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Nature Can Help You Have a Better Vacation, According to a Travel Psychologist

June 30, 2018
6 min read
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When we feel burnt out, our first instinct may be to line up a few PTO days and take a vacation. But even getting a change of scenery may not be enough to help us relax.

In fact, we often return from time off feeling exhausted and stressed out, something often called the post-vacation blues.

But it turns out, how we spend our vacation can have a significant affect on how restorative that getaway is — and a growing body of research points toward nature as the key to achieving noticeable, more lasting benefits from our travels.

As far back as 2010, Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology and author, was quoted in "Science Daily" about his findings. "Often, when we feel depleted, we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature."

More recently, travelers have taken a new interest in communing with nature while on the road. In 2017, for example, the practice of "grounding" — ultimately, walking barefoot outside — was hailed as the next great cure. A 2012 paper from the "Journal of Environmental and Public Health" was cited for its findings that walking barefoot not only helped people achieve a state of "subjective well-being" but also helped them enjoy physiological benefits. Among them? Decreasing cortisol secretions to assuage symptoms of stress like anxiety and irritability.

All the sightseeing, museum tours, souvenir shopping and, frankly, casual day-drinking can be fun ways to experience a destination. But they don't necessarily allow travelers any time for quiet observation or unstimulated relaxation.

This doesn't mean you should stop exploring cities and visiting cultural attractions during your vacations. It definitely doesn't mean you need to forgo frozen tropical cocktails, either. But deliberately carving out time to relax outside — surrounded by nature — should be a priority for travelers interested in getting lasting physical and psychological benefits from every getaway.

The next time you need a break, try one of these tips for reconnecting with the great outdoors. And don't worry — you don't have to summit a mountain or spend a week on a deserted island to enjoy the benefits of good, old-fashioned nature.

Take a walk

In a groundbreaking 2015 study, published in the, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” research showed “that nature walks reduce a person’s chances of ruminating, which in turn lessens their chances of developing depression and other mental illnesses.”

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Ultimately, the study demonstrated that positive cognitive changes in the way people think and view themselves can be triggered by time spent walking in nature. A 90-minute minute walk in nature kept participants from falling into a trap of negative thoughts. A 90-minute walk in the city? Not so helpful.

Head to the hot springs

A 2015 study published in "Advances in Preventive Medicine" by Drs. Lolita Rapoliene, Arturas Razbadauskas and Antanas Jurgelenas showed that bathing in hot springs can lead to marked decrease in distress. Their paper concluded that balneotherapy (soaking in mineral springs, basically) "reduces distress by reducing the health risk posed by distress by 26%, increasing the health resources by 11% and reducing probability of general health risk by 18%."

But you don't have to take the word of three Lithuanian doctors to believe in the health benefits of taking a dip in a steamy mineral bath on your next vacation. After all, even macaques in Japan have been known to routinely bathe in hot springs.

Published in "Primate" this May, a study — “Beneficial effect of hot spring bathing on stress levels in Japanese macaques,” led by Rafaela S.C. Takeshita, indicated that “taking a spa reduced stress hormone levels." By measuring specific enzymes and hormones, Takeshita found the macaques actually used the hot spring to stave off seasonal stress.

This body of research may also support the growing trend in using thalassotherapy to cure jet lag. Try it at Forte Village Resort’s Acquaforte Thalasso & Spa in Italy.

Get your hands in the dirt

Being outdoors has proven so beneficial to mental health, a treatment called "ecotherapy" has even been used to treat individuals with diagnosable mental health problems. In addition to taking a walk, an ecotherapy project linked outdoor activities like gardening and environmental conservation work to a 69% "increase in well-being" for people involved.

Give it a try on your next trip by volunteering to work at a farm. Numerous organizations exist to help connect travelers with organic farms around the world, including World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.

Not only will you enjoy the benefits of your long days spent outside, but you'll also be helping independent farmers. Imagine yourself sowing seeds in South Africa, or harvesting figs in Portugal.

Watch a movie

Good news for travelers shut in side by bad weather, or beholden to restrictive business meeting schedules: you can also experience the benefits of nature while remaining indoors.

Stay with us.

Separate experiments in Sweden and, closer to home in Oregon, have shown that simply watching nature films or listening to audio recordings of natural sounds can reduce stress. The next time you're flipping through the TV channels on a crummy night stuck inside a hotel room, stick with an immersive documentary series such as "Planet Earth" or "Blue Planet."

Or read a book

David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Sussex, in England, conducted studies that showed a 68% reduction in stress when people read books. Skip the adrenaline-inducing thrillers and opt instead for a text that — you guessed it — will transport you (at least in imagination) to the outdoors.

I, for one, recently dug into “The Secret Life of Cows” by Rosamund Young; “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” by Alex Preston and Neil Gower; and, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by Peter Wohlleben. Each of these books helped me feel calm and relaxed, a bit more connected with the wild things outside my apartment walls.

Featured image by Photo by Zach Betten via Unsplash