Feel like you need a vacation? Consider hitting the road.
Studies show that taking a trip, and a road trip in particular, can help clear the mind and reduce stress as well as any medication. With the end of summer on the horizon and the onset of back-to-school anxiety imminent, now is the time to take the wheel on your own mental well-being.
“The (driving) process itself creates a mental cocoon where a necessity to be focused on the road combined with operating a car keeps the mind in the present moment,” writes Anatoly Petrenko, a Las Vegas-based counseling psychologist who teaches travel as therapy. “That helps the mind to relax from grasping to a habit of incessant thinking and gives rise to a spontaneous sense of freedom.”
On a morning commute, stop-and-go driving can exacerbate existing stress and cause frustration that lasts until evening. Daily drives of 10 miles or longer have been associated with depression, impatience and high levels of anxiety and hostility.
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But on the open road, having control of a vehicle can distract the brain from anxiety triggers while also encouraging creativity and self-reflection, said therapist Robin Kirk, executive director of Sage Anxiety Treatment Program in Sacramento. Unlike air travel, which is dictated by schedules and security agents, road tripping allows the driver to feel flexible and free.
“You can decide to turn and go down a dirt road, or take an interesting side trip,” Kirk said. “You can look at a map and really change your plans on an hour-to-hour basis and have a sense of control over where you’re going.”
We talked to Kirk and a few other experts about how to optimize your zen in the driver’s seat.
Stay tuned in
Driving can be a form of mobile meditation, if you aren’t too distracted. To get the most out of your road trip, stay engaged with your surroundings.
▪ Don’t bring work on the road with you.
▪ Bring music that makes you happy, or try a a mobile mindfulness app, such as Headspace.
▪ Listen to a travel guide about the places you’re going, or historical fiction set in your geographic location.
Make it last
Often, the benefits of being on vacation don’t carry over to everyday life, Kirk said. To retain the good vacation feelings, work on truly savoring the trip as it happens.
“Think about tasting a piece of fantastic chocolate – approaching it slowly without judgment and taking in what the experience is,” she said. “Road trips have so many opportunities for that.”
▪ Take photos – reviewing a road trip’s moments later can help you re-create calm feelings.
▪ Keep a journal to help find deeper meaning in your experience.
▪ Don’t jump right back into regular life – take a full day off between vacation and work to savor the trip, get organized and prepare mentally.
Stretching is important during long trips, says Ellen Moe of Solfire Yoga. Here are three poses you can do on the road:
▪ Sun Salutation A: Perform a full-body movement that sweeps upward with a breath to re-energize and awaken yourself.
▪ Ragdoll: Standing with feet apart, hang your upper body over to release tension in the hips and across the lower back. Let your head hang fully to release any tension in your neck.
▪ Prasarita: Take a wide-legged stance – toes in heels out – and place your hands on your hips, engaging your core and hinging forward from your hips in a wide-standing forward fold. Hands can wrap around your ankles for a deeper stretch.