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What Is Travel Psychology? – Thrillist

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Think of Javier Labourt as the Marie Kondo of travel.

Photo courtesy of Javier Labourt

It’s a widely held belief that travel changes you. We all have that one friend who went to Bali and claimed to have found enlightenment, or the one who adopted a Spanish accent after studying abroad in “Barthelona.” But behind such cliches lies a fundamental truth: We’re not the same when we’re in transit, and the current field of psychology does little to analyze human beings beyond their fixed states.

Javier Labourt is a licensed clinical psychotherapist from Buenos Aires with a penchant for travel. Though he’s been to over 40 countries, he often recalls the first international trip he took at the age of seven, when he left Argentina to visit his grandparents in the U.S. It was the first time he dealt with separation anxiety from his parents, and his earliest understanding of the ways in which travel could lead to self-growth.

“If you travel in a way that gets you outside of your comfort zone, living experiences you’ve never lived, you’re in a fertile ground to plant the seed of personal change,” Labourt explains.
Since that first trip to the US, Labourt has combined his two passions—travel and psychology—by working one-on-one with clients to build itineraries aimed at expanding their horizons. Or as he explains it, “similar to the Marie Kondo method, but for travelers.”

One such case is the story of a musician named Amalia, who made an appearance in the TEDx Talk Labourt gave a few years ago. For much of her life, Amalia suffered from stage fright. But after traveling to Indonesia with the psychologist, she found the courage to perform publicly.

According to Labourt, there’s a number of factors that can get the psychological wheels turning during a trip, such as the building of self-knowledge, self-esteem, cognitive flexibility, and empathy. We spoke to Labourt—who’s currently filming a documentary and writing a book on travel psychology—to learn more about his creative approach, and what the emerging field could mean for the future of travel.

Thrillist: What can you tell us about the relatively unexplored field of travel psychology?
Javier Labourt:
Since humanity started traveling, we’ve realized that it changes our perspective, or broadens our mind. But there aren’t a lot of researchers or authors that are really investigating this matter through evidence-based research. If we want to make this field more scientifically relevant, it’ll be a big challenge for the whole psychological community. But on the other hand, in a more qualitative way—using personal, one-by-one experience—it’s easy to prove and test.

Until now, the potential to transform people via trips has been used by gurus, by coaches, by people in the travel industry. But it’s never been used by psychologists. So what I want to do is to be a pioneer when it comes to putting the focus on how traveling can really affect mental health.

How do your trips work?
A few years ago I took a musician I knew named Amalia on a trip to help her cope with social anxiety and lack of confidence when it came to playing live on a stage. On a ten-day trip to Indonesia, we addressed those issues through different experiences, and it was the kickoff for a deeper understanding of how travel and psychology are related.

What I’ve been doing with different travelers through conference calls is try and help them analyze their destination in a psychological way, whether that means exposing themselves to their fears or helping them strengthen a relationship with someone they’re traveling with. There are many well-being or yoga retreats out there right now. What I want to promote is a trip that’s more tailored to the individual traveler—the idea of traveling with someone and doing therapy along the way can be life-changing.

What do you think is a common “symptom” people face before they embark on an adventure?
I can’t put my clinical work in the same category as my travel work, but there’s a whole field of therapy related to personal development and traveling can really give you the material for that. Issues with anxiety or mild depression, life crises, relationship issues—these are all issues that can be addressed on a trip. But in the spectrum of the psychological problems, they’re often less severe.

Hypothetically speaking, if a person was going through some relationship issues, how would you go about designing the trip?
First, I’d define the structure of the trip—doing a solo trip versus doing a trip with someone. If, for example, the two people involved in the trip are the ones that need to work on their relationship, I’d study the nature of the relationship—what are the strengths, what are the weaknesses—and focusing on their potential, I would try to build experiences that would strengthen their bond. Let’s say a couple has been having marital problems. First we’d need to understand if this relationship has the possibility to grow and improve, because sometimes these situations can get two people to fasten things up, which ends in a break—and sometimes that might be positive.

But let’s say the couple has the potential to grow, and they’re going to Peru, for example. They go through the experience of walking the Inca trail for four days, where they will be sleeping in a tent, sharing food with other travelers. They will be reflecting on the Incas, on archeological monuments, understanding a new culture, trying to empathize with the locals. They might be considering the Pachamama culture, for example, which recognizes the importance of the Earth Mother. Imagine a relationship in which the mother of the family or the woman in a couple is not being validated by her husband and they’re trying to consider what Peruvian culture can offer about the role of the feminine goddess, which then starts changing the mindset of the husband.

How does fear, exposure, and change of routine on one’s travels play a role?
If your fear is big, it’s always great to practice exposure. If you’re afraid of flying, and with proper preparation, you fly on a plane, that’s the key for change. If you’re averse to different tastes, it’s great to go to another country and expose yourself to new flavors.

When you travel, the willingness to expose yourself to things that you fear is always higher because the environment, while stressful in some ways, is also really pleasurable. During the very first moments of the trip, there’s an adaptation time—a time to adapt our senses, or preconceived notions about how the world works. The brain will be working, it will be stressed, but this stress is encapsulated in a joyful, curious attitude because you, the traveler, are the person that decided to go there.

When we’re working from nine to five, we want to relax, we want to spend our spare time with friends, go see a football game, have a beer at night. But when you’re on a trip you are more vulnerable—more emotionally available than you are on an everyday basis. It’s not uncommon for someone who’s not really in touch with their emotions to feel super touched, or feel their inner soul moved, by something on a trip. We don’t get to see those scenes in our day to day life. And my theory is that while you are more emotionally vulnerable, you’re more likely to enact personal change.

Once that trip is over, how do you sustain whatever mindset you adopted?
When you realize that you’ve changed and you discuss that change with someone in therapy, for example, this can be a way to sustain that change. If you discuss it with a professional, with a therapist who is orientating you into this personal growth, it’s more likely that these changes will stay, and you’ll incorporate these traits into your personality—and it won’t just be something that’s related to the context.

What kinds of desires are we moving towards when we decide to travel?
Life is a journey that is full of small journeys. Some journeys are these trips, these travels that we do. Each one of them is an opportunity to live a better version of ourselves. But it depends on the attitude that we take, the experiences we choose to live.

Traveling is the perfect scenario for challenging our beliefs. If you put yourself in the shoes of locals, for example, you’re really enacting cognitive dissonance, or two ideas that collide with one another. Real empathy is not listening to who’s in front of you through your own lens; it’s trying to understand them through their education, their economy, their upbringing. And when you start taking the judgment off of people, you start taking the judgment off of yourself. And this is another open-ended benefit of traveling. It helps you to become more compassionate towards the world, but also towards yourself.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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