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Vacation therapy at life's crossroads

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers

1:00 AM EST, March 4, 2014

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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

Other times, such as when a divorce, death or other trauma has left you emotionally spent, the best healing may occur at a serene place where you give yourself the time and permission to reflect, Markman said.

Sites such as the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif., co-founded in 1996 by mind-body guru Deepak Chopra, offer programs on emotional freedom and work-life balance as well as Eastern healing methods such as rebalancing ayurveda and detoxifying Panchakarma. A host of other wellness programs, many of them luxurious retreats in spectacular locations, are listed at healinghotelsoftheworld.com.

Days after Ryan Sheridan lost a close uncle to a three-month battle with cancer, he was heartened to find himself on a yoga and cooking retreat in Vermont with Pravassa Wellness Travel (pravassa.com). The "omnipresent crushing sense of sorrow and mourning" lifted as he practiced yoga, helped prepare gourmet meals, took walks in the countryside and shared a laugh with other travelers over wine.

The time to himself, without regular responsibilities, helped him process his grief so he could "come back to the daily grind with a little more balance," said Sheridan, 39, who works for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Such inward-looking trips, when "the biggest decision you have to make is do you have a drink at the pool or at the bar," offer relief especially from stress stemming from the hustle and bustle of daily life, Markman said.

It also doesn't need to be a solo venture.

To escape from the frenzied pace of New York City, public relations executive Sarah Evans last fall traveled with her husband and 2-year-old daughter to Argentina and Uruguay. They spent the bulk of their trip at the Four Seasons resort in Carmelo, amid rolling vineyards along the shores of Uruguay's Rio de la Plata, where they did little but enjoy each other's company.

"It was a moment of connection without distraction," Evans said. "I felt so at peace being in this magical place with my two favorite people in the world and experiencing days without having to plan."

The prescriptions

Karen Schaler, who recommends destinations for different emotional needs at traveltherapytrips.com, offered vacation ideas for some of life's tough moments. Note: Some people de-stress best at a spa, and others while ziplining, so know your personality.

Heartbreak: Challenge yourself with a new adventure, like kayaking with whales in New Brunswick or Newfoundland, Canada, for a confidence boost to help you let go of your past.

Death of a loved one: A spa vacation, at such places as Canyon Ranch or Miraval in Tucson, Ariz., can help heal your heart by taking care of you and empowering you for the future.

Job loss: Go hiking in local parks or wilderness areas to help you clear your mind and tackle whatever is ahead.

Burnout: Go sailing in the British Virgin Islands to refuel your mind, body and soul, relaxing at top resorts such as Peter Island Resort and Spa or Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina.

aelejalderuiz@tribune.com