Vacations are wonderful, healing breaks from reality that give us something to look forward to when things in our daily lives seem mundane or stressful. But realistically, most of us are not in a position — financially or time-affluence-wise — of taking multiple recreational trips each year.
I’ve always enjoyed a getaway, but that has been especially true in the past year as I’ve juggled a full-time job, adjunct teaching, and being a caregiver for my mother. No matter how much I get done, there’s always something else to do, which makes unplugging and recharging on the weekends a challenge.
The most effective way for me to get out of my head — and apartment — is to go somewhere for the weekend. Whether it’s taking the train up to Boston to visit friends, seeing family in New Jersey for the weekend, or renting a car and exploring upstate New York for a few days, a change of scenery lets me briefly escape reality, focus on something I enjoy, and mentally regroup.
Unfortunately, quick weekend jaunts aren’t always feasible either. The good news is that you don’t have to skip town to reap their stress-relieving benefits. The idea here is to take yourself out of your usual environment and routine to see and do something new.
After living in New York City for six years, I still get overwhelmed by the massive scale of everything — the buildings, the people, the countless activity options. But this also means plenty of transit options for getting out of the city for mini breaks. For instance, I’ll take the tram over to Roosevelt Island for the afternoon and walk its perimeter. Or I’ll take the Metro-North commuter rail to a small town on the Hudson River, explore for a day, then take it back after dinner and sleep in my own bed.
And the excursions can be even more local than that. This past Sunday, for example, I took a walk through a local historical cemetery. Similarly, I make an effort to spend time outside whenever possible — even if that just involves taking the long way home from the grocery store. It’s more than just the fresh air: a 2019 study in the journal Frontiers found that spending as little as 20 minutes outdoors in nature can significantly lower your stress hormone levels.
Visiting a lesser-known museum (without the weekend crowds you’ll find at major attractions like The Met or the American Museum of Natural History) is also a great option for de-stressing. More than anything, it’s about physically putting yourself in a new environment.
Why this works
Our everyday environments can be loaded with triggers for stress, Nina Smiley, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of mindfulness programming at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, and co-author of The Three-Minute Meditator tells Thrive Global. “Whether we’re in the office or at home, the thought of deadlines and errands often loom over us,” she explains. “Caller ID can provoke guilt pangs and an overload of stress can short-circuit resilience.”
With all the guilt and stress surrounding us in our day-to-day lives, taking even a short break — even just breathing or meditating for a few minutes — can be helpful. This reprieve from thoughts and judgements can offer an instant intervention, Smiley says.
“We often forget that deep breathing not only calms us mentally, but that there are also significant physical benefits, such as lowered blood pressure,” she adds.
So the next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, remember that peace of mind and calming the body are literally just a few breaths away.
How to take yourself out of your environment
As we mentioned earlier, you don’t have to jet off to some exotic locale to take a rejuvenating break from your everyday environment. Something as simple as a quick walk in the park or spending a few minutes in a quiet room (read: not the children’s section) of your local library can help.
Better yet, just being present in the moment can happen anywhere and anytime, Smiley reminds us. Practicing this type of mindfulness is like a muscle: the more you do it — even for just a few minutes at a time — the more readily accessible the benefits become.
“No matter where you are, you can open to your senses and take in your surroundings, bringing awareness to the sense of touch, smell, sound, and sight in a gentle and non-judgmental way,” Smiley explains.
For example, if you’re in a busy metropolitan area, you can bask in the sensation of the warm sun or spot some greenery that you never noticed before. “While you engage in these exercises, remember to take deep breaths and allow your thoughts to leave as you exhale,” Smiley says. “This can be done in real time — perhaps as part of your work commute, during your lunch runs or even while you take a coffee break in the office — and it’s a quick, simple way to bring clarity and spaciousness into the mind and more energy and focus into your life.”
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