Photo: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

What to Do When Your Dream Trip Is Stressing You Out

by Rebecca Toy Apr 4, 2019

The simple truth is that sometimes a dream trip miserably fails to meet expectations. You’ve pictured it over and over in your mind. You’ve packed your lunches and cut back on lattes and poured over the budget to make it happen. You’ve scoured the reviews and every pin/chat/snap/tweet/post/hashtag you can. Your heart expands as you set out; this is it! And then…splat. Whether it’s a major malfunction or the stealthy creep of disillusion, the disappointment is crushing.

You remind yourself that all great travel stories have bumps in the road. You know that if you can just change your attitude, this trip will be redeemed. Yet that reset button is often elusive. Here are your tangible steps, the actions to reset the overstressed body and mind, to rebuild this disaster trip into a truly defining experience.

1. Check your basic needs and hit the reset button.

When you first start to notice the rumblings of dissatisfaction (snappiness, going through the motions, disinterest…anything that resembles Eeyore) it is time to get primal. When was the last time you slept or ate? When did you last splash water on your face and brush the sweaters off your teeth? When we travel, we get off our routines and all too often let these slide in the pursuit of experience. Yet, there is a reason that most classic stories involve a character shift after a nap, a snack, or a good bath. These seemingly mundane activities are actually essential to keep your brain running at top form.

2. Relax your body so you can think clearly.

A body humming with worry doesn’t relax well. If your brain is racing with the thoughts of an overwhelming new environment or you’re fighting the disappointment of reality creeping into your ideal, your body is activating its alert state. As your body goes tense it is almost impossible for your brain to find a peaceful, accepting state.

What you need to do is hijack your nervous system. First, do a scan of your body, head to toe, and notice your aches and tensions (neck, shoulders, lower back, and the “ready-to-spring” muscles in the back of thighs are prime culprits.) Now, tense all the muscles in your body, or go section by section, and then release those muscles. This is called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Draw your shoulders up to your ears and push them back all the way down. Now for the breath; the best way to get your body back in your control is with intentional breathing. As you slow your breath, inhaling and exhaling in rhythm, your heart rate has to slow to match it. And as your heart rate slows, the rest of your body has to relax. Your fight/flight nervous system switches to your rest/digest nervous system and boom, now your thoughts have a chance to shift and enjoy this journey.

3. Take control of your thoughts.

Now your body is reset and it’s time to call your thoughts to attention. Even on your dream trip, you may be faced with worry, predicting disaster for upcoming moments. You may be wrestling regrets, going over the moments that have already gone by and overanalyzing what was already missed. It’s all too common but this thought process means you are not present in the moment.

Try this exercise: Wherever you are now, attend to your environment with your senses. Quit plotting and planning and use each of your senses, without moving, to carefully explore what is going on around you. Feel the movement of your breath and the fabric on your body. Hear that subtle dripping sound that’s hiding under the blaring music and push aside the worry a leak is near your suitcase. Smell the cardamom coming in the window, tinged with a bit of cannabis coming from the vents. This one type of mindfulness can be done anywhere and helps you break out of negative rumination.

4. Refocus on why you are on this particular trip.

Time for some reflection. Why did you want to go on this particular trip? Even if, at this moment of pessimism, it seems frivolous, naive, or lost already, why did you want to come to this particular place in the vast, varied world? What is the one thing that you picture when you think of this trip? Find a way, if at all possible, to salvage that. It often helps to make your goal tangible. For example, I really wanted to go to Nepal, volunteer with women, and discover what I want to do with the rest of my life. Maybe that happened, but I sure couldn’t see it while I was there, still adjusting and processing. What definitely did happen was my dream to walk in the Himalayas and every part of my being knew it while I was there. Focus on your top priority or find a new one that’s attainable. If you’ve experienced that already and the trip is still stressing you out, celebrate all successes, large or small.

5. Say no to false “have-to’s.”

Saying no is incredibly freeing. When we’re stressed we don’t think as well and become more emotionally reactive. This compounds the stress, forcing us into more frantic behavior with more rigid thoughts. In travel, this often looks like the pressure of visiting all those “have-to” spots that really aren’t mandatory at all. Honestly, other than holding on to your passport and staying out of jail, the rest will sort itself. When we’re stressed and away from home it’s important to do the opposite of the urge to schedule and control. Ditch the itinerary and even sit down and let yourself “waste” a day.

6. Embrace spontaneity…with a bit of structure.

A lack of spontaneity often creates stress on vacations for those who seek new experiences but naturally march to the drum of organization. Simply telling someone to be spontaneous is like telling someone not to worry, completely unhelpful for those that struggle. Being spontaneous isn’t something you can think through. Some people simply have more comfort with risk-taking (and don’t even see how the word risk applies to being spontaneous). For the rest, here are a few ways to embrace some chaos:

  1. Practice letting non-serious things go. What is the worst thing that can happen if you set your plan aside? Is the feared outcome likely to happen? Is it really that bad? If it’s not likely or not that bad then try letting the worry pass.
  2. Trust yourself to make good decisions. Think for a minute about all of the decisions you make in your life that don’t require or allow for much research. You’re the same person when traveling. Deciding to do something different that seems spur-of-the-moment still requires you to make incredibly rapid decisions with all the information at hand. You do this every day. You got this.
  3. A bit of structure actually helps many to be more spontaneous. Striding boldly out the door with absolutely no direction is daunting. Deciding to catch the train and explore a certain area of a city, without reading a bunch of recommendations, is much more manageable.
  4. Find your reason. Your approach to your trip has been stressing you out. Finding the joy, surprise, challenge, or lesson in the unplanned is what you’re after now. Choose a phrase that helps you remember this. Whenever you feel the insidious doubt that you’re missing something better, bring that phrase to your mind and be exactly where you are now. With a relaxed body, a mind in the moment, and your prior expectations burnt to ash, you’re now ready to have a real adventure.

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