Staying relaxed on the road isn’t always easy, even when you’re enjoying the best trip of your life. Language barriers, missed connections, and luggage snafus are all part and parcel of any trip. What is easy is letting these stressors overwhelm you and turning that trip into the Worst Vacation Ever. Not only does that mess up the travel plans that you’ve been working on for however long, but it also blinds you to the other things that may or may not be going on around you.
See, an interesting thing about stress is that it doesn’t just mess with your perception of the world (“I’M LOST AND IT’S THE WORST THING EVER!!!”); it also messes with your neurological makeup. That’s right: stress changes your brain.
Adults spend the bulk of their time in the cortex, using rationalization to interpret and interact with the world, while infants and toddlers — whose brains are undergoing the biggest expansion known to humankind — are much more reliant on their brainstems and midbrain to do the same. It’s part of the reason infants are so much more reactive than adults are to, say, the lights going out or a caregiver leaving them with a babysitter. The younger we are, in a very general way, the less capable we are of rationalizing our way through stressful or unfamiliar stimuli.
Here’s the kicker, though: when we’re stressed- especially if it’s the sort of stress where we feel the world is ending — our brains revert, our cortices become less functional, and we respond to the world more like the infants and toddlers we once were. It’s purely a survival mechanism our bodies concocted in case we were being mauled by lions or something — since rational thinking isn’t strictly necessary for basic survival, the brain shuts it down so it can prime our more essential bits to fight, flee, or freeze.
However, it can be rather disruptive, as anyone who has ever been stressed or traumatized can tell you. Not only can it blur out your ability to decide if you really do need to spend an extra $500 on a new plane ticket when your flight is cancelled, but it can keep you from being able to remember where you are in a city, whether you need to bribe the local police, or the description of the stranger who wandered off with your drunk traveling companion. Even worse: your body deals with sleeplessness, hunger, and illness in similar ways, so being well-rested, (relatively) well-fed, and healthy will also affect your ability to pay attention to details!
What this boils down to is that relaxation on the road isn’t simply about having a good trip; it’s also key to helping you stay safe when faced with adversity of any sort. This in no way exonerates anyone who preys on stressed or hysterical travelers, or blames said travelers for any misfortunes they may encounter while worked up. Instead, it strengthens all of us so that we can cope with the inevitable bumps and bruises we’ll face while on the road.
But how to stay chill, exactly? As a high-strung individual, I’ve compiled a veritable arsenal of options over the years that have served me well — at least when I’ve remembered to use them! Here’s a list of ideas — both for your pre-trip prep and your in-the-moment use — that come from myself and a broader community of super-serene Go Girls:
- Be coherent! Place your hand over your heart and follow its beat as you breathe in and out. Your heart rate should increase as you inhale and decrease as you exhale; when you achieve a steady balance between the two, you’ve attained coherence. Similar to meditation and yogic deep breathing, heart coherence engages your ventral vagal complex to help you feel relaxed, safe, and happy. Use it (or any breathing technique) to calm yourself down when you start getting worked up, or as an end-of-the-day relaxant before sleeping. If using your heartbeat feels too weird, you can do “belly breathing” by placing your hands on your diaphragm and trying to use your stomach to raise and lower them with each inhalation and exhalation.
- “I think hot tubs in hotel rooms are very de-stressing, as is chocolate.” -Beth, IL
- “I like to have a packing list. That way I can coordinate my accessories for maximum chicness and I can use it on the way back to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.” -Siobhan, DC
- Several Go Girls suggested carrying a neck pillow for those long plane, train, or bus rides. If you’re feeling particularly luxurious, bring along an eye mask and some earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep in even the most crowded hostel!
- Look for local opportunities to get physical, whether through yoga, a hike, or a salsa class. Physical activity that stimulates both sides of your body allows both hemispheres of your brain to connect better when you’re facing stress or anxiety.
- “While adventure is the goal, sometimes you have to tone it down. Look for the familiar from time to time.” -Nick, CO
Got some pro tips of your own? Let us know in the comments!