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5 mental health tips for your first trip after the pandemic

Whether you’ve already got your first trip booked in a couple of years, or you’re planning your first post-pandemic vacation, these tips will help you take care of that anxious trip-planner in your skull.

Tip 1: The pandemic isn't over.

I know many people say things like: “It’s my first trip post-pandemic,” as a figure of speech, but it’ll be important that you understand it is very much NOT over (and now it’s served with a side of monkey pox).

Don’t spend your trip sweating in a hotel bed because you thought COVID was finished.

You may experience a culture shock between your country’s culture around public health and the public health culture in other countries. 

In Cusco, Peru, in May and June of 2022, everybody was still wearing masks out in public. Masks are/were a requirement for accessing indoor spaces like museums and grocery stores, as well as Machu Pichu and any of the checkpoints along the Inka Trail. On multiple occasions, I saw tourists in Cusco get denied entry to stores and museums because they didn’t have a mask with them. 

Whenever we’re traveling, it’s important to respect the local culture and the health of the amazing places we visit. 

“Masks are obligatory” at the airport in Cusco, Peru, July, 2022. On the LATAM flights to Lima, either an N95 or two masks were required for all passengers.

Tip 2: Practice exposing yourself to uncertainty BEFORE the trip.

Much of your mental health and fitness capacity is about your capacity to handle uncertainty. Working from home drastically reduced valuable exposure to uncertainty. Suddenly, people weren’t navigating commutes with unpredictable drivers, they weren’t meeting random strangers on the bus or at stores, they weren’t having as many new and unexpected experiences. So when they plan in their first trip, it’s like the brain immediately registers how much uncertainty is about to increase, and up goes anxiety with that awareness.

Start building your uncertainty capacity back up before you go. You might feel like you want to reduce uncertainty before the trip, to make sure nothing goes wrong, but that’s just the anxiety running the show. It’ll be way more useful to start disrupting your schedule, taking new routes to familiar places, trying different restaurants, and injecting more novelty into your life.

Tip 3: Prepare for waiting and relaxing on your adventure.

If you’re planning a trip right now, I’m guessing you’ve seen what’s happening at airports around the world: chaos. Lost luggage. Four-hour lineups out the front doors. Flights cancelled without notifying passengers. And that’s just the airports! More than airports have been affected over the past two years. 

Some airlines still have pandemic restrictions in place around food, see: How is flying Avianca right now? And you’ll also find that many hotels are operating at lower staffing levels, many shops or attractions are open less, and many restaurants that catered to tourists have reduced menus. 

Understand that businesses made decisions to survive this downturn. Support them. When I visited Criollo, a restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico, that’s been written-up widely in guides, they only had the tasting menu available for lunch that day. It was phenomenal. But I was their ONLY customer. I had their beautiful courtyard all to myself. Afterwards, I saw on Google Reviews, that people had recently given them some bad reviews for only having the tasting menu available, which these people had not even eaten. They left the bad review because the à la carte menu wasn’t available, so they hadn’t stayed. They were pissed the restaurant didn’t waste a ton of specialty food just because some tourist might show up and order a single dish. The restaurant was being smart. The tourists, were not. 

Traveling right now is an opportunity to be a smart, chill tourist.

At restaurant Criollo, Oaxaca, Mexico: Grilled eggplant with fresh tortillas from the comal, and purees of slap-you-in-the-face-umami-flavor. I cannot fathom the complete dufus that skipped Criollo’s tasting menu.

Tip 4: Go hiking and camping!

Now is an amazing time to connect with nature and take your adventures outdoors. Do you really want to be on a floating petri dish (a cruise ship) right now, cooking up some ebolaNorwalkCOVIDpox? Hotel breakfast buffets are a weird dance of pandemic protocols and runny eggs. If you’re flying business class and they do serve food, it’ll’ve been packaged like a TV dinner from the 1970s and taste like it was cooked back then.

So why not just skip the hand-sanitizer-scented pretend luxury, and venture into the beautiful outdoors?

In the past six months, the best trips I’ve done have been hiking to the Inka site at Choquequirao, and heading up to the Salkantay Pass. Just stars and trees and rocks and tiny orchids and the occasional llama.

The morning view from Marampata, Peru, on the trail to the Inka site at Choquequirao. As good as any hotel you’ll find anywhere.

Tip 5: Have a plan for when you return.

This is something I emphasize to all of my coaching clients: we often put a lot of effort into the preparation for a trip, but spend no time on the return. Have a plan for ramping down afterwards. the brain will go from lots of planning and controlling in the ramp up to the trip, then there’ll be all sorts of new experiences and controlling around schedules and luggage and language and money and everything, and then NOTHING. 

The brain does not handle well the abrupt shift to nothing. It’s like all of the trip planning, and then the novelty of the trip, creates a space in the brain. When all of that stuff disappears, the space is still there, and if you don’t fill it, the brain will happily fill it with intrusive thoughts and obsessions you’ve had experience controlling in the past.

Consider the qualities of your adventure, and then mimic them in your schedule after the trip, gradually ramping that down. For example, if your trip had a ton of activities and your schedule was packed, schedule in some fun activities when you return. Go to see a new movie, meetup with friends, take a short hike somewhere close to home, make time for unpacking and appreciate the adventure you had 🙂

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