If You Travel to Escape Your Problems, What Happens When You’re Trapped in Place?

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Travel is a natural escape for most, but are there psychological implications of traveling to relieve—or avoid—your problems?

For most people, travel is a positive means of escape. It’s natural to want a break from routine, from work, from responsibilities, and the people who drive you crazy on a daily basis. Those Pinterest boards of over-saturated images of Santorini, piles of guidebooks on our shelves, and Duolingo lessons aren’t a waste of time; escaping somewhere that’s not your home is an exciting privilege that should be taken advantage of as often as possible.

The recent disruptions of COVID-19 have changed all that, however; every day, there are new restrictions on travel, both domestically and internationally. The virus is highly contagious, and every country in the world has at least one case. For now, most vacations, honeymoons, and family reunions are on hold. This has caused its own set of problems for casual travelers.

“Travel and vacations are a means to reshift and reorganize identities,” states Karen Stein, a sociologist studying culture and travel and author of Getting Away from It All: Vacations and Identity. “We can use travel as a way to reexamine our priorities and devote our time and attention to identities and commitments that we, unwillingly, have to put in the background in our daily lives.”

That makes sense for how Susan at the office spends her two weeks of paid time off each year. She deserves the chance to feel refreshed, renewed, and maybe even reinspired after sitting on a beach in Cabo with nothing but endless cocktails and John Grisham novels to distract her from work emails.

But the psychological connections to this form of escapism can be more intense for others. Many avid travelers claim they travel to “discover” themselves by being open to new experiences. But in reality, are they just running away from underlying problems they don’t want to address?

The Escapist’s Favorite Route

“In psychology, escapism is generally defined as a desire or behavior to ignore, evade, or avoid reality,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California. “During traumatic experiences, many individuals naturally ‘escape’ the situation mentally in order to avoid further distress and psychological harm.”

“When travel is motivated by a desire to escape reality,” she adds, “to embrace a nearly fictional experience that is free of the burdens of life…the experience becomes escapist in quality.”

Travelers may be especially vulnerable at this time; with their main coping mechanism unavailable, adjusting to new (often federally mandated) routines could prove difficult. Periods of isolation and self-quarantining can directly impact their mental health in ways they are unprepared for.

According to Lindsey Pratt, a psychotherapist in New York City, travelers “may notice a general sense of loneliness…a shift in the way they fit into the world around them. Their identity as an adventurer is on pause due to COVID-19, and it’s felt as a deep loss.”

It’s true for people like Rosie Merchant, a creative producer based in New York City. “When something stressful happens in my life,” she states, “I immediately look at Skyscanner to find the cheapest, farthest place I can go.”

In the past, she has done a long weekend in Paris during a particularly intense episode of depression. When her sister was released from prison after facing time for drug charges, Rosie didn’t feel strong enough to deal with the aftermath. So she hopped on a last-minute flight to Japan for a two-week trip as a means of coping.

“[Travelers] may notice a general sense of loneliness … a shift in the way they fit into the world around them. Their identity as an adventurer is on pause due to COVID-19, and it’s felt as a deep loss.”

“But now, there’s nowhere to go,” she added. “I could book a flight and it would give me a temporary sense of ease, but if one of my friends or family members gets COVID-19, I can’t even travel to see them. I’m worried I won’t be able to cope when s*** hits the fan.”

Even if travel escapists wanted to jump on a plane and never look back, they’d be met with border closures, mandatory quarantines, and more–adding to their already well-placed fears.

“The would-be escapist traveler is feeling anxious, immobilized, and even a bit angry about the inability to travel,” adds Dr. Manly. “The restrictions, though understandable, are often felt as both protective and restraining in nature.”

Most people know the travel-as-escape feeling in terms of fight-or-flight: the way we naturally (and physically) react when faced with conflict. Fight-or-flight involves a “carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses” which causes an individual to “fight the threat off” or “flee to safety.” I’m getting the hell out of here is actually a very normal message triggered for some dealing with intense emotions, situations, and experiences. Putting a physical distance between the conflict or individual at hand makes the escapist feel safe.

And being away from home presents challenges, which can often be a distraction from the issues individuals are escaping from. Learning a new language, figuring out how to get around a city, and other survival mechanisms, are sometimes exactly what travelers need.

“The would-be escapist traveler is feeling anxious, immobilized, and even a bit angry about the inability to travel.”

According to Dr. Michael Brein, a psychologist with a specialty in travel, “Travel escapism that invites you to increase your feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence…tends to ground you in the present and requires you to deal with virtually everything that is normally mindless back home.”

For these kinds of travelers, the power to control the outcomes of seemingly non-existent issues (such as successfully ordering pad thai from a street vendor in Bangkok) makes all the difference.

Travel escapists need to be completely out of their comfort zone in order to do so. “The net result is that you are, in effect, a problem-solver,” adds Dr. Brein, “dealing successfully with virtually everything you normally take for granted.”

What’s an Escapist to Do?

On the positive side, more people are using the internet to socialize in new ways. Pratt recommends taking this opportunity to reconnect with people we’ve met on the road. “Look at old photos of past trips and immerse as fully as possible into those memories,” she states, “perhaps calling your travel companions and having a phone date to relive the highlights.”

“Not being able to travel can be a blessing in disguise for some,” adds Viktor Sander, a counselor at SocialPro. “Use this period to self-reflect and solve problems you might have been avoiding. When we stop avoiding unpleasant problems and deal with them, things get better.”

Merchant has started taking solo walks to pass the time, and has a new appreciation for her neighborhood, taking time to research interesting buildings or streets she had ignored before. She has found comfort with teletherapy sessions, which she hadn’t thought to try before, and also recommends looking for free mental health hotlines, for anyone who is struggling in a similar way.

It may be a while before traveling for leisure becomes possible for many, but the restrictions placed upon cities won’t last forever. In the meantime, many experts recommend immersing oneself in travel literature and planning guides, connecting with people from around the world via social media, and even taking advantage of “virtual” travel experiences developed by VR industries.

“Eventually, once social distancing, self-quarantining, and other parameters are lifted, there’s bound to be a resurgence in escapism travel,” Dr. Manly reassures. Cooped-up travelers “may find a great deal of healing and stress-relief as they imagine leaving some of the daily challenges and limitations of the pandemic behind.”

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