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When travelling becomes a coping mechanism

I recently got a funny postcard that said “it’s about spending the time between two holidays in the most useful way as possible”. It made me smile because I have always lived for my holidays. The more often I was away, the better. Even if it wasn’t for holidays, but for work.

When I was an expat in Brazil, I was living the dream. I was on a plane once every two weeks, on average. I did feel bad about my ecological footprint, which I compensated for, but other than that.. I loved moving around so much. It made me feel alive. There was a two-month period during which I only spent 9 days(!) at the office. The other days were spent holidaying and doing business and field trips. Yep, living the dream.

But was I really? Looking back at it now, I can see that constantly going abroad was also a flight away. A tendency of just leaving whenever that made me feel happier. Or in other words: a coping mechanism to avoid going inwards.

I had learned to “be away” at a young age. Growing up in an unpredictable household with two addicted parents, you never knew what to expect. It was saver to shield yourself and flight to your head than to just “be” - because you never knew what was coming and what the consequences might be.

When I was older, I learned that longer trips on my own were a really nice way to leave that complex family situation behind. I felt more free and it lifted some weight off my shoulders, even after having moved out of the house already for some time.

And that lesson apparently stuck with me. Whenever I found something big in life I wasn’t happy with, I changed my environment. Feel depressed during your studies? Quit and travel in South America for 1.5 years. Bored back home again? Move to Argentina for an internship. Burnout from your job in London? Give up everything and move back to the motherland.

The decision alone of changing everything again and moving abroad was already working as a good way to avoid going inward. It’s like the perfect lightning conductor. A depression is looming? Let’s just focus all of my energy on my exciting upcoming move. Yes, I did feel better, but it also allowed me to bury my head in the sand. No time to feel what needs to be felt.

And travelling worked in another way. As I said before, it made me feel alive. At home, the routine often made me feel stuck in a rut, lonely, restless or even depressed. But travelling… everything in my body became alive again. My senses, my joyfulness, my creativity. Looking back at it now, I think that the travelling was also a way for me to find that unpredictable, chaotic and stressful environment that I knew so well from home - because that was my normal that I grew up with. And without it, life didn’t feel complete. Travelling gave me that rush. (We do this with relationships as well - as adults we look for relationships that give us the kind of love that we got when we were kids. But that’s a story for another time).

So travelling for me was a wonderful coping mechanism. The preparation beforehand took all my focus, and during travelling I felt the rush I needed. And so many of us have coping mechanisms. Some bury themselves in work, others in alcohol. And there’s gambling, sex, relationships, food, partying, and many more. Anything we can do to avoid dealing with the feelings that come up. Acting onto our coping mechanism is often done subconsciously, as you might not even really notice that there are feelings to be dealt with. We do the thing that has helped us before and made us feel better, even if it’s just for the short term.

It took me an intensive coaching course to realise that travelling was my coping mechanism. Now I still like to travel, but I don’t use it as a subconscious way to avoid my feelings anymore. And yes, occasionally it still pops up. After my trip to Brazil a few weeks, I’ve been experiencing a lot of restlessness and I really have to suppress the urge to buy a new ticket. Somehow planning another trip just feels like the solution. But instead I now use this signal as a trigger to pause and go inwards - and just identify what is really is that is causing the restlessness.

I'm curious to hear - have you used travelling or moving abroad as a coping mechanism? If not, what's yours?

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