Does Travel Count as Therapy? Why Tourism is Great for Your Mental Health

Tourist in Paris listening to audio guide and walking around the city

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers reviewed the potential benefits of tourism for individuals with dementia.
  • Travel may help to improve well-being for those struggling with mental distress.
  • Exploring a new environment through travel may assist individuals with distress, so these insights should inform future policy.

We know the benefits of art therapy and music therapy, but a new study shows how travel therapy may be another type of intervention that can be added to the list.

A recently published journal article in Tourism Management found that the experience of going on a vacation can be beneficial for people who navigate dementia. Researchers note how tourism experiences may provide positive impacts as a dementia intervention.

Not only is travel therapy beneficial for those with dementia, but it can help those who struggle with other mental health issues as well.

Given how travel was disrupted by the pandemic, it may be worthwhile to consider how it may impact individuals with mental health struggles.

Understanding the Research

Researchers explored how travel engages feeling, thinking, doing, and sensory experiences to develop a framework based on existing positive psychology interventions for dealing with dementia.

By drawing on the benefits of positive psychology, some tourism interventions include experiencing a theme park, beach-related travel, and family trips. In this way, travel may benefit both those who deal with dementia, as well as other mental health challenges.

This research is one of the first to explore connections between tourism experiences and mental health interventions through the lens of positive psychology, with such benefits as savoring the moment, feeling gratitude, and thinking about positive experiences.

Travel Can Restructure Your Mind

Psychotherapist with Mindpath HealthTaish Malone, LPC, PhD, says, "This study supports that restructuring your mind can be more helpful when your stimuli, environment, people, duties, and so forth change."

Sensory and cognitive stimulation is important for mental health, as well as exercise. When people go on vacation, they find themselves in a new environment and different culture, and are physically moving in ways they may not at home.

Despite potential benefits, Malone recommends, "Travelers should be cognizant that while travel will offer some reprieve, the assumption that other countries aren’t faced with similar issues may be too much of a blindly optimistic view that could lead to further disappointment."

"Political unrest and social disruptions are not lost in other parts of the world. Travelers should do their research to make sure to choose places and/or locations to best meet their overall needs," she says.

While there is research on the psychology of travel, Malone notes that most discuss the purpose of travel as being a great determiner of the experience.

"Motivators range from those seeking mental reprieve to exposure and connection of either their own or another culture," she says.

"The intentions behind a person’s travel plans will determine the expectations they may have of the trip and if it can be perceived as beneficial. No matter the reason behind traveling, the mindset should always embrace the best the experience has to offer," she explains.

Mental distress may contribute to distortions that impact life experiences, according to Malone.

"This is not generally conducive to enjoying some experiences, since it limits functionality and significantly interferes with their outlook and relationship with themselves, other people, their work, and even their embrace of enjoyment in life," she says. 

Taish Malone, LPC, PhD

Travelers should be cognizant that while travel will offer some reprieve, the assumption that other countries aren’t faced with similar issues may be too much of a blindly optimistic view that could lead to further disappointment.

— Taish Malone, LPC, PhD

In her therapy practice, Malone has often heard feedback from clients that support the idea that expectations and outlook greatly determine a person’s experiences regardless of where you are or what you do.

Malone highlights, "Some may have a distorted view that they will not have to continue to work on their growth strategies just because the stressors they once had were specific to their at-home experiences. However, they should focus on using the travel experience as a reset to choose better practices of experiencing life altogether."

"Many clients have benefited from seeing the wonder of life and what is important without the 'noise' of their daily grind, and returned with a new perspective. Yet, I have had others who were so intent on their own rigid ideals that they returned even more cynical," she says.

While a change of scenery and the absence of deadlines may help, Malone notes that admiring the beauty in life is possible no matter where you are.

Finding a Sense of Balance

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, "The research suggests that traveling to new environments offers a social and emotional experience that boosts happiness hormones and leads to new learning in ways that differ from the habitual structure of our everyday environment."

Although more research is needed in the area of travel and enhanced functioning in people with mental distress, Weaver notes that there is already proof that creative activity and experiences help to stimulate the brain.

Weaver recommends, "Think about how important it is for you to unwind after work, or how many of us look forward to the weekend. We all need ways of mentally and physically escaping. Our brain is always seeking a way to help us blow off steam and re-establish a feeling of balance."

Getting out of the country for a period of travel may provide that mental or emotional escape, according to Weaver.

"Looking out into that vast ocean can feel like a million miles away from the problems at home," she says.

"Traveling out of the country can also help us shift our perspective and remind us that our problems are small compared to the largeness of the world; the world extends beyond our corner."

Traveling out of the country can be a reminder that one does not have it as bad as one thought, as Weaver notes that happiness is not determined by material possessions or wealth. 

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

The research suggests that traveling to new environments offers a social and emotional experience that boosts happiness hormones and leads to new learning in ways that differ from the habitual structure of our everyday environment.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

While travel may be treated as a luxury experience, Weaver notes that research shows that traveling adds a flavorful ingredient in the recipe for optimal brain functioning.

"In the absence of stimulating activities and experiences, our brain becomes bored and falls asleep," she says.

"For people who are oppressed due to their financial status, sexual status, or citizenship status, it’s safe to assume that there are perceived threats that cause psychological limitations to traveling."

For those who are trans, Weaver notes they may feel unsafe traveling due to transphobia.

"For those who don’t have citizenship, they might fear not being allowed back into the country once they leave," she says.

The mind does not know the difference between imagining something and actually doing it, so Weaver encourages a rich use of the imagination if physically traveling is not an option.

"That’s what we do when we meditate, and the scenery is a beach or a mountain," she says.

Weaver explains, "Neuroscience teaches us about the plasticity of the brain and the possibility of recovering the parts of our brain that we thought we lost. Traveling can lead to the release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which cause our bodies to heal and function well." 

"Travel is more than just a luxury, it's a necessity. It may be the only time we stop and smell the roses. Travel can help us to remember what we are living for instead of forgetting what we have because we're busy in constant pursuit of what we don't have," she concludes.

What This Means For You

Travel may offer unique benefits as a mental health intervention. If you or someone you love have not explored tourism as an opportunity to improve quality of life in terms of mental health, it may be worth considering.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Wen J, Zheng D, Hou H, et al. Tourism as a dementia treatment based on positive psychologyTour Manag. 2022;92:104556. doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2022.104556

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.