has a big smile on her face.
Getting out of your routine and trying something new is a great way to give yourself a mental boost © Tom Cockrem / Getty Images

7. It’s an act of self-care

When you’re feeling low, it’s easy to feel guilty or undeserving of nice things. But treating yourself to a trip – whether it’s a staycation or far-flung getaway – can be an empowering act of self-care.

‘Of course, anxiety and depression can make traveling difficult. Anxiety makes me worry about doing it, and depression both saps my energy to organize it and tells me I'm not worth the effort,’ says David. ‘Planning a trip can be a good way to push through that and show yourself some love or give yourself some purpose.’

As well as the focus and excitement travel planning can bring, travel itself grants you the freedom to do what you love, take time to rest and practice living in the moment. To this end, for many people, travel is not simply an enjoyable pastime, but an essential part of fostering a healthy, positive mindset.

Please note: If you do suffer with mental health problems, make sure you read up on government advice and healthcare guidance, as well as talking it through with trusted people in your support network, before choosing to embark on a trip.

You might also like:
Healthline's Dr. Jenny Yu: What it means to travel "well" in a pandemic
How to take care of your mental wellness in times of COVID-19
Six tips for curbing pre-flight tension

This article was first published November 2019 and updated January 2021

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