Travel as Therapy

However mean your life is, meet it and live it.

– Henry David Thoreau

How Travel can be Healing & Why Iceland Worked for Me

In 2008, my world turned upside down. Within a matter of months, I got dumped from a boyfriend of 5 years, my sister died, my roommate kicked me out, and I lost my job to the recession. Suffice to say, I felt as if all four legs of my table were kicked out from under me and I was left completely, utterly lost – adrift at sea with no bearing!

I wrote a list of seemingly crazy ideas for some life-altering experiences:

  1. Motorcycle across the country
  2. Travel to Paris and learn how to love
  3. Trek to Tibet
  4. Move to Australia for a year


I didn’t actively seek out how to execute them; I just put these ideas out to the universe and forgot about them. Within 2 years, I had completed three, and I knocked the final one off in 2014 (almost in that order!). They weren’t exactly what I had detailed in my list (since when does life ever look like what you thought?): I Vespa’d around Iceland, I traveled alone (learn to love myself) and attended a wedding in Paris, I moved to Australia for a year and a half, and I trekked the Himalayas in Nepal, not Tibet.

Did these epic journeys solve all of my woes? No. Don’t expect a cure-all. But I do consider travel a major part of my healing process. And I’m not alone. Vision quest type adventures have been around for hundreds of years, there are numerous movies and books about this topic.  (Disclaimer: This does not replace the work of mental health professionals and I highly recommend their guidance if you are struggling. Especially if you are clinically depressed, I urge you to seek help from professionals.)

It will NOT be successful if you use travel as a tool to run away from problems. Though sometimes, whether you want to or not, you’re forced to face your issues anyway. But, I don’t recommend this method.


Key Components


It wasn’t long after my sister died that I decided my family needed something to look forward to, so my mom and I started discussing a mother-daughter trip. The act of planning for something, creating a future can prevent you from wallowing in your present circumstance because it gives you positive energy to focus on. Creating new memories that help re-construct your life helps those wounds start to heal.

Depression is the inability to construct a future.

– Rollo May

Low Distractions:

We chose Iceland because I’d always wanted to see the geological phenomenons there. It’s fairly isolated, so the type of trip becomes less about history/culture/people and more about natural beauty. For me, this is the reason that road trips or camping/hiking out in the wilderness work. Big cities with plenty to do/see, or people to interact with, are just forms of diversion from what you need to heal. Road trips and treks are great for providing that blank surface, with the mindless lull of the road/path ahead that leave you to concentrate energy on thoughts/feelings. We discovered Iceland’s Ring Road is the perfect backdrop for such a road trip.

Solo Time:

These journeys don’t have to be alone. I planned the trip with my mom, so we could heal together. But when my mom suggested Iceland’s Ring Road, I pictured sitting in a car with her for hours, talking about nothing but our grief and rehashing my sister’s life/death. I needed alone time. So, I suggested doing the road trip on motorcycles (and we settled with Vespa scooters). This provided the outlet for us to be individuals for most of the day, alone to think about my sister, or something else. Then we could compare notes at the end of each day – did you see that waterfall, that sign made me think of her… It was the perfect way to come to our own conclusions, then work through them together. Other road trips/treks together can be successful, provided there is some alone time to help you process in your own way.

Physical Challenge:

Busying yourself with a challenge may seem like the opposite of low distractions, but if you find the right challenge, it can actually keep you in the present moment. You are already mentally challenged by trauma, so a physical challenge can help relieve the pressure without living in denial of it. Riding scooters instead of in a car was challenging due to the pure endurance of long days on the road, and as we braced through the windy fjords in the east. Sometimes exhausting yourself physically leaves nothing left to deal with but the emotion. It forces you to get back to basics – rebuilding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from the ground up and it’s why Boot Camp (‘Basic Training’) is the beginning of a military career. What’s more – when you get through the trip, you should feel a sense of accomplishment that feeds your self-esteem! Survival is the purest source of that adrenaline rush.

This is what worked for me. What have you found that has worked for you?


Other Resources:

Ways to Heal the Soul & Expand the Mind & Part 2– 10 other great reasons that travel works!

Travel – Soul – Therapy – This is an OK blog on the ins-and-outs of travel related therapy.