Tips for Making Summer Vacations Stress-Proof: or at least stress-resistant
By now, most of us have either taken the long-awaited summer vacation or are in the midst of planning the final details of packing. Whether you are fantasizing or fretting at this final stage of planning your vacation, there are several things you can do to ease into a trip. Despite the sub-title, it is highly unlikely that there is such a thing as a stress-free vacation. But by keeping a few concepts in mind, you can minimize the strain of travel, whether you are traveling alone, or with your partner, and even with the whole family.
Frantic trips to the travel section of the local drugstore for more bottles of hand-purifier or TSA approved packing gear add to the tension that precedes a trip. Last-minute hunts for supplies are often attempts to manage travel anxiety. Travel anxiety is normal. In a piece about in-flight emergency medicine, the (June 21st) issue of the New York Times revealed the extent of this commonality: When the captain of an international flight asked passengers if anyone had a pain-reliever for a sick passenger, only two or three hands went up, but when he asked if anyone had anxiety medication, fifty hands shot up.
If your expectations for a much-anticipated trip are too high, you may come home disappointed. Whether you get lost and miss your reservation, or you just get too tired to do everything you hoped, things rarely go exactly according to plan. However, we can combat anxiety and disappointment by both setting realistic expectations and by allowing for the unexpected.
Accept that when you travel you take yourself with you. You will get cranky or may develop some form of ailment, as minor as constipation or as major as a broken bone or appendicitis. Unfamiliar noises and foreign beds disrupt sleep and add to everyone’s irritability.
Accept that being in a new location does not eliminate familial disagreements. Unless you are taking along a nanny, or are planning a trip that includes childcare such as a cruise or a Club-Med vacation, be prepared for family strife and squabbles. Kids are going to complain of boredom. They will roll their eyes. They will be embarrassed by you.
Don’t expect kids to want to do the same activities you want. Travel is an opportunity to teach compromise. Look for child-friendly activities but don’t deny yourself the activities you enjoy. Take turns in picking activities for each day. Look for activities that involve the whole family as well. Our family made a habit of listening to audiobooks on every driving vacation we took. We let our daughters pick the book and were delighted with their choices. Listening to books became so absorbing, that often when we arrived at our destination, we would continue listening in the cabin, tent, or hotel room. It became a shared experience. When tension became elevated due to hunger, PMS, or general irritability, we could use the characters in the book to express our feelings. When we were all invested in the plot, a discussion of the book would help us all get over any bad moods. Over the years, our family has listened to over 100 books. (If you would like a list of our favorites, please email me.)
One of the advantages of listening to books as a family is that it is shared. Unlike letting each kid have his or her own movie or game, you can talk about the book together. Video games and movies are solitary. Many families I see will spend a week or two together during their summer vacation, but hardly interact, each immersed in his or her own activity.
Accept that even in the most spectacular location, being together 24/7 is challenging. Enjoying that beautiful sunset sometimes takes effort when you are angry with your spouse. When my husband and I set off on a trip to Chile, we predicted at least one argument. When it inevitably occurred, we were able to laugh it off and said, “at least it’s over with now”. You will not agree on everything. As I say to couples in therapy, “you will never resolve conflict, but you can manage conflict.”
Accept that being away from home and routine does not automatically improve a couple’s sex life. Couples will often fantasize about the great sex they will have once they are away from the stress of daily life. This almost always leads to problems—one partner will feel let down, and the other guilty. Look for opportunities to be intimate emotionally, and let the sex follow from that.
Most of all, accept that travel causes some degree of anxiety. Anxiety will take a different form for each of us. Unfortunately, rushing around town for travel supplies when you are down-to-the-wire creates more stress because it crams frenzied shopping into the final days before embarking, leaving little time to relax before your flight or drive. Think about non-medicinal strategies that help you relax. Weave those into the week before travel.
Travel is an opportunity to know yourself in new ways. Allow for surprise. Remind yourself to be in the moment, to appreciate the world from a new vantage point.
As you cover the ground outwardly, develop fresh interpretations of yourself inwardly.