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Travel was once our favorite form of self-care – here’s how to get that vacation high now

A bicyclist rides along Highland Avenue, with the pier closed to beachgoers, on July 3, in Manhattan Beach, California.  (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
A bicyclist rides along Highland Avenue, with the pier closed to beachgoers, on July 3, in Manhattan Beach, California. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
By Rachel Schnalzer Los Angeles Times

Chances are you’ve had to cancel vacation plans this year. You probably felt bummed about it – and guilty for mourning lost trips while the COVID-19 pandemic has caused others to lose much more.

It turns out that disappointment about canceled trips goes beyond feeling sad. For many, travel – and anticipating travel – is a type of self-care. “We tend to use something to look forward to as part of our self-care routine,” said Taisha Caldwell-Harvey, a psychologist and chief executive of the Black Girl Doctor.

Now, because of the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, would-be travelers are stuck in a “holding pattern,” Caldwell-Harvey said. “It’s always a struggle to keep yourself uplifted. (Now) it’s like everyone’s trying to do it with both hands tied behind their back.”

Some use travel as a way to disrupt anxiety and racing thoughts – both before and after a trip. “You’ve never been to the Hawaiian Islands, and you try to predict what it’s going to look like. That’s the kind of soothing thought that puts you to sleep,” said Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. After your trip, you can compare your expectations to the reality you experienced, which also can feel gratifying, he added.

Why does anticipating travel enhance our well-being? And what happens when we no longer have trips to anticipate?

“The emotional system is really geared toward steering people to engage with good things and to avoid bad things,” said Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is why thinking about future events can elicit stronger emotions than reminiscing about past events. Have you ever felt as if your anticipation of a trip was more pleasurable than the trip itself? This is why, Van Boven added.

Some good news: A lack of vacation plans doesn’t necessarily add stress to your life. However, with no trips to anticipate, you have “less beautiful things to think about” when you’re feeling down, Van Boven said.

Fortunately, there are ways to re-create the positive feelings associated with looking forward to a trip.

When we’re focused on day-to-day responsibilities and the latest tragedy in the news, it can be difficult to be excited about the future. And yet, devoting attention to the future is key to receiving the benefits of anticipation, Van Boven said. “We have to do that mindfully, because it doesn’t otherwise happen naturally … especially now that we’re doing less extravagant vacations.”

Planning day trips and other low-key getaways is a great way to get psyched for the immediate future. And it turns out that these smaller excursions can result in some of the same benefits as lavish travel abroad. “The benefits of experiential consumption can be quite modest,” Gilovich said. “Hopefully, people are taking local trips and … using hiking trails and bike paths in their communities that they didn’t use before.”

Take a moment and make a list of parks and attractions near your home that friends from out of town might like to visit. Have you experienced them all? “It’s a rare person that has really taken full advantage of all this around them locally,” Gilovich said.

If you don’t have many amenities around you, then perhaps there’s something you can do. For example, if your area doesn’t have hiking trails, Gilovich recommended mobilizing with others to advocate for more paths in your community. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate. … This can be a local thing where you get a bunch of people in a hiking group,” he said. “Suddenly, you do have enough people that might make a difference so that you can get your local or state government to grant access and provide support for turning an old railroad bed into a hiking trail.”

Besides the hiking opportunities you create in the process, you will have made more friends. “There’s so much evidence that when people are socially connected, they just feel better. And you don’t have to go far to increase your social connection,” Gilovich said.

You also don’t need to leave your home to re-create some of the positives of a vacation. For Caldwell-Harvey, it’s all about creating as many moments of true joy as you can – like that feeling you get when you bust out laughing and “get that burst of emotion in you that feels really good,” she said. “Any time you can create that emotion, it impacts your overall well-being … it actually compounds. And so it ends up leading to a happier life.” And finding moments of joy in your day-to-day life can take the shape of something as small as a specialty tea you treat yourself with, Caldwell-Harvey said.

She recognizes that people, particularly Black and brown Americans who are confronted with news of racial violence, might feel invalidated by the nearly constant barrage of upsetting news – and guilty for finding ways to continue to enjoy life.

Still, she says, it’s critical to find moments of joy amid stress and pain – this might even help you avoid developing mental health challenges later in life, she said. “You’re ensuring your health and the health of your family down the road by taking care of yourself today.”

Caldwell-Harvey has one last tip for anyone looking for a moment of joy amid the pandemic courtesy of a colleague who plans 4-hour vacations in her home. “She orders her favorite food, she has her wine … doesn’t bring the phone in there with her, and she completely vibes out, listens to music and does whatever she wants to do.”

So it’s worth remembering that the next time you’re feeling stressed and could use a vacation to look forward to, a joyful escape could be closer than you think.

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