Why we miss travel so much, according to psychologists

May 3, 2020

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Simran Sethi has rarely stayed in the same place for longer than four months in eight years. She’s an author, an educator and a public speaker, yet she says “her identity has been defined by travel.”

“I wrote a book that took me to five continents,” she told me during a Sunday morning phone call to Mérida, Mexico, where she’s been since January. “When I started moving, I thought it was temporary … But I’d get to the next place and say, ‘Where do I see myself?’ And I just kept coming back to, ‘I see myself everywhere.'”

But now that the novel coronavirus has caused the near shutdown of travel, she says, “I don’t know who I am anymore.”

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Sethi isn’t alone. Frequent flyers and travel professionals have described a range of emotions in response to the shutdown of travel operations all over the world. Some say they feel irritable and unmotivated — others are craving the anticipation and excitement that comes with just knowing there’s a trip around the corner. For people whose livelihoods are rooted in travel, they feel understandably anxious, confused and unfulfilled.

“Personally, I feel unmoored, a bit directionless …” said travel writer Erin Lindholm, “because everything about how travel is going to look in the future is such an unknown right now.” Lindholm says she’s already feeling nostalgic about how easy it was, just a few months ago, to cross oceans and borders. “I deeply miss that human connection that invariably comes with travel ….”

It’s easy to imagine that most people, even those who don’t identify as frequent flyers or AvGeeks, are feeling ill at ease. But for people who consider themselves travelers, being on lockdown isn’t just frustrating: It can unravel everything you thought you knew about yourself.

Inside a traveler’s mind

Photo by d3sign / Getty Images.
Photo by d3sign / Getty Images.

“To understand why people like to travel, you have to consider the psychological needs that travel meets,” said Seth Meyers, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, television contributor and writer based in Los Angeles. “At [its] root, travel is a psychologically stimulating activity on a physical, visual and social level. Travel offers a break from the monotony of daily routines and often pulls people out of their comfort zone to the point that they often try new or unusual activities they wouldn’t be inclined to try from … their home base.”

Michael Brein, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author with a specialty in travel, points to Maslow’s pyramid, which illustrates the hierarchy of human needs. Once your basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied, you can begin ascending the pyramid. You fulfill your psychological desire for belonging and love; then develop your self-esteem; and ultimately reach self-actualization, way at the top of the pyramid.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you may be satisfying your psychological needs, growing your confidence and achieving self-actualization all through the act of travel.

“[Travel is] so stimulating and memorable,” Brein said. “We remember our connections with people more than anything else. [And] it happens so fast and furiously. We get rewarded [with] self-esteem and self-confidence. Travel puts you in a situation where new stimuli and novelty is coming at you so fast, and the more that it engulfs you and you incorporate it [in your life], the more you grow as a person.”

Travel becomes not just the way we derive satisfaction, but the lens through which others see us and, ultimately, how we see ourselves.

“For men and women who travel extensively for work,” Meyers said, “the travel — or the constant sense of being in motion — becomes a part of their identity.”

It’s a concept Sethi describes with the language of a frequent flyer.

“The question people ask [me] is, ‘Where are you in the world right now?'” she explained. “They know this is who I am. I am the Executive Platinum status, Diamond Medallion status  … [Travel] is a central part of how I see myself and how other people see me … I’m trying to reconcile how I relate to myself when I’m not out in the world, being fed by the world … How do I orient myself at all?”

Coping with the loss of travel

While working as a policy executive with the Canadian government, Johanna Read kept experiencing burnout, something the World Health Organization has classified as an occupational syndrome. “Essentially, your life becomes a to-do list,” she said.

After her second burnout, Read turned to a psychologist. “She helped me realize that I get bored very easily if I don’t feel like I’m learning and growing. So, I create work for myself to keep feeding that insatiable need to learn and be challenged, which eventually leads to being overwhelmed with work and commitments.” Then, she turned to travel.

Before the pandemic, Read — who is now a management consultant and freelance travel writer and photographer — says she traveled once or twice a month. “Exploring a new country and culture … is the best way to satisfy my need to learn and be challenged.”

Many frequent travelers, Brein said, are high-energy and seek novelty. He describes serious travelers as people who are “quest-oriented seekers” and “action-oriented participators.” During this time of shelter-in-place orders and self-isolation, “we’re not getting that sort of satisfaction in our lives that travel offers us,” Brein explained. “It’s no wonder we’re going to feel more pent-up, anxious [and] frustrated.”

So, how do you cope with having your wings clipped?

“I have other techniques to keep burnout at bay that I need to rely more on right now,” Read said, citing mindfulness exercises, writing and other creative activities, taking walks and enjoying time outside.

Meyers says that looking forward — and preparing for a time when we’re not all sheltering in place — can help people manage the loss of travel.

“To reignite a sense of hope and freedom, start designing your first post-quarantine trip today and be ready when health officials determine it’s safe to travel again,” he said. “Research shows that the anticipation of a vacation brings more satisfaction than the actual vacation itself, so men and women can derive some gratification during quarantine simply by looking forward to their next planned trip.”

Brein also says it’s a good time to think about what comes next. Maybe you’ll lose yourself in a book about someone else’s travels, or your own travel photographs. But as long as you’re “realistic and cautious,” he said, you can begin to ask yourself, “What can I do next?”

There may be no substitute for travel that feels as deeply enriching and satisfying, especially for those of us who use it to maintain excitement, manage anxiety, connect with others and stay challenged and engaged. But this time in lockdown has helped some travelers gain a new perspective.

Finding home

When a work trip came to an abrupt halt, travel writer Olivia Balsinger found herself quarantining alone in a secluded bungalow in Krabi, Thailand. She tells me it’s the longest she’s been in one place for half a decade. “Without the distraction of where and what my next move will be, my mind [is] churning,” Balsinger said. “I question why I never took the time to breathe in the first place, or why I’ve always believed my life needs to be set in the fast lane.”

Now, after 51 days, Balsinger said she began “to realize [her] constant need to schedule travel was to fill a void.”

The more time she spent away, the more she felt estranged from her home. “Suddenly, I wasn’t going home anymore because I didn’t know what home was … My priorities will shift when we can begin traveling again. I want to build more of a base and feel more grounded.”

Balsinger isn’t the only traveler who has developed a new interest in the concept of home.

“I am definitely experiencing a shift,” said Robin Hutson, a family travel advisor and founder of LuxeRecess.com. “My internet escapism has shifted from travel to real estate websites, fantasizing [about] where I want to hunker down.”

Brein says travel can be “a form of escapism,” and an opportunity to shift gears or to gain perspective. But that for all of us — whether we’re frequent flyers, self-proclaimed road warriors, nomads or simply people who love to travel — it’s important to have a home base, or at least carve out the time and space to apply our experiences and anticipate what’s next. “I think it’s good to take this time, which is such a rare opportunity, to contemplate all of [your experiences] and see how that may contribute to your own sense of self.”

Whether you’ve found yourself home for the first time in years, or have simply discovered a new understanding of what home is or could be to you, Brein says now is the moment to rest, recuperate and regenerate. Settle down, if only for this strange, unexpected moment and, in anticipation of the new travel experiences ahead, decide where and how you want to go forward.

You might even discover an entirely new understanding of what home is to you. Perhaps home is the people you travel with. Perhaps it’s the city you return to again and again to recharge. And just maybe, it’s a bungalow overlooking the Andaman Sea that you can call your own.

“Who knew,” Balsinger says over email, “that a sleepy beach town in Thailand in the midst of the global pandemic would be the reason this perpetual nomad, normally operating at the speed of light, would want to permanently settle down?”

Photo by lechatnoir / Getty Images.
Photo by lechatnoir / Getty Images.

Sethi says she misses airports. “I miss looking at the board and figuring out where I need to be … I’m fumbling in the pandemic, but drop me in any airport anywhere in the world and I will figure that out.”

In airport terminals and new, unfamiliar cities, is where Sethi feels most at home. “These are the skills I’ve acquired — they’re what I miss. I just can’t wait to get out there and travel again.”

Feature photo by martin-dm / Getty Images.

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