Digging my toes into the mixture of shining white and glittering black sand, all that echoed through my mind was a resounding “Aaaaah…” No emails to check, no bosses to answer to, no place to be. Why does a simple change of scenery have such a profound effect in relaxing and rejuvenating the mind, body and spirit?
Our mailboxes, news feeds and bookshelves are all constantly brimming with the promise of improved physical health, better work performance and general success. This myriad of information can overwhelm and distract us from something more important — our mental and emotional state. The freedom to enjoy the moment and get to grips with our fast paced and ultra-connected world is a luxury that can be granted to us by travelling.
My chosen ‘retreat’ was the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula on the north-eastern coast of New Zealand. It is an oasis of secluded beaches (some only accessible by boat or walking tracks), native bush and clear waters. The slogan on the region’s website and pamphlets exclaims proudly that the Coromandel is “good for your soul”, and it’s not a challenge to accept this as fact. So why do we resist taking these mental health breaks more often?
Mental and emotional health is defined as overall psychological wellbeing. How we feel about ourselves, the quality of our relationships and how we manage our feelings and reactions all sit under this umbrella of wellbeing. The intricate web of mind and body weave together to create a happy soul, and keeping the balance is crucial. Our physical and social wellbeing is directly affected by our mental and emotional health, and travel is one of the best remedies for imbalance in any of these areas.
Travel also has a residual effect — the benefits of taking a break continue far beyond the end of the vacation. When we leave our comfortable home life and job behind for a while, our perspective on life and all its complex elements is given the opportunity to refresh and recharge too. Lucy Barnes, a Health Psychologist from Auckland Psychology, believes travel has strong merit in helping our psychological wellbeing. She states “Not only is it time out, but travel can also provide intellectual stimulation, reconnection with family and friends and space to think. Seeing new parts of the world can bring a new appreciation for your own life and country. It can also give you a new perspective on yourself, your own needs and values. Travel can provide a new energy and focus, and can highlight the need for change in your present life.”
Challenges in our lives can be seen in new light once they are no longer so physically and emotionally close — drawing us nearer to important revelations and giving us the enthusiasm to tackle issues. There’s also the likelihood of meeting new and intriguing people who introduce us to new beliefs, opinions and ideas, or who simply inspire us. Even the stresses of travel (say, a missed flight or lack of home comforts) have positive spin-off effects in the form of pushing us out of our comfort zone and encouraging enhanced brain activity and problem solving ability. In these ways, travel provides a multiplicity of mental and emotional benefits that flow on to other areas of life.
Barnes will sometimes recommend a change of scenery as part of her clients’ treatment plans, as the advantages are so numerous. “Travel or a change of scenery can give us a reprieve from our busy schedules and the stress of modern life. Simply not having links to the busy modern world can create time for contemplation, reconnection and appreciation of life. A break from the laptop, mobile phone, school and work commitments brings the space we need for reflection that we often don’t have time for.” Barnes recommends tuning into our new surroundings through the use of a technique called mindfulness, a state of living in the moment and appreciating the present, rather than letting life pass us by while we worry about the past or the future.
Mindfulness is a method that is becoming more and more widely practiced in today’s society — there are a myriad of benefits to be had by paying attention and observing ‘now’, rather than focusing on past or future events we cannot control. The technique directly develops mental and emotional health by increasing self-awareness and acceptance, which can help fight depression and anxiety. The Coromandel was the perfect place to practice this — as I was focusing on the sands’ swirling patterns on the beach at Flaxmill Bay and revelling in the taxing walk that got me there, I thought, we really do need to learn to switch off and just ‘be’. Let it be, and let it go.
From now on, when I plan a trip away, more thought is going to go into how it’s going to help me mentally. Many times I have sacrificed a relaxing break to haphazardly continue the fast pace by blitzing through the countryside to get to the next destination and explore it with camera in hand, ready to upload to social media. Although many places have been seen and captured by my lens, my mind was never captured by those places. It wasn’t given a chance. By choosing destinations that forcibly slow me down by lack of connectivity and bustle, I will be able to bury myself heart and head into cultures and nature, and possibly practice just a little mindfulness.
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