Vacation as therapy

Vacation as therapy (focusstock, Getty Images)

Tammy Russo always loved to travel to far-flung corners: Morocco, Bhutan, Indonesia. But after her father was diagnosed with cancer, she channeled her wanderlust to destinations they could enjoy together: Italy, Greece, Sedona, Ariz.

Heartbroken after her dad's death on March 4, 2010, Russo sought to spend the first anniversary of his passing on a vacation that honored both his generous spirit and her adventurous streak. So she hooked up with travel company Roadmonkey (roadmonkey.net), which plans and leads "adventure philanthropy" expeditions, and spent the anniversary trekking across glaciers in Patagonia and helping to rebuild a decaying laundromat in the inner city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"It was about celebration, trying to establish a new normal that had elements of what the past was," said Russo, 51, a Chicagoan who works in strategic advocacy for pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma.

The trip was transformative, Russo said. She recalls tears welling in her eyes as she signed her name, and then her dad's name, on a world map that showed where all the volunteers on the trip came from, and then feeling the tight embrace of a 17-year-old local girl who didn't speak her language but understood her grief nonetheless.

"As corny as it sounds, I knew he was there at that point," Russo said.

Travel can be a powerful guide at an emotional crossroad. Whether you're grappling with a death, heartbreak, job loss or burnout, travel lets you disconnect so you can reconnect, lose yourself so you can find yourself.

The benefits of seeking succor after a loss are not just psychological but also physical. 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.

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

Looking outward

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, 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. (Roadmonkey works with a local nonprofit at each destination to determine what the locals need.)

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 subsequently quit her job and boyfriend to moved to Peru. She now is working on a doctorate in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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.

Looking inward