I’ve often wondered if I might do more good as a travel agent rather than as a psychologist. It has seemed to me that, at least in my own life, I have been more dramatically and irrevocably impacted by certain kinds of travel experiences than I ever have in personal therapy, classroom learning, or supervision.
My trip to Greenland is a fine example of that. The plan was to spend two days in a remote mountain hut in Iceland, located on the largest glacier in this part of the world.
I was working on a photographic book about winter in Iceland and needed to capture images of this spectacular region of high mountain peaks, smoky volcanoes, and thermal lakes with floating icebergs.
If things had gone as planned, I would have done my job and moved on with my life. Like most tourists, I would have had the photos to remind myself of my adventure, but the memories would have quickly faded.
The moment after we arrived, the weather turned treacherous making visibility impossible. It snowed so much and the wind howled so hard that we couldn’t leave the tiny hut. To stay warm, we walked around in circles much of the day and took turns leading aerobic classes inside the tiny hut.
What little food we had, froze solid. We tried to call for help but the radio did not work… we were stranded. Day after day, we waited for rescue, watching our supplies of food and fuel grow perilously short.
We got acute cabin fever and started going for walks and ski expeditions in the blizzard outside. Even when the weather finally broke, nobody came to get us even though it was three days beyond our scheduled pick-up.
By the time the rescue team came to pull us out, we had all given up hope. We were reduced to eating uncooked rice. We were despondent. I can’t recall ever feeling so miserable.
A few weeks later, I would not trade this experience for anything. The world looks different to me now, as does my life. It would have taken me years of psychotherapy to get to the same point.
For the past several years, I have been interviewing people who, like me, have experienced therapeutic transformations as a result of their travels. I have been particularly interested in what it was about their trips that have produced life-altering experiences and what change processes might have been involved that resembled what we do in therapy.
Almost everyone has a story to tell, and interestingly, most of these experiences were not altogether pleasant at the time. In fact, it appears that the most constructive life-altering trips were those that involved some sort of awful, traumatic, or uncomfortable events that forced the person to develop new resources, increase confidence, and solve problems in new ways.
Oh, the stories afterwards may sound very amusing and quite fun, but actually they were not nearly as enjoyable at the time. Quite often, they involved being hopelessly lost, miserable, or frightened. In other words, there was some type of emotional activation that made the person ripe for altered perceptions.
The implication of this premise is interesting because it means that the best stuff that happens on trips are those events that were unplanned and unanticipated. As long as people stay on tour busses, stay in comfortable hotels, eat familiar foods, stick with guides and planned itineraries, they may have a lovely time but they will probably not experience personal transformation.
They will return rested and relaxed, but the effects will not often last very long. But once people stray from what is predictable, force themselves to take constructive risks, embrace unstructured time, or allow themselves to get lost, wonderful things can happen—if the person is not seriously traumatised and has the opportunity to process the experience in a systematic way.
However, such a total shift is rarely necessary. The simple act of leaving home is sometimes enough for many people to act out of their usual roles. Madeleine, for example, is ordinarily very eager to please.
If you asked people who know Madeleine best what she is like, you would hear the word “sweet” mentioned again and again. As such, she is reluctant to assert herself and rarely participates in conflict.
Perhaps that is why her husband, Wayne, was so shocked by what he had just witnessed. They had just arrived at the airport of their destination, weary and irritable. After claiming their luggage, they walked outside to find a taxi where an airport guard pointed to a spot they should stand.
As they proceeded to the appointed station, they overheard the guard yelling at them to stand somewhere else; apparently they had at first misunderstood him. Just as they adjusted their position, they once again heard the man yelling at them.
Madeleine had had quite enough. She calmly walked up to him, and in a voice that neither she nor her husband had ever heard before, told him he was really rude and there was no call to scream at people. If this was how people in his city treated newcomers, it was a wonder anyone ever came back.
The guard looked at her like an insect he debated squashing. “Look, Lady, are you deaf or something? Just get out of the way and let me do my job.”
“You, sir, are not a very nice person, nor are you particularly helpful.” With that, Madeleine, turned and strode away with a determination her husband had never seen before.
Whatever made her act that way, so out of character? Actually, several factors were at work. Madeleine was tired and vulnerable, her nerves stretched tight. Secondly, her husband had not been feeling well.
Whereas normally he would take care of everything, his relative docility throughout the journey stimulated Madeleine to take a more active role. Most of all, however, it was being away from her usual environment, the normal cues and obligations, the people and schedules that ruled her life, that permitted her the freedom to be someone different.
It occurred to me that there might, in fact, be a number of similarities between what happens in good therapy versus what occurs in a particular sort of travel experience that produces transformative, permanent changes.
Here I list some of the commonalties, which could explain why travel sometimes produces transformations that are comparable to that seen in personal therapy.
Mindset ripe for change
Just as the placebo effect and constructive expectations operate so powerfully in therapy, the same is true with transformative trips.
You must be programmed to look for changes, to remain open to them, and to make yourself as accessible as possible to novel experiences that are so often associated with therapeutic gains.
Insulation from usual influences
One of the things that travelling can do that therapy cannot is isolate you from friends, family, and others who often control your life.
Time and time again, I have heard people say that the reason they were able to reinvent themselves while on the road is that nobody knew who they were, or who they were supposed to be. They could be anyone they wanted and nobody knew that was not the “real” them. The hard part, of course, is maintaining those changes upon return.
Listen hard to the best travel stories and so often there will be themes of facing adversity, challenges, discomfort, and fear. The real travel starts once people lose their way.
Nothing like fear or anger or anxiety to help us remember things for the rest of our lives. This emotional arousal can be transcendently positive as well—watching a sunset on a beach, sharing intimate moments with a loved one, or giggling in ecstasy.
Altered states and heightened senses
One of the things about travel to a different environment is that all your senses are at optimal functioning. You smell, see, hear, and feel things that you would otherwise ignore back home.
You become far more sensitive to everything going on around you, and inside you. You are [over]stimulated by the novel stimuli. You become open to experiences that you do not otherwise attend to, or respond to, back home.
In the language of hypnotic induction, you become far more susceptible to influence because you are in a more vulnerable state.
Movement through time, space, and place
There is something about being on the move, which travel represents, that makes us more open to new experiences. Routines and daily patterns are altered, making it more easily possible to experiment with alternative ways of functioning.
There is nothing that one learns on a trip that one could not learn back home; it is just easier to gain a different perspective when you are in the kind of receptive mood that accompanies travel.
Transformative travel is often about solving problems in new ways and facing what you fear the most. Especially in foreign cultures and very novel environments, you can’t get your needs met in the usual ways.
Misunderstandings and miscommunications are common. What you usually do, does not work. In order to survive, you must invent or discover new ways to express yourself, ask for help, and get needs met. If this lesson is generalised back home, then the traveller learns to be more flexible, resourceful, and proactive.
The best things happen once you leave the planned agenda, throw away the map, and embrace whatever you encounter along the way. In travel at least, if everything goes as planned, you probably won’t remember what happened for very long afterwards.
Time structured to promote novel experiences
One difference between a trip and one’s normal life is that you have the time to try new things, experiment with new ways of being and interacting, as well as to reflect on these experiences. One object of therapy is get people to do things that are good for them that they don’t necessarily want to do.
Travel often makes this not only possible but imperative. If you want to get food, to get from one place to another, you must do many things that are uncomfortable. The path of the pilgrim is often suffering.
Public commitments of intentions
Now we get to the tough part: How to make changes last. Just as in group therapy, it helps a lot if people can be encouraged to make public commitments about what they intend to do differently in the future and how they are going to apply what they learned. You need to process experiences systematically.
Having an amazing travel adventure or transformative experience is not enough unless you take efforts to make sense of the experience… create personal meaning, generalise from one situation to others. I’ve noticed that keeping journals during the travels help towards this end.
You need not travel to a foreign country, or even a different city, in order to experience therapeutic travel; it is just easier to make changes when you immerse yourself in a different environment.
Taking a trip, even an adventurous, unstructured one, is no guarantee that you will grow significantly and permanently as a result. Just getting out of bed in the morning in a particular way, facing the day with a spirit of adventure, encountering people with openness and flexibility, pushing yourself to do things differently, is what creates personal growth.
While it is often easier to do this during a trip, away from usual influences and restrictions, these changes can take place anywhere you choose to make them happen. In fact, if travel teaches you one important lesson it is that life is too sweet and short to limit your freedom to mere vacations.
Travel is not really an escape from normal life, nor is it an insulated reality; rather, it acts as a reminder of what is possible for you to experience every waking moment of your life. Only then, will you never be the same again.
Travel for change
As a therapist and trainer of other therapists, I have long been impatient with how long change often takes. It occurred to me that if someone really wanted to change her life, and do it quickly, creating a transformative trip might be the answer.
Based on my research, as well as my own life-altering travel experiences, I offer the following tips for creating your own transformative adventure…
Make a list of what you like to do. Then, throw it away. It is not where you go that matters, or even for how long; the key is which opportunities you take advantage of along the way.
Create a mindset for change. You are more likely to be transformed by an experience if that is what you expect and plan for.
Insulate yourself against usual influences. You need to immerse yourself in a novel environment, one that is likely to challenge you to solve problems in new ways.
Get lost. The most enduring memories often occur as a result of unforseen experiences. It is when things go wrong, when you encounter the unexpected, that you are most likely to be changed.
Experiment with new ways of being. Travel is about being in motion, about spontaneity and breaking routines, about taking constructive risks. Since nobody knows you when you are on the road, you can reinvent yourself in new ways.
Plan for reentry. The sad truth is that the effects of travel don’t last long. You must build changes into your daily life. It helps to make public commitments of what you intend to do differently.
Plan boosters. A trip is a kind of single-session therapy. It can certainly get you going in the right direction but might not be enough to keep the momentum going. Take what you learned and plan to keep moving forward.
The best thing you can do, even if you travel alone, is to involve your family and friends in the process. Teach them what you have learned and let them know what you intend to do differently.
Process the experience afterwards. Write in a journal about what you experienced. Talk to friends and family about what you learned. Consult a therapist to help you put things in perspective.
A version of this article was first published in the April 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.