Happy Place

How travelling can impact our mental health

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Fearne Cotton, who has taken over as Stylist digital editor for the day, is an avid fan of travelling. Here, we speak to our readers to discover what they believe are the benefits of travelling the globe, from pressing pause on daily life to simply renewing their faith in themselves.

We don’t need science to teach us about the mental health benefits of going on holiday. From the initial excitement of wheeling our suitcases out of the airport in a foreign country, to the lasting enjoyment of sticking to a daily rota of eating, drinking and pretty much nothing else, we’re already clued up to the advantages of a break from the daily grind.

But what mental health benefits can we reap from the experience of actually going travelling? How does the adventure of setting off to explore the great unknown with only a backpack for company shape us? And what healing benefits can we take from immersing ourselves in a completely new environment?

This is where science comes in. Numerous researchers have sought to discover the exact mental health benefits of travelling, and there have been a whole slew of fascinating discoveries made in the field. Writing recently in Psychology Today, Dr Jean Kim summed a few of these findings up.

Firstly, researchers have found that travelling can kickstart the reward circuits in our brain. This is because the novelty of being in an entirely new place, with new destinations to explore and new languages to hear and speak, throws us out of our comfort zone and forces us to really concentrate on where we are going. This improves cognition and, in turn, refreshes our reward circuits - which can also lead to an increase in creativity, as discussed in The Atlantic.

The act of travelling can also boost our sense of empathy. After all, travelling to new places and encountering new cultures and people is a brilliant way to connect on a more human level, and make us more flexible in our thinking.

Science aside, what do our readers view as the mental health benefits of travelling? We speak to five women to find out why they enjoy travelling, and what they feel they gain from the experience of jetting off to explore the unknown.

“Travelling can completely transform your outlook on life” 

Travelling for me is always such an enlightening experience. Seeing places of incredible beauty makes me feel so grateful and happy. When I’m in an exotic country soaking up the picturesque views I always try and take a mental snapshot – not just of the actual vistas, but also of how I feel at that time: so content and peaceful.

Also, taking a break from everyday activities and thoughts can completely transform your outlook on life. Waking up to the sound of the sea and the feel of the sand makes such a drastic change to the hard grind of London life that it’s a great opportunity to re-set and re-assess.

Meeting new people from different cultures also has a positive mental impact – I think it makes us look outside of our immediate surroundings and observe the wider world around us more.

Rachel Avery

“It’s helped curb my depression” 

Travelling is exciting because it gives you the opportunity to explore new places and meet new people. I especially love holidays in the countryside because they’re so peaceful.

I usually love taking photographs and find this calms me down in terms of my mental health. I’ve been suffering from depression for well over a year but I’ve only been diagnosed with the condition since December. I find that my depression has triggered me to be more creative and, as I like my camera, it has encouraged me to take photos of different subjects. I find that producing amazing pictures and then looking back on them gives me a sense of accomplishment, as I know I’ve taken a beautiful image using my camera or camera phone.

Kami Mistry

“Travelling lets you press pause on your life”

I love travelling. It’s my absolute favourite thing in the whole world: it’s when I am most “me”. I’ve struggled with my mental health, especially in the last couple of years, and the topic is particularly relevant to me right now as I am getting married in a few weeks’ time. We are then going on honeymoon to Malaysia and Borneo for three weeks. This has all coincided with an extremely tough few months for my family, as my mum has been seriously unwell.

As well as all this, my other half and I have the opportunity to move to New Zealand for three months at the end of the year. Again, when my mum was poorly this all went up in the air - although I have been talking about it for a decade, and even had a poster of Milford Sound on my wall when I was 14.

But travelling is incredible for your mental health. It lets you press pause on your life, and gives you the time and perspective you need. You have the opportunity to check in with things and think, it this what I really love doing? Is this making me happy?

It strips everything back to what’s really important. You don’t need piles of stuff, just a bag, some shoes and a notebook, so you can write it all down to show your kids when you’re old - and to remind yourself that yes, you really were there.

Travelling gives you so many new experiences. It refreshes you and opens your mind. It reminds you how enormous the world is and how varied everyone’s experiences are. This can help you put your own problems into perspective. It also shows you how, really, everyone is the same - whether you’re sat in an office in the UK, or riding an elephant in the mountains in Thailand, people are people, life is life, and the big things that really matter cross language barriers and visa requirements! Travel helps you get away from it all and also helps you feel so much less alone.

For me, it’s also what I really, really want to do in life. And there is nothing better for your mental health than feeling fulfilled and actually doing those things you say you’re going to do. So I really hope that we do get to go to New Zealand.

Sally Taylor

“It’s not just about exploring new places, but escaping old ones, too”

Personally, I think the main mental health benefit of travelling is that concept of being carefree: when we go abroad we take this mentality with us that means we forget all about our problems back home. For some, travelling isn’t about exploring new places, but rather escaping old ones. Being in a fresh new environment and meeting new people can give us a different perspective on life. Engaging in a new culture can also result in us being more creative and less anxious.

Not only that, but exploring new places with friends or family can strengthen your relationship. You get to learn new opportunities and experience things together.

Zoey Haynes

“Travel helps me restore my faith in myself”

London can be an incredibly overwhelming place to live, so it’s refreshing to escape from the city, even if you don’t travel to another country. You can leave your London worries behind and go off to discover new cities, foods, views and new people. It can be a great reminder that sometimes the dramas of London are very trivial, and actually the most important things are life are very simple.

It’s also amazing to explore new places and expand your global knowledge. When you get on a plane and fly off to a new location, you are opening yourself up to a whole variety of opportunities. Whether you follow all the tourist-y suggestions, or go off-piste and try to find new places to visit, it is all one big adventure for a couple of days.

On the whole, travel makes you feel alive. You’re transported to a new location, which can really help you to get out of your mind for a little while. Travel allows you to be overwhelmed with new delights - sights, sounds, smells, etc. I work in the city, but try to book as many little trips as I can afford throughout the year as it is so rewarding to take yourself off to ‘find yourself’ somewhere new (as cliché as that sounds).

Taking care of your mental wellbeing is crucial in an age of comparison and self-doubt, so if you can, put the essentials in a bag and run off to a different place. It can help to restore your faith in yourself, even if just for a few days.

Pippa Artus

For one day only on Tuesday 27 March, Fearne Cotton has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Happy Place – a digital sanctuary, focusing entirely on wellness, happiness and good mental health.

For similarly inspiring and uplifting content, check out Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place, available on Apple Podcasts now.

Images: Getty, Roberto Nickson, Guilherme Stecanella, Kinga Cichewicz