< A couple of years after embarking on a career as a travel writer, I developed my travel credo: Eat when you're hungry, drink when you're thirsty, rest when you're tired. Sounds like pretty basic stuff, eh?
You would think.
You would also think that as a "professional traveler," I would be cucumber cool about packing up and hitting the road. But you would be wrong.
I am one nervous Nellie of a traveler. I get so anxious and fretful before trips that my husband likes to drop me off at the airport as early as he can get away with, knowing that I always feel better once I've jumped the first hurdle of travel and settled in my airplane seat.
"You're not doing anyone any good here," he says as he hustles me and my luggage out of the house.
I stress about packing. I stress about catching flights. At my destination, I stress about doing everything on my itinerary, thus sometimes forgetting the basics of self care -- eating, drinking, resting. Before getting strict about my credo, I often came home from trips exhausted and sick.
Stress affects health and health affects stress, and travel can puree the two into a nasty brew.
In his medical practice, Stephen Hines, M.D., prescribes routine in all things -- most importantly sleeping, eating and exercise -- to patients suffering from stress-related health problems. But travel and routine tend to be mutually exclusive.
"Loss of control, lack of familiarity and absence of routine are all magnified when we travel," Hines explains to me via email from an Internet caf in Penang, Malaysia, where he is taking a vacation from his job as a professor at Methodist Dallas Medical Center in Texas. "Our sleep/wake patterns are altered; our meal times can change dramatically. And even bodily functions are impaired," he says. "Traveler's constipation is far more common than traveler's diarrhea because the former is a product of inactivity, decreased fluid consumption, and a manifestation of internalized stress."
And, he adds, "Especially in foreign countries, where there are barriers of language, unfamiliar currencies and foods we don't recognize, our sense of vulnerability is enhanced. The emotional stress generated by all three of these factors can be enormous at times."
Travel stress is hard on healthy people; for people with existing health problems, it can be as serious as a heart attack -- literally. According to a 2004 article in the Harvard Heart Letter, half of all deaths of Americans abroad are due to heart attacks, which usually occur within the first two days of a trip. (Think about the stress of leaving home, hustling to catch planes, toting luggage.) A Dutch study found that vacations with the highest heart risk involve car travel and sleeping in a tent or camper, probably because of the stress both of driving and sleeping in unusual and cramped quarters.
Even the alleged joy of getting away with family or friends can be stressful, says Hines. "If we're visiting relatives, dysfunctional behavior patterns can quickly resurface. When we're on vacation, we tend to push ourselves to be joyful and involved. I call this 'enforced happiness.' It's quite stressful to spend another long day sightseeing together when you'd really rather be alone reading a book."
Hines speaks from experience. "I'm a fairly organized, private individual," he explains. "I like routine, and I need my personal space. I love the adventure of travel, seeing new places, meeting new people and sampling varied cuisine. But the constant togetherness and the unstructured nature of travel are my own greatest personal stressors."
Hines recommends lots of pre-trip prep to minimize surprises and maximize your feeling of control. "Read about your destination if you've never been there ... especially if it's a foreign country," he says. "Try to familiarize yourself with the customs, the climate, the currency and the foods available. Plan daily itineraries in advance and consult your traveling companions for consensus. If you'll be staying with relatives or friends, let them know in advance what you're anticipating. If their plans are different than yours, you have time to negotiate before you arrive."
It's also important to know and respect your own need for downtime. "Try to reserve time for your own personal rejuvenation each day," says Hines. "Whether it is a solitary walk around the block, structured exercise, a leisurely bath, reading a book, or just a bit of time alone -- such moments can make a big difference in reducing the sense of travel stress."
Lisa Iannucci, co-author of Healthy Travel: Don't Travel Without It! (Basic Health Publications, $14.95), takes lots of road trips with her kids, which definitely can test her stressometer. She says imagining everything that can go wrong before she leaves home helps keep her travel stress under control.
"People often don't plan for something that can go wrong, so when it happens, they stress out about it," she says. "What if you're hungry and then you get stuck in traffic? Then you're starving and you're stressing out because you can't eat. Why didn't you think that could possibly happen and pack something to eat in the car? Before I leave on a trip, I sit and think about every possible scenario that could go wrong."
Sound stressful? Perhaps -- but not as stressful as, for example, having a kid in the backseat with a tummy ache and no Pepto-Bismol. Or getting delayed at the airport with nothing to keep kids (or yourself) entertained.
Iannucci also recommends taking time before your trip to think hard about what, exactly, stresses you out the most. "It sounds silly, but one of my stressors is sleeping on hotel beds," she says. "I'll bring a sheet from home and put it over the bed, and I sleep better. I really do." Is leaving your home the scariest part for you? Perhaps a housesitter would ease your mind. Iannucci also makes sure she always has a favorite food with her -- perhaps chocolate or hard candy -- and her favorite Barry Manilow CD. "If he can sing to me for eight hours in traffic, I'm great." She and her kids all bring their own pillows, and the kids bring stuffed animals. (Iannucci cautions that toys kids tote should not be those that would cause a full meltdown if they were to get lost. Same with such things as your own jewelry. "If you lose a piece of jewelry, better that it's something you bought at the mall for $5," she says.)
My last trip was a guaranteed stressor because it was a last-minute dash to my hometown for a family emergency. Before leaving home, I took Iannucci's advice. In the midst of my usual pre-trip dither, I stopped, took some deep breaths and asked myself what controllable part of the trip I anticipated with the most dread. The answer soon came to me: sleeping on a friend's couch to save money. With all the other stressors surrounding this trip, I would need good sleep, alone time and personal space. So I suppressed my cheapskate tendencies and booked a hotel room.
That didn't relieve all my stress, but at least I could rest when I was tired -- and that sure helped.
Sidebar: Tips for Less-Stress Travel Before you go:
- Think about all that can go wrong and plan accordingly.
- Block out your itinerary for some predictability to the trip.
- Figure out what is most stressful to you about the trip and take actions to alleviate that stress.
- Have a medical checkup, particularly if you plan to try new, physically taxing activities.
- Pack your medicines and, if you're traveling to a foreign country, have their generic names in case you need to replace them.
- Pack a soluble digestive fiber to stave off stress-related constipation.
- Pack light so that you are not unduly burdened with luggage.
- Leave yourself a list of things you need to do when you get home so nothing important gets forgotten in the interim.
On the trip:
- Build in plenty of time for airports, train stations, etc. so that you're not always rushing.
- Don't neglect the basics of selfcare: eating regularly, drinking water and resting.
- Don't pack too much running around into every day.
- Take quiet time out for yourself when you need it.
- Limit big, fatty meals.
- When you encounter a challenge you can't manage yourself, ask a local for assistance.
- If you're traveling sans spouse, check in daily via Internet or telephone.
When you return:
- If at all possible, take a day off between returning home and returning to work or school to decompress and catch up on chores.
- Prioritize your re-entry tasks. For example, sort through important mail first and get to grocery shopping, laundry, etc., one step at a time.
- If your spouse stayed home, remember that he or she shouldered the stress of the homefront while you were away. Take a moment to appreciate the effort and help him or her decompress, too.