There are mental health and cognitive benefits of traveling, but these effects gradually diminish once you get back home. It’s not only because you’re home. It’s because we live differently when we travel versus when we’re back in our regular routines. I love travelling, and I hope you do too, but travel itself is not the only source of most of the mental health benefits. This post is all about understanding the mental health benefits of travel and what experiences they really come from so you can bring those benefits home with you.
The mental health benefits of travel are short-lived. There’s some evidence to suggest that travel itself doesn’t actually benefit mental health, and I happen to be someone that believes this. I did my B.Sc. in Neuroscience and Mental Health, and with what I’ve learned I know that one thing is for sure: your brain and your mental health are the products of the things you do regularly, not the things you do sometimes. That being said, travel is a great inspiration to look at for things to do differently in your day-to-day life because doesn’t it just feel awesome? Travel is refreshing, and you can feel those short-term mental health benefits happening while you’re on a trip. Rather than letting that end the moment you come home, I want to capture those lifestyle differences so you live that way all the time.
There are some studies that specifically look at the mental health benefits of travel referenced in this post, whereas others are parallels that I’ve drawn between existing research in other areas and experiences while travelling, and you will find the references in text! Note: if you’re experiencing symptoms that you believe are related to any mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, please see a licensed professional. This blog post should not be used to substitute professional mental health care.
Mental Health Benefits of Travel That You Can Replicate at Home
1. Walking Everywhere Boosts Brain Health
The ratio of steps that I take when travelling versus when I’m at home is staggering some days. On a trip to New York City I walked 18.5 km in day. On a standard day at work, without adding in a work out or a walk, it’s about 3 km.
Walking is very good for your mental health and your heart health. Exercise increases the expression of proteins like brain derived neutrophic factor, which in turns promotes that survival and growth of your neurons (brain cells). Healthy neurons means better cognition, and helps to alleviate anxiety and depression.
Rather than waiting for your next trip to get your step count up, put on your sneakers and head out. Take your camera if you love taking pictures, or a friend if you want company. Get off the bus a stop earlier or park your car a few minutes away from work to add some extra movement to your day.
2. Enriched Environments Stimulate Your Brain
One of the best ways to offset cognitive decline and the onset of dementia such as Alzheimer’s is with enriched environments. These are places and spaces that have lots to do, see, and explore, just like any new place that you visit while travelling.
Enriched environments promote neural plasticity because you process new information, sights, smells, and experiences. The more stimulating an environment is, the more brain activity.
It doesn’t take a lot to bring this healthy-aging benefit of travel home with you. Visit a new park, go to festival, or visit a new museum exhibit. The idea is simply to try something new, and unfamiliar to you and your brain.
3. Looking Forward to Experiences Boosts Happiness
It’s fairly well-established that experiences boost happiness more than possessions, but did you know that the same is true of the lead up? Having an experience to look forward to boosts your sense of well-being, more so than knowing you’re going to buy a physical possession.
Travel is something that we obviously look forward to, but it doesn’t have to be the only experience that you look forward to. It might be tickets to a live show, eating out a new restaurant, or whatever it is that you love to do and that you look forward to. The next time you feel like you have nothing to look forward to, change that – but not necessarily by planning a trip.
4. New Learning Promotes New Neuronal Activity
When you learn something new, a series of events take place in your brain to form new connections between neurons. The more you learn, the better your memory and the quicker your cognitive processing abilities. Best of all, the more you learn, the better you learn.
Travelling is a great way to expose yourself to new learning, in a way that doesn’t feel like learning at all. Maybe you learn a few new words, some interesting history, or culinary traditions that you didn’t know about.
Learning doesn’t have to stop just because you’re home. Yes, you can always learn by reading or watching something, but it’s fun to learn through experiences. When you’re at home, you still have all the same options to get out and learn. Pick up a new skill like kayaking or rock climbing, book a cooking class or an art night, go on one of your own cities very many walking tours or historical site tours.
(I don’t have a specific reference for this one, but here’s my favourite video about how learning occurs in the brain ).
5. Psychological Detachment Improves Productivity, Performance, and Mental Health
Psychological detachment refers to the ability detach and not think about work – something that’s fairly easy to do when you’re excited to be in a new place, with healthy distractions from the stressors of your work, or beautiful landscapes and villages to effortlessly capture your attention.
People who detach from work are more satisfied with their lives, less strained and burnt out, and more effective at work. Unfortunately, we’re least likely to detach when work stress is high – and that’s actually when we need detachment the most.
The ways and places that you spend your time when you’re not working matter. Experiences of effortless attention and natural settings are best. These are places or activities where your attention is easily captured, but you don’t need to actively focus on what you’re doing. Travel is one, big experience of detachment, but you can make psychological detachment a regular part of your life by doing outdoor sports, going to events, or spending time with friends (not talking about work).
6. Travelling With Others Creates Meaningful Connections
Travelling can deepen our social connections with others, and help us to make new ones. There’s a lot of research on the power of social relationships – and the tip of the iceberg is that having a strong social support system can buffer against stress, mental health challenges, and diseases.
Travel has the potential to nourish two types of social connections: brand new ones, and our existing ones. Travelling is a great way to meet people, and you already have a shared interest and something to talk about which makes connecting easy. When you travel with a friend or family member, the shared experience can strengthen that relationship. You get to know each other better, and you have a shared memory.
Have shared experiences in your own city with your friends and family, that are outside your normal routine. Making new friends as an adult isn’t the easiest thing, but taking the same approach with local activities as with travelling can help. Go to places and find activities that interest you, so that there’s already some common ground with the people you meet. I know this one can be super uncomfortable, but it’s a lot of fun in the end. Just to give you an idea, I live in Ottawa and I love photography and sharing my photos on Instagram, so I follow Igers Ottawa and every now and then they host a meet up. People show up in pairs or alone, and it’s a nice way to meet other local photographers. There are groups and communities for every interest now, you just have to find it!
7. Less Screen Time Refreshes You
Most research on screen time focuses on the developmental impact on kids (and it’s not good). I found some studies about adults that refer to the heart health detriments of sitting, but none that actually call out screen time. However, I think we’ve all experienced it – the mushy feeling in your head when you’ve been looking at a screen for way too long.
One of the mental health benefits that I notice when travelling is being away from screens. Rather than spending all day behind my computer, I spend all day exploring. That’s why I try to make non-screen time a regular part of my life. Put away the computer, and go enjoy an activity that won’t incur more screen time for you later. By this, I mean go and do something without the intention of posting on Instagram (or creating a blog post). While there are a lot of benefits to new and interesting experiences, these experiences can also make you reach for your phone so that you can share it. Mix in time away from screens that doesn’t encourage you to think about social media or screens.
8. Time Outside is Good For… Everything
Time outside and in nature improves just about everything about us, and many people spend more time outside when travelling than at other times. You don’t have to go to work, so you’re out of the office right there, and there’s a good chance you’ve decided to see some beautiful, natural settings and landscapes. It’s not just mental health, either. Getting outdoors and in to a green space (or read the Science Daily interpretation of the study) reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, and the list goes on. Natural light also improves sleep quality, partially through street education and partially because sunlight during the day increases your melatonin (regulates your sleep cycle) at night.
I love museums, heritage tours, indoor sports, cooking classes, and all kinds of other experiences and I hope you’re feeling inspired to add more of these things to your life. Just make sure that some of your experiences are outside, because a little bit of time in nature is one of the biggest mental health boosters there is. It only takes a short walk in nature to reap the benefits.