A few years ago, I happened to be traveling when my heart was broken unexpectedly. The man I was supposed to join in Mexico the next week had met someone else, I learned over the phone in my Portland, Ore., hotel room.
I’m not sure if I would have chosen to travel immediately after being dumped. But having to do so by default of already being on the road worked in my favor. The excitement of Portland kept me afloat when all I wanted to do was sink deeper into my sadness. Doing things outside of my norm distracted me from the very raw pain pulsing within.
It turns out my “breakcation” — a post-breakup vacation — may have been just what the doctor ordered.
“Breakups are usually a time where a person looks to self-reflect and do some self-exploration … so that they don’t repeat the same mistake in the future,” says Colleen Mullen, a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the podcast “Coaching Through Chaos.” “Traveling becomes the romanticized way of jump-starting that for them.”
Before boarding a plane, stepping on a train or getting in your car to get out of Dodge, it’s worth examining how to get the most out of your breakcation, according to mental-health experts.
Go somewhere new
When planning your trip, look for a destination that offers a complete change of environment. You want to pick a place where you won’t be reminded of your ex at every turn, so avoid places you visited or discussed visiting together in the past. Your ex doesn’t even exist in this new place, okay? Dabble in denial — not forever, but for now.
“Denial is a perfectly fine defense mechanism, but it’s a more primitive defense mechanism,” says Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute.
Saltz says that you can use denial or distractions in snippets to give yourself space between moments of being aggrieved. Instead of letting all of your pain hit you post-split, you can try to manage it better by letting in a little at a time.
Traveling somewhere new will provide you with all-encompassing distractions. You’ll have to focus on finding new restaurants, navigating new public transportation systems and speaking to new people.
Tackling that newness on your own can be empowering.
“Feeling independently accomplished is good for self-esteem, particularly post-breakup,” Saltz says. “It can be really helpful to see that you can be alone and not lonely, and feel okay about that."
Do you have to travel to the far corners of the Earth to make this type of vacation worthwhile? Absolutely not. Even going somewhere close by will give you the opportunity to get lost in foreign experiences.
Consider a group trip
Traveling solo after becoming solo can be empowering. However, you don’t have to go at it alone. If you’d like a built-in friend group to travel with or don’t want the burden of planning everything yourself, consider booking group travel. You can find opportunities around the entire globe, from backpacking through Papua New Guinea to eating through South Korea.
Whether you want something specific to your age, religious background, activity level or niche interest, there’s a group tour company or excursion for everyone. Start by looking at companies such as Intrepid Travel, Costco Travel, G Adventures and REI Adventures.
Pack a blank notebook
You can completely immerse yourself in your breakcation, and wait to deal with your crisis until you get home, or use the time away to reflect. Paulette Sherman, a psychologist and author of the book “Dating From the Inside Out,” recommends packing a blank notebook with you so that you can journal.
“Part of traveling is kind of rediscovering yourself,” she says. “What are the things that bring you joy and what are the things that you want to see in your future?"
You could also use the pages to write your ex a letter — perhaps not one you actually send, but one for catharsis. Sherman says to look at the letter as an exercise to help put the past behind you.
Take care of yourself and stay active
This trip can provide helpful distractions, but it might not divert attention from the physical pain that can come from grief.
“'Broken heart syndrome’ is a real thing,” Saltz says. “The mind and body are intimately connected.”
After the end of a relationship, you may experience symptoms like chest pain, fatigue, stomachaches, stress and high blood pressure. One of Saltz’s tips for recovering, whether you’re in a new place or at home, is to make sure you’re covering your health basics. That means being intentional about getting enough sleep, maintaining good hygiene and exercising multiple times a week, even if you’re on the road.
Exercising doesn’t have to mean hitting the hotel gym (although I’m definitely a fan). You can get to know the new city you’re in by going for long walks or jogs, biking, hiking, and trying water sports.
Avoid high-risk behavior
All the experts emphasized that wounded travelers should avoid using alcohol and drugs to manage feelings. That tip can be applied before, during and after your vacation. It’s even more pertinent on the road, Sherman says, where you’re not surrounded by your support system.
Mullen, the therapist and podcast host, also urges against flings, warning that travelers can over-romanticize. Although rebounding may sound appealing, it could do more harm than good when you’re emotionally vulnerable.
Sherman recognizes that not all travel flings hurt your mental health. A casual encounter, if it’s just that, can boost someone’s confidence. But, Sherman urges, travelers should keep in mind that they haven’t dealt with their trauma yet, so flings should be avoided if they’re pursued for the sake of starting a new relationship.
Try this 30-minute technique
Even being in a new place surrounded by new things doesn’t mean you’ll be able to escape your ex completely. Maybe you go to Instagram a photo of your gelato, and come across snapshots of your former partner in your phone. Maybe you walk by someone wearing your ex’s favorite hat. Triggers abound in 2020. They can hit hard.
“All of a sudden, feelings come up, and you’re right back where you started from emotionally,” Mullen says.
Mullen recommends responding to triggers head-on, allowing yourself to embrace the pain in full, but with a time limit.
“Set a timer and give yourself 30 minutes. Then go splash some water on your face and remind yourself you can deal with your life when you get home,” she says. “It’s okay to recognize the sadness as it comes. But you’ll lose out on the benefit of the experience by staying in a place of pain."
Keep your expectations in check
Although Mullen believes this type of journey can be healing, heartbroken travelers must have rational expectations. If you go into your breakcation expecting a profound, life-changing trip, you may be disappointed and worse off than when you left. Travel is a Band-Aid, not a magical cure.
Maybe travel “will teach you something about your life,” she says. “But you are who you are. The relationship is what it was. And that won’t change by getting a new memory in another country or another city. You’ll still have the pain and still have healing to do.”