Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist & Founder
We’ve all seen Instagram captions like “I’m going to build a life that I don’t want to escape from” and to be honest these always make me feel a little sceptical. I would bet that for most of us, even if our home lives were just how we wanted, we would still want to travel. Not to escape perhaps, but to enjoy all of those other psychological benefits of travel like enhancing our creativity, curiosity, giving us distance from life’s challenges, and providing space for restoration.
In this article I’m going to talk you through what it means to escape and help you to understand the difference between escaping in helpful and unhelpful ways.
What is escapism?
Escapism in psychology is any behaviour that we use to avoid difficult feelings and emotions. These feelings are part and parcel of being human and so we all have to learn ways of dealing with feelings like disappointment, guilt, loss, and sadness. Common forms of escapism are using alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating high calorie foods, video gaming, doomscrolling, and a range of other behaviours that provide a focus which absorbs us and helps us avoid our feelings temporarily.
The excessive or persistent use of any of these strategies is where we begin to run into problems. In isolation none of the above behaviours are maladaptive in themselves. However when we begin to use them in excess, usually because we don’t have other strategies, this becomes problematic. Even behaviours which would usually be seen as healthy and adaptive, such as exercise or working a project you enjoy can become maladaptive if used persistently and excessively as a way of escaping.
In short, using escapism as a strategy is unhealthy when it is excessive and when used persistently as our only coping strategy.
What are healthy ways of coping?
The research tells us that proactive coping strategies are associated with increased well-being (Carr, 2022., Greengrass and Fiksenbaum, 2009). Being proactive means taking steps to manage or change the problem we’re facing, or how we feel. In contrast, the persistent use of avoidant forms of coping, including escapism, is often present in mental health conditions including anxiety disorders and depression.
Problem focused coping describes a range of proactive coping strategies. These include accepting responsibility for problems and taking realistic steps to solve or manage them. It also involves maintaining an optimistic view of our own ability to cope. In most situations these kinds of strategies are helpful both for our own coping and to achieve positive outcomes (Carr, 2022).
Emotion focused strategies are ways of managing how we feel about situations. These are also proactive and often help when we are facing situations and stresses that we don’t have much control over. They include making and maintaining social connections, reframing our problems and finding meaning. Coping strategies like meditation techniques and physical activities like sports or yoga would also be considered emotion focused (Carr, 2022). These are strategies that psychologists and therapists often recommend because they are very effective and helpful!
We have all had days when we have been feeling very overwhelmed and have needed to use escapism as a way to manage how we are feeling. This might involve binge watching Netflix or scrolling more than we intended to. Doing this occasionally is not going to have a negative impact as long as you are using proactive strategies, and ensuring that escapism is not becoming a regular habit.
Is travelling to escape always a bad thing?
Not always. Sometimes life gets a bit much and we need some space from our difficulties to process our emotions and events that have happened. We also need time for rest and restoration, and often when we return from our travels we do so with a renewed sense of perspective. This can help us to know which actions to take in our situation. I wrote more about this in my previous article travel and our appetite for life
The key thing here is that we have additional strategies and we don’t use escapism as our only way of coping. We also take action when we need to, particularly if we have been unhappy with our situation for some time and it is unlikely to change. We also talk to our friends or family and have healthy emotion focused coping strategies that work for us.
So how do I know if I’m travelling to escape in a helpful or unhelpful way?
There are some indicators that can help you to make this distinction:
Indicators of using travel to escape in an unhelpful way
- If you tend to book trips when you are overwhelmed
- If you are someone who tends to avoid dealing with problems and emotions
- Finding that you don’t reach any new insights or perspectives on your situation when you return from your trip
- Behaviours on your travels that might suggest that you are trying to disconnect from your feelings or your situation. These might include drinking alcohol to excess, behaving in ways which are out of character or not in line with your values, making unwise decisions and excessive spending beyond your budget.
- Feelings of dread when coming home at the end of your trip
- You are in a cycle where you feel stuck in your situation and you use travel to cope and are not proactive in changing your situation in other ways
- No amount of travel ever feels ‘enough’
Indicators of using travel to escape in a healthy way
- You use travel as a way to temporarily gain some distance from stresses and problems, and feel more able to deal with these when you return home
- You tend to be proactive in dealing with problems in your everyday life
- You have emotion focused coping strategies including good social support, regular exercise and/or relaxation or meditation techniques
- There is a sense of connection when you travel; you are able to feel connected to your surroundings and your feelings
- You feel satisfied after a trip and you do not dread coming home
- Travel helps with your well-being but it is not your only way of coping; it is one tool in your toolbox
- You use travel experiences to fuel your curiosity and for restoration, rather than to distract or avoid
- You feel comfortable having chilled time on holiday rather than needing to fill every moment
In summary, travelling to escape can be unhelpful when it is our only coping strategy and when used persistently and/or in excess. In contrast, if we have a range of coping strategies and occasionally use travel to temporarily escape the stresses of life, this is likely to be helpful. Travelling in this way can help us gain the distance and perspective we need to manage and cope with life’s day to day challenges.
If you liked this article check out our previous post What are the psychological benefits of travel?
Carr, A. (2022). Positive psychology: The science of wellbeing and human strengths (3rd Ed). Routledge.
Greenglass, E. R., & Fiksenbaum, L. (2009). Proactive coping, positive affect, and well-being: Testing for mediation using path analysis. European psychologist, 14(1), 29-39.