It’s all too easy to be pulled down a rabbit hole of negative thinking. Our minds love habits – even the bad ones – and worrying can form a compulsive loop that becomes rooted in who we are.
But there’s good news, too. Our brains hold a degree of plasticity, meaning they’re able to learn new pathways that promote positive feelings. And travelling the world accelerates this process.
Here’s how adventure can break the cycle of negatavity, providing a buffer for your racing mind:
Small moments of shared positivity
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina has spent more than three decades studying the power of positive emotions. She believes it’s a sort of “daily nutrient” that comes from “micro-moments” of shared positivity. This involves at least two people being together, in the same moment, and sharing a emotion or gut-level connection. It could be as incidental as hi-fiving a group of kids, or smiling at the woman who serves you coffee in the morning. While any positivity is good, “shared positivity — having two people caught up in the same emotion — may have even a greater impact on health than something positive experienced by oneself,” says Dr. Fredrickson.
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When you travel with a group of people abroad, you fuel this upward spiral of shared positivity. Adventure travel is brimming with moments of impromptu connection and bonding, whether you’re mulling over a sunset in the lunar-like landscape of the Atacama Desert or interacting with Bedouin villagers in the Jordan’s rust-red mountains. Over time, these small moments resonate and accrue a power of their own, counteracting negative thoughts to create greater happiness.
Seize the golden present
One common form of negative thinking is rumination. “Rumination is a kind of negative thinking in which we get mentally stuck and keep spinning our wheels without making progress, like a car stuck in a snowdrift,” explains psychologist and life coach Melanie Greenberg. “Rumination can make you more and more anxious as you keep thinking of more and more negative outcomes that could possibly happen.”
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When you travel, you are forced to stop dwelling on the past or the future. Instead, you concentrate on the now (which, as we know, is the only thing that matters). This could happen in a prosaic sense, like planning how to get across the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, or navigating your way around the cable car system in La Paz. Or, it could be something altogether more euphoric, like abseiling off Table Mountain in Cape Town or tackling white-water rapids in northern Thailand. “One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living,” writes Dale Carnegie, in his best-selling book, “We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon – instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.” Travel means you wake up and smell those roses.
Trade control for tenacity
Overthinking is another typical funnel of negativity. “The problem with overthinking is that it’s an attempt to control what isn’t controllable,” says Greenberg. “You don’t have a magic eight-ball that can predict the future. With most choices, there are unknowns… It can make you too risk-averse and scared to act.” When you travel, you take away this control. You’re compelled to confront the unknown, with its myriad of choices and risks.
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Travel, in other words, forces you to make friends with uncertainty, and accept that you won’t always know what lies ahead. You prove to yourself you that can survive, come Delhi belly or the hair-raising traffic of Hanoi. Rather than trying to control the future, you instead learn to rely on your inner skills to tackle stresses and setbacks. You build up a sandbag of resilience to keep the whirring “what ifs?” at bay.
Unshackle from routine
While routines can be comforting, you can also become bogged down in them – and this is particularly true of negative thinking. You believe that your predictable life helps to guard against your worries, but it actually entrenches them. Doing the same things, day in and day out, your mind has nowhere to go but inwards. You forget all about spontaneity and the happiness that comes from following your gut.
“We have to unshackle,” says Dylan Thuras, a video editor who wrote this blog about how travel can blitz a negative mindset. “We’ve become too accustomed and clingy to schedules and logic. If you see something, and it looks interesting and your first thought is ‘We should go check that out,’ then check it out! It allows you to discover the freedom you really still have.” Travel engenders this spirit of curiosity at every turn. The familiar routines where you find your comfort zone are pulled beneath your feet; you need to be creative in exploring the world around you. This not only quells your inner critic, it also gives you distance and a fresh perspective on the thoughts that have previously consumed you.
Learn new skills
Of all the things that can counter negative thinking, learning may be the strongest weapon. “Your mind is really like a muscle, and using it is a key” to lifelong mental health, says Lisa Berkman, professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard University. Part of the happiness of learning comes from something Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. Flow refers to a peak moment of consciousness in which we are so engaged with what we’re doing, we lose all grasp of time amid a deep sense of focus and enjoyment. Flow doesn’t have to be generated by a big or noble activity, but it needs to be something that fully absorbs us (watching TV, for example, wouldn’t count as it’s too passive).
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Travel – particularly adventure travel – opens up a maze of opportunity for learning new skills. You might unlock the art of Mexican cooking in the culinary capital of Oaxaca. You could master the skill of paddle-boarding on Slovenia’s mirror-still lakes. You may discover how to fly across the waves in a surfing lesson in Morocco. All these events, and countless more, will bolster your sense of confidence and self-reliance. And they’ll most likely spark off the meditative state of flow, an internal state that is the very opposite of negative thinking.
Tap into the power of awe
“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast or beyond human scale, that transcends our current understanding of things,” says psychologist Dacher Keltner, from the Social Interaction Lab at University of California, Berkeley. “People often talk about awe as seeing the Grand Canyon or meeting Nelson Mandela. But our studies show it also can be much more accessible—a friend is so generous you’re astounded, or you see a cool pattern of shadows and leaves.”
Negative thinking can trigger anxiety and a flight-or-fight response. But awe, says Keltner, makes us stop and think, as we become receptive to seeing things in new ways. When we’re faced with something that sparks awe, we’re more likely to think in terms of “we” rather than “me”, so it also binds us together. The effect of awe is so potent that teachers in New York have started to take their students on “Awe Walks” in nature and art. “It helps them feel less marginalized, with a sense that life is still good,” says one teacher. Travelling sparks all kinds of moments of awe, from the dazzling peaks of Rainbow Mountain in Peru to the magnificent glaciers of Iceland and the social revival captured by street art in Medellín, Colombia’s “City of Eternal Spring”. Cultivate these moments to lift your spirit and revive your soul.
Images: Flash Pack and Shutterstock