Travel and the importance of psychological flexibility

15 March, 2023|Travel and well-being|
Travel and the importance of psychological flexibility The Travel Psychologist

Koh Samui, Thailand

By Dr Jill Dunbar, Clinical Psychologist & regular contributor

It’s been three years since COVID-19 caused the world to shut down and it’s hard to know how to describe where we are. Are we “post-COVID”? Are we at the tail end of it? I find that the nature of our experience with COVID and the changing restrictions lead to me being more cautious with my positivity. Memories of conversations stating that things seemed to be improving when just weeks away we would experience another wave, another variant, another lockdown. I’m also conscious that living in South Korea, where we still have the remnants of COVID related rules in place (at the time of writing, masks are still required on public transport) means that I continue to hold COVID in my awareness and an associated sense of caution.

When the world started to open up, the uncertainty did not simply disappear. Rather, some of our apprehension about restrictions side stepped into apprehension about the logistics of travel. Suddenly travel is available to us again, and as avid lovers of travel we want to make up for lost time. But now travel is more complicated, more expensive, and more unpredictable.

In summer 2022, half of all flights in Europe were delayed, and around 2000 flights were cancelled each day. This was a huge increase from pre-pandemic years. The combination of fewer staff, staff absence, and the inevitable struggle of trying to get a system working again that had lain dormant for 18 months meant that many people experienced their travel plans being delayed, rescheduled, or cancelled at the last minute – a hard blow for those wanting to regain that sense of normality.

I became aware of my own hesitation to arrange a trip; struggling to feel excited as I could not be certain that aspects of it would not be cancelled. I found myself fretting over the ever-changing entry requirements for different countries – do we need proof of vaccinations, a QR code, a PCR test, how can I get one in a country where I don’t speak a word of the language, what if it’s positive and I get stuck? The seemingly never-ending questions and escalating worry was detracting from the joy of booking a trip, which was then causing more frustration that I wasn’t excited!

From conversations, I know that I was not alone with these worries. This then got me reflecting on the important link between travel and psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility can be understood as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and deal with any distress that those changes create. It is a fundamental aspect for maintaining good mental health. It allows us to distance ourselves from distressing situations and experiences, and helps us to regulate our emotions. It helps us to adapt to unexpected changes, vary how much emotional energy we invest in situations, and helps us to change our perspective.

Travel by it’s very nature opens us up to new experiences, and places us in situations where we cannot fully predict every aspect of a situation or what is expected of us. This can be through different language, having little to no initial social connections or guidance, or cultural differences in those we interact with. Even differences in our sensory experiences draw on a need for psychological flexibility, such as different smells in the air, different tastes in the food, different volume levels of speech, or even how closely people may stand next to you while waiting at a pedestrian crossing. Flexibility is all about tailoring your response to the specific situation, either by predicting well or adapting to the new information given. We need to hold an acceptance that situations change and therefore it is important to be able to adjust and behave in the most functional way.

An individual’s level of psychological flexibility can be dependent on various factors including personality and temperament, early life experiences, environment growing up and also in later years, coping tendencies, and family influences. Children who are exposed to new experiences develop more neural pathways for psychological flexibility, and can grow up to be better problem solvers, be more adaptable to change, and exhibit better emotional control. We can therefore see the power in exposing children to different cultures and travel from an early age!

Given the huge disruption caused by lockdowns, this was an ideal time to study the impact that restrictions had on people’s well-being, and whether psychological flexibility enabled people to cope more effectively. One study did just that. The results were clear; those who had greater psychological flexibility experienced less distress and scored higher on measures of well-being than those with lower psychological flexibility (Dawson and Golijani-Moghaddam, 2020). This provides strong evidence that psychological flexibility can help us to deal with changing circumstances.

How do I know how psychologically flexible I am?

When considering your own level of psychological flexibility, there are certain signs that suggest you may be leaning towards inflexibility. These could be:

• Struggling to express your emotions
• Being overly cautious or risk avoidant
• Being governed by rules and having rigid thinking
• An excessive need for structure or finding the “right” thing to do
• Over planning
• Feelings of bitterness, envy or resentment

The good news is that our psychological flexibility is malleable. While we have factors that can influence our baseline flexibility, our experiences and self-awareness can help us to increase our psychological flexibility. This is likely to have a positive impact on our mental well-being, resilience and overall quality of life.

When confronted with an unexpected change or disappointment, acknowledge the present situation and acknowledge how you feel about it. Be aware of your initial reaction and be compassionate with yourself with how you feel, whether that may be angry, frustrated, irritated, or sad. Validate your feelings and accept them. Then make the next step to adjust your thoughts, feelings and actions to the circumstances that are presented to you. Then identify the most effective way to use your energy to deal with the current situation. Often we can expend too much of our emotional energy on staying stuck in feeling angry, sad, or hard done to.

Practicing mindfulness can be a very effective way of increasing your psychological flexibility. It’s worth saying that these skills take practice and so it is worth persisting with it.

Psychological flexibility in it’s simplest form is about having an open mind. Being open to new experiences, understanding that the world does not always operate as we would expect or hope, and being able to accept change and difference and maintain an ability to function well. A crucial aspect is also having the confidence within yourself to know that you are able to manage unexpected situations.

Travel is such a wonderful way to build up our resilience and confidence in managing the unexpected, opening our minds to new experiences and new ways of doing things, and teaching ourselves that, although things are unfamiliar, we are capable and we can adjust.


Dawson, D. L., & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2020). COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. Journal of contextual behavioral science17, 126-134.

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