Despite the downturn, you need a vacation

You work long hours at the office and barely see your friends and family, so book a house or serviced apartment and “enjoy quality time together around the clock.”
You work long hours at the office and barely see your friends and family, so book a house or serviced apartment and “enjoy quality time together around the clock.”iStockphoto
/ Source: Forbes

Karen Schaler's career as a journalist and TV correspondent has led her all around the world, including combat zones in Bosnia and Afghanistan. But when it's time for her to take a break from living in tents and hopping airplanes, she finds herself packing her bags for another type of destination entirely. Try Hawaii to surf with her 60-year-old mom.

"I found that I use travel when I'm stressed, when I'm upset," says Schaler, whose book "Travel Therapy: Where Do You Need to Go?", highlights over 100 destinations for the stressed-out, broken-hearted or existentially confused. "Travel can empower people," she says. "I really believe you can change your attitude by changing your environment."

Of course, navigating 10-foot waves and a week alone with your mother may not be everyone's idea of relaxation, but the idea of changing your environment—especially if the vacation is conscientiously therapeutic, such as culinary school for the fast-food dependent or a spa resort for the perennially harried—can actually do wonders to your stress levels and mental health.

"Vacations are important," says Patricia Gerbarg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College. "People are constantly surrounded by demands, constantly adding stress, so our stress response is overactive." Gerbarg, who co-authored "How to Use Herbs, Nutrients and Yoga in Mental Health Care", is talking about the balance between our sympathetic nervous systems, which give us those fight-or-flight responses and keep us alert, and our parasympathetic ones, which allow us to rest. Changing our environment or routine, she says, allows us to recharge that parasympathetic part of the nervous system.

Restoring this part of our nervous system not only ameliorates the stress, it also allows us to perform our jobs and daily routines better. Having the mind in near-constant survival mode, "ironically often prevents it from finding a way out of a difficult situation," says yoga expert Neo Moreton. "Survival mode is not good for strategy or long-term thinking; it prevents us from seeing the big picture."

How often do we pack up for vacation? According to travel Web site Expedia, which has been polling American workers about their vacation habits for nine years, about one-third of employed adults (34 percent) usually do not take all of the vacation days they receive each year, an increase from 31 percent reported in 2008. This neatly contrasts the 34 percent of adults who reported feeling better about their job and feeling more productive upon returning from vacation.

From yoga to a leisurely after-dinner walk to a high-energy spin class, there are numerous (healthy) ways to "escape" and relieve stress in daily life. Everyone has their favorites. The same is true for vacations: One person's dream getaway could be another's nightmare. Schaler may opt to go zip lining, for example, while you prefer to meditate on the beach.

And while you don't need to book a suite at a luxury spa resort in Marbella, Spain, to recharge, per se, getting away from our surroundings is liberating and offers a broad view of our lives. "Sometimes you don't realize how stressed you are till you get out of it," says Gerbarg. "Going away gives us that distance to recover perspective, to get our priorities straight."

This can be something as modest as, say, renting a bike for the day. "A number of U.S. cities, including Denver, offer free bike rentals," says travel expert, journalist and author Peter Greenberg. "For four hours, you can bike, go where you want to go. You just give them your license and retrieve it when you go back to return your bike."

Easy enough, but here's another low-level option: book a hotel room in your city (or one nearby) for the weekend. Eliminating household responsibilities for two or three days can allow you to see your corner of the world with fresh eyes, and, as Greenberg notes, "It's a real buyer's market for packages for rooms and hotels—you don't even have to travel."

If your family is too large and unwieldy to contain in one room, decamping to a rental house for the weekend is a fun alternative. From cozy ski lodges to stately Arts and Craft mansions, there are houses and flats available for swap or in every price range. Juliet Kinsman, editor of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a boutique luxury hotel company that also has a line of travel guides, says that staying in someone else's home can "remove the drudgery of domesticity, making family time glamorous and exciting."

But most important: Make sure your vacation doesn't add to your woes. "For some people, travel is stressful," says Schaler. "Get travel books, find a travel agent. Travel should be therapy, not something that adds to your problems."

Greenberg agrees: "You want to give yourself options. One of my bad four-letter words is the word 'plan.' When you over-plan, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment."

"The key to life—as well as travel—is how well, how fast, how intelligently we adjust," he says. "If you can do that, you're set."