The psychology of escape and travel


By Katka Lapelosova

For most people, traveling is a positive escape route. It’s natural to want to break away from the routine, work, responsibilities and people that drive you crazy every day. Those Pinterest boards of oversaturated images from Santorini, piles of guidebooks on our shelves, and Duolingo courtyards aren’t a waste of time; escaping somewhere that is not your home is an exciting privilege that should be enjoyed as often as possible.

However, recent COVID-19 disruptions have changed all that; every day there are new restrictions on travel, both nationally and internationally. The virus is highly contagious, and every country in the world has at least one case. For now, most vacations, honeymoons and family reunions are on hold. This has caused its own set of problems for occasional travelers.

“Travel and vacations are a way to change and reorganize identities,” says Karen Stein, a sociologist who studies culture and travel and author of Getting Away From It All: Vacation and Identity. “We can use travel as a way to re-examine our priorities and to devote our time and attention to identities and commitments that we reluctantly have to put on the back burner in our daily lives.

This makes sense for the way Susan in the office spends her two weeks of paid leave each year. She deserves the chance to feel refreshed, renewed and maybe even re-inspired after sitting on a Cabo beach with nothing but endless cocktails and John Grisham novels to distract her from emails from job.

But the psychological connection with this form of escape can be more intense for others. Many avid travelers say they travel to “discover” themselves by being open to new experiences. But in reality, are they just running away from the underlying issues they don’t want to solve?

The preferred route of escape

“In psychology, escape is generally defined as a desire or behavior to ignore, escape or avoid reality,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California. “During traumatic experiences, many people naturally ‘escape’ the situation mentally in order to avoid further distress and psychological damage. “


“When travel is motivated by the desire to escape reality,” she adds, “to embrace an almost fictional experience that is free from the burdens of life … the experience becomes a quality escape.”

Travelers can be particularly vulnerable at this time; with their primary coping mechanism unavailable, adjusting to new routines (often mandated by the federal government) could prove difficult. Times of isolation and self-quarantine can directly impact their mental health in ways they are not prepared for.

According to Lindsey Pratt, a psychotherapist in New York City, travelers “may notice a general feeling of loneliness… a change in the way they integrate into the world around them. Their identity as an adventurer is on hiatus due to COVID-19, and it feels like a deep loss. “

That’s true for people like Rosie Merchant, a New York-based creative producer. “When something stressful happens in my life,” she says, “I immediately look at Skyscanner to find the cheapest and farthest place I can go.”

In the past, she spent a long weekend in Paris during a particularly intense episode of depression. When her sister was released from prison after being charged with drugs, Rosie didn’t feel strong enough to face the consequences. So she hopped on a last minute flight to Japan for a two week trip as a way to cope.

“But now there is nowhere to go,” she added. “I could book a flight and it would give me a temporary sense of ease, but if a friend of mine or family member contracts COVID-19, I can’t even travel to see it. I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope when the shit hits the fan. “

Even if escaped travelers wanted to jump on a plane and never look back, they would face border closures, mandatory quarantines and more, adding to their already well-placed fears.

“The escaping traveler feels anxious, immobilized and even a little angry about the inability to travel,” adds Dr Manly. “The restrictions, while understandable, are often felt to be both protective and restrictive in nature. “


Most people know the feeling of escape in terms of fight or flight: the way we naturally (and physically) react to conflict. Fight or flight involves a “carefully orchestrated but almost instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses” that causes an individual to “fight the threat” or “flee to safety”. Get the hell out of here is actually a very normal message triggered for some in the face of intense emotions, situations and experiences. Putting a physical distance between the conflict or the individual within reach makes the escapee feel safe.

And being away from home presents challenges, which can often be a distraction from the issues that individuals escape. Learning a new language, knowing how to get around a city, and other survival skills are sometimes just what travelers need.

According to Dr. Michael Brein, a travel psychologist, “the travel escape that invites you to increase your feelings of self-worth and self-confidence … tends to anchor you in the present and force you to cope. to pretty much anything that is normally stupid around the house.

For these kinds of travelers, the power to monitor the results of seemingly non-existent issues (like successfully ordering a pad thai from a street vendor in Bangkok) makes all the difference.

Travel escapees need to be completely out of their comfort zone to do so. “The net result is that you are, in effect, a problem solver,” adds Dr. Brein, “successfully treating virtually everything you normally take for granted.”

What’s an escapee to do?

On the positive side, more and more people are using the internet to socialize in new ways. Pratt recommends taking this opportunity to reconnect with the people we have met on the road. “Look at old photos from past trips and immerse yourself in those memories as much as possible,” she says, “perhaps by calling your fellow travelers and having a phone appointment to relive the highlights.” .

“Not being able to travel can be a blessing in disguise for some,” adds Viktor Sander, Advisor at SocialPro. “Use this time to think about and solve problems that you could have avoided. When we stop avoiding nasty problems and fix them, things get better.


Merchant began taking solo walks to pass the time and has a new appreciation for her neighborhood, taking the time to research interesting buildings or streets that she had previously ignored. She has found solace with teletherapy sessions, which she hadn’t thought of trying before, and also recommends looking for free mental health hotlines, for anyone who struggles the same way.

It may be some time before pleasure travel becomes possible for many, but the restrictions on cities will not last forever. In the meantime, many experts recommend delving into travel literature and planning guides, connecting with people around the world via social media, and even enjoying the “virtual” travel experiences developed by the industries of virtual reality.

“Ultimately, once social distancing, self-quarantine and other parameters are lifted, there will inevitably be a resurgence of escape trips,” reassures Dr. Manly. Locked-in travelers “can find a lot of healing and stress relief in imagining leaving behind some of the daily challenges and limitations of the pandemic.”

Published on 04/08/2020

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