The idea of hitting the road after enduring a recent breakup was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to burrow under my sheets, cry myself to sleep with a steady supply of chocolate & wine, contemplating my sure-to-be-single-for-life status. Interaction, especially in a foreign country, seemed out of the question.
My parents, bless them, had a different perspective. Having recently relocated to Mexico, they’d been living the expat lifestyle in a colonial town in the center of the country. Working hard to adjust to the new culture and language, they stumbled along in their adopted hometown, taking on the adventure with the enthusiasm of backpacking college students. They suggested coming to join them for a short stint, likely well aware of the chocolate carnage quickly forming in my bed.
Reluctantly, I booked a flight and headed off to see what the world had in store for me. What I found was a new perspective on where I was at that moment, a shift in how I viewed myself, and began the recovery process.
The Brain on Breakup
For many of us, the idea of facing solo-travel after a breakup sounds like too much to bear. “Alone?” we ask… “won’t that make me feel, well, more alone?” But it may be just what we need. According to Nina Watt, a licensed online psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety, getting away from your home base can be critical: “A ‘geographic cure’ can be a very legitimate way to see oneself in a different perspective, to see one’s life in a different way, to either reinvent oneself, or to remember oneself, to gain inspiration and introspection, to develop presence and to practice new behaviors in the safety of anonymity.”
Stepping outside your familiar environment may provide a lot of relief, partially because it’s hard to focus on sadness and grief while you’re trying to juggle asking for lunch, and the restroom, in a different language. Simply planning the trip; thinking about where you’d like to go and what you’d like to do can give an immediate distraction to the sadness. If you can, work with a travel specialist to help juggle details and make the process easier on you.
Leigh Richardson, a psychologist with specialties in neurofeedback and biofeedback, describes what happens to the brain: “When the brain is going through grief, it experiences increased activity in the regions responsible for processing physical pain and emotions: the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, posterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex. In the case of prolonged grief, pain actually accompanies the brain’s reward-process centers, meaning it reinforces (in a sense) the yearning for the lost loved one, almost creating an “addiction.” This is seen when grief persists and even disrupts everyday life.”
I was most certainly in that frame of mind at home, clawing at my phone for the hoped-for message from my ex, writing and re-writing messages before my girlfriends could helpfully snatch it from my hands. I had to get somewhere where my brain could take a break from the incessant cycling of remorse.
Richardson notes that exercise, even mild, releases endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters, which are key to helping fight feelings such as depression, anxiety, inability to sleep, concentration, and fatigue. So getting a walk or two in a day can help to speed recovery tremendously.
Conveniently, this was a central part of my trip to Mexico, and it helped to shift much of my crushing sadness. When visiting a foreign country, you’re likely to need to walk, a lot. From public transport to your hotel, to cultural venues or events, and, if you can, by taking a tour. I’m a big fan of tours; they give me some wonderful insight into the history of a town, and occasionally, a peek inside some of the many gorgeous buildings. In my town, there are home & garden tours and photography tours, in addition to the historical ones. All provided me a way to connect to the culture and community of San Miguel, but also to make a lot of new friends, many of whom were taking the tours solo as well. For me, the distraction of beautiful facades, novel storefronts, and trying to maintain footing on crowded uneven streets took my attention off the sadness, a little more every day. As I checked my FitBit stats I found I was walking more than I had most weeks of my adult life - and loving it.
In addition to walking, I took the opportunity to dance. While I danced regularly before my last relationship, my then-current boyfriend was not a fan of my hobby, and I let it fall by the wayside. In Mexico, I let go of pleasing anyone else but myself (who else was there to focus on?) and it gave me and a much-needed re-focusing on my priorities and needs.
That shift was profound: without anyone to answer to or worry about, I asked myself, likely for the first time in a while, what do I really want to do with my days? Where do I want to walk to, what shops or restaurants do I want to explore, what hobbies or habits really bring me joy? Outside of my home country & normal day-to-day life, I let myself see and do anything that came to mind, and with the newness of the city I was in, there were endless opportunities to do so. At home, I would have felt like there was no point venturing out to the same places I usually went to, filled with memories of my ex and our time together. In my new little town, I simply couldn’t sit still.
Learning what you need
Another benefit of traveling after a breakup: reflection. In relationships, we tend to focus less on our needs, instead usually allowing our relationship to dictate activities, social time, and even our own personal interests. Time alone, especially in a foreign country, can help you re-visit the core things that make you happy and fulfilled. Take note: This time to yourself will give you the opportunity to make a list of what you really want (and don’t want) in future relationships, without the added layer of looking around your room at things you feel you’ve lost.
Psychotherapist Watt also recommends taking time while away from home to compile a list of qualities you have that you wish to be aware of and adjust, moving into this new phase of life. Look at the patterns you’ve repeated in your relationships, such and push-and-pull power dynamics, needing to be ‘right’, or allowing others to dominate your own needs. In addition, what qualities you want in a partner, and how those have changed over time. See if you’ve lost things that are critical to your happiness and if you’ve repeated patterns that aren’t serving you or your relationships. This will help you identify core values that cannot be ignored in your next phase of life, and create clarity for when you re-enter the dating world. Take the time now, while you are immersing yourself in you, making daily choices that serve you. That time will help provide strong clarity to the things that bring you the most happiness and self-love, as well as spelling out expectations for a partner, so you can avoid choosing one that doesn’t suit and being disappointed when it feels wrong.”
Finally, independent travel will help with your self-esteem, as you’ll be accomplishing new things on your own. Trying new foods, choosing activities for the day, planning transport and cultural activities, all will give you a feeling of accomplishment and reward, because you really do have this.
Wonderfully, travel provides us with the opportunity to focus inward, on our needs, and outward, to the world around us. All in all, I say go travel. Get out of your home base, expose yourself to a new culture that will challenge, inspire and guide you for your next phase in life. It will enable you to push through the haze of sadness, and likely introduce you to new friends and a new perspective on the future, one that really is better off than where you began. And hey, some spectacular pictures of you having an outrageously good time in a foreign country are so much better than the unwritten “I’m-so-over-you” message you’ve been aching to write.