What To Do With Those Post-Travel Blues

“Vacation” me

I had just had the privilege of spending two weeks stomping around Europe with my husband on what I would consider the trip of a lifetime. A full fourteen days of glorious freedom — promptly followed by a sinking dread as I boarded the plane back to Oakland. I counted down: just 24 hours until I’d officially be finding my way through emails instead of quaint alley ways, taking BART instead of bike rides. Vacation. was. over.

I realize this is a very privileged thing to lament about — post-travel blues — but I also know it’s a familiar feeling for many people who are lucky enough to take a break from life, even if you like the life you’re coming back to (as is the case for me).

It can feel like you’re Dorothy getting sucked back into the black and white drudgery of life from the colorful world of wonder — life on the yellow brick road.

Travel can spark something inside that leaves you wanting more. It extracts you from your small world and makes you wonder, what if? What if life on the yellow brick road is really the life for me?

And although I like to flirt with the idea of packing up and leaving our stresses behind, I also know a change in scenery isn’t the longterm solution — but I do think there’s important information to heed from your post-travel blues.

As I was en route to France via train, I listened to an episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast in which he interviewed Michael Pollan about his new book on therapeutic psychedelic drugs. Towards the end, they compared the effect that psychedelics have on the brain to what travel does to the brain: both create a sense of disorder.

As Pollan puts it, many of us struggle with an “ailment of an excessive amount of order in the mind.” He is referring to minds that spend less time imagining and being creative — and more time stuck in the ruts of daily routines and habits.

As we age our brain becomes more orderly. From an evolutionary perspective, the maturing neural grooves allow us to do things easier and more efficiently. They help us navigate back home without much thought or brush our teeth without great effort.

Habits are good, neural pathways are helpful. However, as goes for literally everything, there must be balance.

Too much order, researchers believe, can cause mental conditions such as depression, addiction, or obsessive thinking. Essentially, disorders of the mind in which you are stuck in the rut of a deep neural groove — going round and round and round.

It’s thought that psychedelics create therapeutic “disorder” in the brain. A smoothing of the neural grooves so that you can peak out from their defined edges and see the world around you. It can shift your perspective, soften your ego, and re-kindle a sweet sense of optimism.

Travel does this too.

Travel lifts you from your narrowed reality and shakes up the order in your brain. Often, a happier you emerges.

But being happy on vacation is not news — when you travel you have less stress, less distractions, and as my friend aptly put it “your only responsibility is to feed yourself.” AMAZING. Of course you’re happier.

What’s new for me is the perspective that travel is not simply an escape from the daily grind but a necessary means of rebooting your brain to more readily access your full self.

As Pollan described, it’s as if the deep grooves of our brain are like paths you make down a sledding hill. The paths become more defined after years of living in the same place, working in the same industry, adhering to same routine, etc. What travel does is fill in those paths with fresh snow, allowing us to step up and out and see the totality of ourselves and the world around us.

So travel is important. But travel, as I mentioned, is a privilege — not everyone can do it. And it’s not the ultimate path to self-realization (although likely a helpful tool).

So perhaps the lesson to glean from your post-travel blues is that it’s necessary to break routine and see life from a different vantage point.

This might not mean flying across the world, but maybe it’s as simple as taking a different way home, working from a different location, or enjoying more sporadic croissant breaks (just saying).

Another way to take advantage of your post-travel blues is to actually pay attention to the feelings emerging and look around. After traveling, you’re better able to see beyond your rut. Use this reboot as a chance to think about changes you want to make in your life.

For me, I’m looking at my schedule. I want less of it. There is too much order and not enough time for aimless wander and wonder. I can do something about this without moving to France (I guess).

And lastly, remember your vacation self — don’t lament it. Recall vacation you: laughing, free, at ease. Know that that person is really who you are. The daily grind can cut off access to your true self, covering it up with to-do lists and worries — just like the clouds cover the sun.

But your true self is always there, innately joyous, peaceful, and powerful. Post-travel is a great time to remember this part of you and think of how to more readily access it while not on vacation.

For me, meditation and mindfulness help. Visualizing my shining self each morning helps me to remember my true nature. It’s a reminder that peace resides within, no matter where I am, but that I must take the time to tune in and clear out.

Mindfulness helps as well. Paying attention to my thoughts with detached non-judgement allows me to notice all the clouds I’ve accumulated throughout the day. Are these clouds actually real? Why do my problems seem less significant after a few days away? Your mind can play powerful tricks, mindfulness can help you sift through the illusions.

And one actual final thing before we go: how could I draft a travel post without mentioning the recently late and eternally great Anthony Bourdain?

Like so many others, he’s sparked my zest for travel and inspired me before each of my trips. He not only gave tips on what to eat and where to go — but how to travel with empathy, curiosity, and genuinely connect with the culture around you.

Connection with people who are seemingly different helps us remember our true selves. When you connect with someone of another culture, you see the differences — but the similarities are far more apparent.

You might start to wonder if, maybe, deep down beneath our individual clouds, egos, and cultures — we’re all just the same shining self. What a beautiful contemplation. What an important reason to get out of your rut.

May Bourdain live peacefully in his next lifetime and may we all continue to broaden our horizons towards a deeper sense of self.