How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? Travel Might Be the Answer
Being alone can be powerful. During her first solo trip to Costa Rica, Lavanya Sunkara sat in stillness, staring out into the ocean. As the lull of the waves crashed into the shore, her mind was filled with the event that had propelled her to take the trip: a devastating breakup.
Years and miles away, Kortney Lapeyrolerie experienced a similar process at the luxurious Omni Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Dealing with the messy end of her marriage, she was grateful that her mom had dragged her to the stillness of the mountains. For the first time in the week since her separation, she could eat and sleep.
Sold as the ultimate way to find yourself and change your life, travel seems like the perfect solution for people dealing with difficult experiences like heartbreak. But is the healing power of travel real, or is it just a way for people to avoid their feelings?
Traveling to Heal
For Dr. Lara Fielding, a clinical psychologist, traveling can be helpful when dealing with heartbreak: "Getting yourself completely outside your normal context [could] free you up from paritive associations." These are the places and things that your brain connects to your ex.
"Leaving and getting a feeling for yourself in a new context where people see you with different eyes [can be good]," she explains.
Sure, small things will still bring back memories, but you won’t be walking down streets or going to supermarkets haunted by the ghost of the person that shattered your heart. And that lets you catch your breath when it feels like the pain is too crushing to handle.
Dr. Trajana Thomas, a Florida licensed psychologist, agrees, stating that "removing oneself [from day-to-day rituals] to do something new and meet others can be helpful for mental health."
A Trip Back to Yourself
Travelers echo Dr. Fielding's and Dr. Thomas' opinions. For Lavanya, the trip to Costa Rica was "a defining moment where I realized I could be happy on my own." In the country’s mountains, beaches and hot springs, she began to let go of the man she thought she would one day marry and started a successful career as a travel writer.
Travel also brought Kortney back to herself. At first, the idea of going somewhere was unappealing. But her family and friends took her on short trips throughout her divorce process, which connected her to who she was before the marriage.
"Sometimes you release key parts of yourself to secure wholeness in a relationship," she explains.
"My friends and family took their time to remind me that I had my own interests: asked my opinion about various facets of the trip ... refused to order food until I made a decision first, took me to events that might not be their favorite but were definitely mine."
Little by little, "opportunities emerged that allowed me to try out new avenues of self-expression that I just wouldn't have been able to experience if I had stayed at home," she says.
Dr. Thomas places a disclaimer on using travel to heal from heartbreak (or any other challenging experience). She elaborates that "traveling [after a breakup] can be healthy if you are aware [sic] that it is for self-care." That is, check in with yourself and make sure you know why you are booking that spontaneous flight to Cancun.
And if the reason is avoidance, that’s perfectly fine. Up to a point. As Dr. Fielding advises, "go away, get a sense of yourself, internalize [it], but come back to your life. Deal with your life."
She believes short trips like the ones Kortney took can work like concentric circles of healing, where you are taking yourself out of a painful situation while knowing that you will have to back and face the (emotional) music.
This is exactly what Sarahlynn Pablo did. She was in the middle of a big trip when a budding romance collapsed. Being in Paris, she forced herself to put on her red lipstick and go out to discover the city. The first days, she was mostly avoiding the situation — as she needed to, given that the break up was recent and that she was still sharing a room with her ex.
But when she found herself invited to her friend’s childhood home in the French countryside, she jumped at the chance of slowing down. Surrounded by a family environment and beautiful nature, she could process her feelings before returning to Paris and confronting the situation with a clearer mind and a calmer spirit.
Self-Awareness Is the Key to Healing
The line between avoidance and healing isn’t always easy to discern, so Dr. Fielding suggests asking yourself a simple question: "What is the function of what I’m doing?" She proposes that if traveling (or any other behavior) "is making you feel good at the moment but not moving you toward your goals, then it’s avoidance."
If you find yourself booking back-to-back trips that give you no space to sit and reflect, you might be prolonging your healing process.
Perspective and awareness are necessary if you want a post-breakup trip to help in the long run. And, when done right, a trip can provide just that. Dr. Fielding declares that "removing yourself from a cloudy environment ... and placing yourself in a fresh environment can actually bring your issues into sharp relief and give you clarity on how to tackle them."
Sarahlynn and Lavanya also list travel as an ingredient in the magical potion that brings you back to feeling like a whole person again. "Travel puts things in perspective and gives you pause to reflect on what it is you want," Lavanya says.
Travels With Yourself and Others
So you’re newly single and ready to let the beauty of the world soothe your broken heart. Now the question is: Should you go alone or rely on your community?
The frustrating answer is that it depends. And you’ll have to figure it out for yourself.
Solo travel can either be introspective or overtly social. Having hard conversations and spending quality time with yourself can boost your self-esteem, which always helps when trying to move on from emotional pain.
Alternatively, you can use your solo trip to meet as many people as possible. It’s easy to make friends when traveling alone, and the random adventures that follow can be a perfect temporary distraction before going home and dealing with your feelings.
But traveling with loved ones in moments of vulnerability can also be healing. If you’re having trouble taking care of yourself, your companions can make sure that you eat, handle the mental stress of planning, and force you to leave the room once in a while.
Take some time to think about what you need from this trip. Then decide what best suits those needs.
Sometimes, Staying Home Is the Answer
Post-breakup trips aren’t always sunsets in Bali and butterflies in Mexico. Travel can be stressful and destabilizing, so Dr. Thomas suggests being conscious of your mental and emotional stability.
A vacation might not be a good course of action if you feel overwhelmed or anxious, particularly if you are considering escaping to a country where you don’t speak the language.
If you’re at the point of heartbreak where feeding yourself or getting out of bed is a struggle, dealing with the stress of navigating a foreign country might do more harm than good.
Still keen on getting out of your city? Consider following Kortney’s strategy and head somewhere close to home but far enough to feel different. If you can’t handle it, coming back will be easy.
Healing When You Can’t Travel
Not everyone can afford a spontaneous trip. For these cases, Dr. Fielding and Dr. Thomas recommend relying on your support system, developing a healthy routine, and making time to check in with yourself.
If you need to engage in avoidant behavior at first, go ahead and binge cheesy '90s rom-coms while throwing chocolate at the screen like Elle Woods. But as with travel, be conscious that this behavior can’t last forever.
It also helps to know that, trip or not, you will eventually heal. Take it from the people who’ve lived it. One day, you’ll wake up and find yourself wondering why you were even sad over your ex.
In the meantime, if you are mentally, physically and financially able to book a trip, travel might be just what the heartbreak doctor ordered.