Travel as therapy for life's crossroads

  • Article by: ALEXIA ELEJALDE-RUIZ , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2014 - 1:09 PM

New experiences and visions of the world can bring comfort, encourage rejuvenation at life’s emotional crossroads.


Natural settings as grand as Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina can help heal emotional wounds.

Photo: Natacha Pisarenko, Associated Press

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Tammy Russo always loved to travel to far-flung places: Morocco, Bhutan, Indonesia. But after her father’s cancer diagnosis, the Chicagoan channeled her wanderlust to destinations they could enjoy together: Italy, Greece, Sedona, Ariz.

After her dad’s death in 2010, Russo spent the first anniversary of his passing on a vacation that honored both his generous spirit and her adventurous streak. She hooked up with travel company Roadmonkey (, which plans and leads “adventure philanthropy” expeditions, to trek across glaciers in Patagonia and help rebuild a decaying coin laundry in the inner city of Buenos Aires.

“It was about celebration, trying to establish a new normal that had elements of what the past was,” said Russo, 51.

Travel can be a powerful guide at an emotional crossroads, whether you’re grappling with a death, heartbreak, job loss or burnout.

The benefits of seeking succor after a loss are not just psychological. A recent study found that the risk of heart attack or stroke doubles in the 30 days after a person loses his or her partner and remains 25 percent higher among the bereaved a year later.

Connect with something bigger than self

What kind of trip will help you heal depends on who you are and what you’re going through.

If a stressful situation has you ruminating in an exhausting loop, taking a trip that is eventful and challenging, such as a volunteer or adventure vacation, can help clear those thought patterns so you can approach the problem from a different perspective, said Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of “Smart Change” (Perigee Trade).

Such outward-looking, comfort-zone-busting trips give you an appreciation for novelty that is necessary for creative thinking, Markman said. When stuck in a rut or in need of inspiration, exposing yourself to awe-inspiring natural phenomena or to creative meccas like New York or London connects you with something bigger than yourself.

Karen Schaler, author of “Travel Therapy: Where Do You Need to Go?” (Seal) and creator and host of “Travel Therapy” TV segments, said volunteering at an orphanage in Malawi helped her reboot after quitting her 15-year career as a hard news TV reporter.

“It made me realize you don’t want to waste time,” she said.

For Chelsea Gustafson, taking a Roadmonkey trip through Vietnam helped give her the confidence she needed to quit her job and break up with her boyfriend to pursue her travel dreams.

Gustafson, who said she had spent most of her life playing it safe, biked 300 miles in the central highlands and helped build a working farm to grow food for a boarding school. She said she felt that she got the most out of getting lost while wandering the village and conversing with locals despite the language barrier.

“It taught me that I was resourceful enough to figure it out and make decisions and take care of myself no matter what the circumstances,” said Gustafson, 30, who now is working on a doctorate in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Find a new internal equilibrium

People should keep in mind that exploring new territory often is unpleasant in the moment, when the menu is unintelligible or the bus stop can’t be found, but its value lies in the memories, Markman said.

“Being able to look back on a rich collection of experiences is what makes people fulfilled,” he said.

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