How to Reap the Mental Benefits of a Vacation Without Actually Going on One

If you’re unable to plan a trip at the moment, don’t stress about it — and don’t underestimate the power of a staycation.

Happy Dancing/ Shutterstock
Happy Dancing/ Shutterstock

Carving out time for regular recovery is essential for your mental well-being and performance — but sometimes, planning a traditional vacation can feel overwhelming, or is simply unrealistic with a tight timeline. For instance, if you’re a new parent, an anxious traveler, or a caregiver for a loved one, you might not be able to book a last-minute flight to a far-off destination to unplug and recharge — and that reality alone can be stressful.

“The kinds of vacations we take are highly constrained by the demands of family, school and work calendars, and finances,” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D., author of Rest and The Distraction Addiction, tells Thrive. “One size doesn’t fit all.” Pang notes that a getaway is often most valuable because it helps you tap into a mindset that allows you to relax — but you don’t have to go away to hone in on that vacation-focused mindset. In fact, even people who do go on traditional getaways can miss the point. “Too many people go on vacation and stay connected the whole time,” adds Arthur Markman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work. “They don’t give themselves a chance to recharge.”

If taking a traditional vacation is not an option for you at the moment, there are still ways to allow yourself to de-stress and relax closer to home. Here are some ways to reap the benefits of a getaway without actually getting away.

Embrace a “staycation”

Staying home may not sound as glamorous as a destination trip, but science suggests you can still relax and recharge your mind by simply parting from your work and taking a cozy “staycation” at home. “The psychological benefits of a vacation wear off after about two months,” Pang explains. “So if you aim to maximize your happiness, shorter vacations are the way to go.” After all, staycations can help you unwind in the comfort of your own home. It’s just very important to remind yourself not to compare yourself to people you see online who may be taking a more luxurious trip, Pang points out. “This is the last place where you should be made to feel guilty because you’re not living up to some impossible standard pushed by influencers or lifestyle magazines. The only bad vacation is the one you don’t take.”

Designate a night for something spontaneous

Focusing your calendar around one annual trip can actually create stress by overthinking and harping on the details of the vacation — which is why periodically carving out a certain night for an unplanned adventure can be a healthier, less stressful option. “Overplanning is the number one preventable cause of bad vacations,” Pang notes. So instead of dwelling on the fact that you’re unable to take an exotic vacation, he recommends designating time to making the most of your local options, like cooking dinner inspired by a different country’s cuisine, or finding budget-friendly events nearby. “Staying within your financial comfort zone is fine,” he adds. It’s the time away that brings meaningful psychological benefits, not the running up of your credit card.

Cross one thing off your bucket list

The main point of going on a trip is to part from the ordinary stressors of your day to day — a goal Markman notes can also be accomplished in your hometown, even with one night out.  Use the opportunity to cross things off your bucket list, he suggests — like going to a baseball game, or trying a new restaurant, or any other activity that you’re excited about and that deviates from your typical weeknight. The key is to leave your comfort zone for a short time to do an activity that feels different, and allows you to forget about your daily tasks for the night. “Find opportunities that don’t require a lot of travel time or preparation,” Markman urges. Even one night away at a hotel near your home can give you more time to just relax.

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