These are unprecedented times, sure. But that doesn’t mean a getaway is off the table.
It had been a tough year: first my soon-to-be husband had been laid off — twice — in the 3 months leading up to our wedding. Then, shortly after our wedding, I was given, then subsequently laid off from, my dream job after a merger.
We were supposed to be beginning our lives together in newlywed bliss — not worrying about how we were going to be paying the rent.
I felt ashamed and scared for the future. I had no idea what the future held and even getting out of bed, let alone job searching, felt just too difficult to manage.
So I did something that many (including my parents) thought was irresponsible: I wrangled my husband and my rescue beagle into the car and drove to Shenandoah National Park with only a tent and some sleeping bags.
The trip wasn’t very far and we didn’t spend very much on it (just gas, a park entrance fee, and the $20 a night for a campsite) but it was the best money I ever spent.
Now let me be clear: Neither of us were really “outdoorsy” people before this. We’d only gone camping once before and never somewhere quite this “wild.”
Both of us were terrified of black bears — and we ran into three during our time in the national park — but there was something about the wilderness, the spotty cell service, and the adventure that forced me to forget about my worries for a little bit and live in the moment.
Escaping our loud NYC life — even just for a little while — gave me the clarity I needed to find my self-esteem again, so I could return focused and ready to tackle what was next.
That road trip was 4 years ago, but it’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten: Sometimes we need a literal change of scenery for our mental health.
“For some people, changes — including change of setting — feels good because the newness is rewarding,” says Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
In addition, having the time to relax our minds and take a break from responsibility and daily pressures can help us sleep better, de-stress, and release some of our anxiety.
“Our bodies and our brains need to rest,” says psychotherapist Catherine Saxton-Thompson. “We feel better when we get that rejuvenative rest.”
This can help improve your physical health and minimize burnout, and it may also have beneficial impacts on your mental health and productivity.
For example, one older study involving lawyers — commonly considered a high-stress job — found that vacations and leisure activities reduced depression and alleviated some job stress.
Survey findings from 2013 reported that most people in HR believe employees who take more of their vacation days outperform those who take less.
Of course, to reap the mental health benefits, you actually have to make an effort to step away from your problems. This can mean setting aside electronics and limiting screen time so you actually disconnect from your responsibilities and stresses.
“It’s not a true break if you’re engaging in the same tasks as you were at home,” says psychiatrist Alexis Lighten Wesley. “If you’re going to really prioritize your mental health, you have to set boundaries and focus on the present.”
The pandemic has, of course, impacted our ability to travel like we used to. But that doesn’t mean that taking a vacation is totally off the table.
In fact, it may be even more important for us to take a break.
In addition, the uncertainty of the pandemic — and how long it’s going to last — has made many of us more anxious or depressed.
Of course, booking a trip to Europe or globe-trotting is irresponsible and dangerous, but we still can — and should — take breaks from work and our daily routines in responsible ways.
For example, I recently took a short overnight trip about an hour from my home in the woods of the Catskills with my husband and 13-month-old. It was a socially distant, safe, and incredibly rejuvenating trip, especially after being cooped up under one roof since March.
Camping is one of the lower risk activities (according to NPR) that can be done during the pandemic because it’s inherently an activity with minimal human contact. It’s also great for your mental health because it allows you to spend time in nature.
“Nature has tremendous benefits for one’s mental health. It reminds us of a slower pace and is a mindfulness exercise in itself,” says clinical psychologist Lauren Cook.
“Nature is also full of unpredictability that is exciting for the brain,” Cook adds. “We never know what animal might pop out, how the stars will look overhead at night, and what laughs we might share around the campfire.”
Even if you don’t want to — or can’t — go anywhere, you can get the same benefits from a staycation.
“It’s more challenging and requires thinking outside of the box, but is definitely possible,” says Wesley. “The key is to treat the staycation similarly to how you would if you were actually on vacation. Set aside work and electronics for a designated period of time, be strict with these boundaries, and stimulate creativity by engaging in new, fun activities.”
These new activities can include taking walks, going bike riding, painting, taking a drive, or even just relaxing with a good book.
“Anything you can do to shake up the monotony of your routine,” says Cook. “Make sure you’re getting some fresh air every day — even if that includes sitting near your window and enjoying the breeze.”