Travel Stress or Grief?

travel stress


“Grief is the thing with feathers.” –Max Porter

“I measure every Grief I meet with narrow, probing eyes.” –Emily Dickinson

As our friends from Seattle will tell you, falling asleep has never been a problem of mine. If you peeked through our roof at 11 pm on any given Friday night in 2010, you would have spotted me easily. Among the friends talking and laughing, I was the one dead asleep on the couch–the one you leaned over to pass the chips, the one on whose face you would have drawn anatomy. (You were probably tempted Scott, but thanks for not giving in.) David’s sister Danyell once asked why I didn’t just go to bed. I’m sure the alcohol didn’t help, but I was usually just that tired. My eyelids got heavy and then BAM. Couch ornament.

Over the years I’ve become more of a night owl–I’m sure it didn’t hurt to stop drinking. Still, I can always fall asleep when I want to. So, when on the night before our train trip to Zagreb I absolutely could not fall asleep, I was perplexed. I’ve never had this problem on our other trips. Our travel arrangements were planned and ticketed, we were all packed, and everything was in order–except for me. I tried for an hour to fall asleep, but was filled with empty restlessness. My heart all jelly, its ventricles plugged with cold mud. I gave up trying to sleep and killed time boiling and peeling eggs until it was time to leave for the train.

Every move disorients me, and I used to think of this as travel stress tied to my high-sensitivity introversion. But “travel stress” doesn’t explain the lasting weirdness after I arrive at the new destination–anger, irritability, depression, lack of ability to focus. When I came across accounts of grief associated with high mobility lifestyles, everything began to make more sense.

Grief is an emotion we associate most strongly with loss of life, and rightly so. Bereavement is one of the most intense human experiences, and I’m not comparing that torment to travel. I do think that long term travelers like myself experience lesser forms of grief for the multiple lives we inhabit and leave behind, and that we can be prone to ignoring our grief because we mistakenly think that being sad would mean we don’t love or appreciate what we have. Paradoxically, the opposite is true. The more we love and appreciate the people, places, and lifestyles we experience, the more we grieve when we leave them behind.

How to Identify Grief vs. Travel Stress

I’m still sad and off kilter today, even though I’m enthusiastically ensconced in beautiful Zagreb. Travel stress doesn’t explain why I feel imbalanced for weeks after the travel itself is over. “Travel stress” connotes a short term disruption, whereas grief takes time and active examination to process.

If you’re experiencing travel grief, you may:

  • Berate yourself, uselessly. Why are you still being weird, when all the travel went fine? You should really be moving on and settling in.
  • Feel crazy. Why do you want to cry right now, for absolutely no reason?
  • Take it out on other people. I need to leave the room or I’m going to lose it. (Why is my irritation threshold suddenly so low?)
  • Defer it until later. X, Y, and Z need your attention. Get it together. (Deferral isn’t a bad thing, but grief will eventually find an outlet, whereas we expect situational stress to just go away)
  • Explain it away. Once you get more used to traveling, you won’t be so weird every time.

In these scenarios, we forget to distinguish between emotions, which are coordinated neurological responses we don’t consciously control, feelings, the ways we psychologically interpret these responses, and emotional regulation, which is how we process emotion and choose to express or not express it outwardly.

In other words, we blame ourselves for having an emotion at all, though we don’t control the neurological responses that produce it. We try to regulate the emotion without first examining it or processing our feelings about it.

Why do we do this? I do it because I’m excited about Zagreb. Because I want to move on. Because today we found two grocery stores, made plans to interview a babysitter, memorized Croatian greetings on Youtube, and planned weekend trips to the coast.

Because I conflate grief with ungratefulness. If I don’t acknowledge how much I miss everyone I saw this past month, and how much missing them reminded me of the people I didn’t get to see, and how much I’ll miss our life in Budapest, I’m in for a much longer period of emotional tumult and unhappiness. 

If I really want to appreciate Zagreb and be fully present, I have to first acknowledge my grief for what I’ve just lost by moving here.

How To Process Travel Grief?

I have a big fat pile of stuff to process this month, which is probably why I couldn’t sleep. I spent an amazing two weeks with my mom, dad, brother, uncles, aunt, and grandparents. I also spent time with four very dear friends in different parts of the world. Each person was someone I’d met a long time ago at a pivotal moment in life, and with whom I’ve remained friends over the years.

Whenever I’m unmoored from my place in the universe, my family pulls me back to shore. “This is who you are. We’ve always known you, and we will always know you. This is who you are.” It’s the same with the dear friends. We write, of course, but there’s nothing like sitting on a couch and catching up, nothing like getting a glimpse into their lives over a cup of coffee, nothing like talking for hours about what they think about on a day-to-day basis.

Leaving these people is always sudden. I was here, in your life, and now I’m gone again. You’ll have that same commute tomorrow, you will be wondering those same things about what to say to your doctor, or your significant other, or what you’re going to do this weekend, and I won’t be a part of that. Your baby will smile those same wonderful smiles, but I won’t be there to see them.

I’m also missing Budapest. I miss our cozy little apartment, I miss the chance to get to know our landlord better, I miss that tour I didn’t get to finish, that history I’d started to explore. We can always come back, but for now it’s all gone.

Sad, right? Yes. It should be. If I didn’t have the chance to visit these people who live in different parts of the world in the first place, I would never have had the opportunity to feel as sad as I do now. If I didn’t get a taste of Budapest, I wouldn’t have known what I’m missing. That’s the grief of the joy of travel.

Travel stress is unavoidable, but so is grief. Unlike travel stress, grief can be beneficial in the long term. Neuroscientists have shown that it’s easier for people to remember something if they’ve tagged it with an emotion, which supports the idea that emotions perform a key function in the construction of memory–of creating that narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I’d like to think that grief means we’re traveling well. If we’ve done our best to be present, we grieve. If we’ve eaten the local food, lived in a normal neighborhood, learnt what we could of the language, and of course, about the nation’s history and its people, we grieve. If we’ve visited with dear friends and family and have really appreciated them, we grieve. We grieve for what we love.

What To Do About It

I’m not a psychologist. This is what works for me, and confirms what I’ve read in discussions of travel grief found in Third Culture Kids, and what I’ve read about emotional regulation via the neuroscience in Brain Rules for Baby.

  • The hardest part about processing this kind of travel grief is to acknowledge it rather than writing it off as travel stress.
  • Know that it will start whenever “leaving” becomes real to you, whether that’s a few days or weeks before your trip, depending on how long you’ve been in a place, or after you arrive at a new place.
  • If you have to defer your grief to take care of other pressing things, name it in your head for what it is: something bigger than “travel stress.”
  • Successful emotional regulation involves practicing the skill of getting specific about your feelings, and naming them before you react to them. I’m irritated right now, not really because Spencer spilled the milk, but because I’m discombobulated and sad, because I’m missing everything I’ve just left behind.
  • Make space and time (likely when you’re settled into your destination) to allow yourself to feel the feels without judging–without calling yourself ungrateful, or wimpy, or crazy. For some people, this is a good cry while listening to See You Again. For others, it’s as simple as saying “this sucks” and moving on.
  • For kids especially but for adults too, rituals of leaving can aid closure. The longer you stay in a place, the more you might want to do to say a proper goodbye. Cleaning everything, making time to say a special goodbye to each important person, gift giving when appropriate.
  • Maintain the connections. Set up those Skype dates. Send those emails. If it makes sense, make plans to visit again.

If I practice these things, (I never do them as well as I’d like to), I invest more quickly and more whole-heartedly in our next new adventure. Only by welcoming clear-eyed grief can I learn to love this life fully. I remind myself that not everyone gets to grieve the things I grieve.


  • Teresa Beaudette says:

    Excellent post Sarah! Very insightful.

  • Kelly says:

    This was really helpful. I’ve been having some of these feelings after moving from Cambridge to Lisbon. While I’m so happy to spend the summer here, I’m missing our friends, the parks, the bikes, the cobbled lanes…so many things about our life in Cambridge. Even the grey skies sometimes. 🙂

    • Sarah B says:

      I’m glad it clicked with you–it’s taken me a while to stop judging myself for these feelings. Wishing you a calm, peaceful transition Kelly 🙂 Looking forward to more posts about Lisbon. That bumblebee street art was amazing!

  • Ok wow! Just read a few of your blogs after finding each other on Instagram. We are wander_a_while. I thought I was absolutely nuts for feeling the way I did in the early and continuing 6 months of our journey through Europe and Morocco. I mean, how lucky were we (although I know luck had nothing to do with it, choice did and still does) to be able to live this way of life with our 3 year old, and then why do I feel this way? There was no explaining my sudden need to shut away or wishing to be somewhere else when being here, right now, is everything I also want.
    Thank you for this blog. We decided after 6 months to enjoy an extended period in Phuket Thailand, and I must say I feel a lot better, for me and my family. Perhaps we’ll move on to another destination at some point in the future. For now, having a space to call home, a level of routine for Asher and time for Adam and I to progress ideas and dreams into plans for a sustainable life outside of the corporate world, is exactly what we need.
    Although we have more questions now than we have answers, we have the head space to deal with those, while exploring a new world and learning new skills.
    Keep on keeping on! All the best to you and your family

    • Sarah B says:

      Hi Devinia, thanks so much for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment. You made another good point, which is that if you’re starting a business form scratch at the same time that you’re starting your travels, you sometimes have to choose between travel and the stability it takes to get your creative/financial/mental house in order. You are not alone–we don’t do nearly as much sightseeing as we’d like to, because most of the time we’re just heads down working, no matter where we are in the world. I’m so glad that it worked out for you to stay longer in Phuket–we’ll keep up with you on Instagram and if we’re ever in the same part of the world it would be great to meet up. We also have a 3-year-old. Congrats on living the life!

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