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Mindful Travel

When you’re on the road, there are ways you can beat stress before it beats you

A 2013 study on the toll of traveling for business said it all: The research from Carlson Wagonlit Travel found travelers can experience stress for as much as “6.9 hours per trip” as measured in “lost time, or time unavailable to travelers to work or rest.” The report – which was the first time an algorithm had ever been used to determine the true cost of travel – placed the financial loss at as much as $662 per trip.

Across a one-year period, the study examined more than 15 million CWT air trips broken down into 22 potentially stressful activities from pre-trip through post-trip actions. Each activity was measured according to duration and perceived stress intensity.

The results? The biggest stressor was flying economy class on medium- and long-haul flights. Getting to the airport or train proved to be the second most stressful part of the trip.

Unfortunately, the intervening years have not mitigated stress for business travelers. A more recent global study released in March by IHG with help from associates at Harvard Medical School, reported that business travelers lose some 58 minutes of sleep per night on the road, averaging only five hours and 17 minutes when they are traveling. The disruptions of travel all contribute to what can be a hot mess for anyone who cycles through time zones for a living.

And while many of the factors that contribute to travel stress cannot be avoided, there are a few tricks that can make anyone’s journeys through business and through life a little more bearable.

Doctor Onboard

On a recent trip to Turkey with TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, the focus was on optimizing health in the air and integrating easy habits that any flier can adopt. The famed cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor, and star of the syndicated Dr. Oz Show had plenty of advice for passengers – many of them frequent fliers – to minimize discomforts and stay well during long-distance travel.

Suggestions included everything from seat yoga to drinking a sour cherry brew to keep sickness at bay. But the key concern is keeping the autoimmune system boosted and use the time for some much-deserved detox from daily pressures.

Among other things, Dr. Oz recommends popping an aspirin before a flight to prevent pulmonary embolism for those at risk, as well as a vitamin supplement and an oft overlooked piece of the wardrobe: a scarf. It can serve as a blanket, an aroma blocker, a pillow and protection against airborne bacteria.

Flight has only been aloft for around 100 years, so the fact that people are capable of jumping time zones with speed is a relatively new phenomenon.

“Traveling across time zones can be particularly taxing on the mind and body,” says Dr. Oz. “That’s because our circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that lets us know when it’s time to wake up and sleep, takes a few days to catch up. As soon as I board a flight, I change my watch to the destination time zone. I also try to adjust my body to the new time zone straight away.”

For finding those often elusive hours of inflight sleep, Dr. Oz suggests melatonin and rescheduling the body long before arriving. Other techniques, recommended by the Space Center in Houston, help their astronauts overcome jet lag two to three times faster.

First, understand the direction you are traveling. Begin by determining whether you are traveling east or west. Most people have an internal body clock that makes it harder for them to travel east. Second, since it takes a full day to shift one time zone internally, you can speed the process by regulating your time in darkness and light – both natural and artificial.

The best diet for long-haul flights, and indeed for long-haul life, is the Mediterranean diet, according to Dr. Oz. It includes such foods as nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil with whole grain bread, legumes and beans, fish dishes for entrees, fresh fruits and vegetables.

What else can passengers do to make the going a little more palatable? Drink water, wear loose clothing and move around … a lot. Stuck in the middle seat? “Stand up at your seat, grab your foot and stretch. Or, kneel on your seat facing the back of the plane and lean back or onto your heels,” said Dr. Oz. “Your neighbor might look at you like you’re crazy, but when he or she gets a leg cramp later on in the trip, you’ll be having the last laugh.”

Meditation as Medication

Beyond eating right, hydrating much and moving around to keep the circulation buzzing, meditation is medication and a powerful elixir that can do much more than bring on zzzzzs.  

Dr. Daniel Siegel received his medical degree at Harvard and now teaches at UCLA Medical School. He has pioneered research in the field of meditation and written more than a dozen books on neurobiology and the science of mindfulness and meditation. His latest, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, looks at the science underlying meditation’s effectiveness and teaches how to harness the power of the principle: “Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”

This wisdom can be immensely helpful to travelers, he says. The very definition of stress is measured by elevations in heart rate, respiration and muscle tension. “Studies from a range of fields suggest that it is how we relate to our experience that is more important than the absolute experience itself – and this is true with regard to bodily states as well as mental activities,” Siegel says.

“Traveling has many things at stake that matter: getting somewhere on time, getting there alive, getting there without getting an infectious illness.  So yes, it is stressful,” he continues.  “Add to this the physically unnatural ways we have to sit in a tube on a plane or in a car, and it is physically painful. And in addition, we may be leaving the proximity of our loved ones.”

These are challenges that layer over the stale air, poor food choices, and the radiation from being higher up in the atmosphere. If you realize that your mind can change your brain, he adds, that’s a good start – and that’s meditation.

“Meditation is simply a word that means training the mind,” Siegel says. “The three pillars of mind training – focused attention, open awareness and kind intention – can lead to improvements in each of the factors that stress worsens. Inflammation is reduced, immune function is enhanced, cardiovascular health factors improve, telomerase levels are optimized, and stress hormone levels decrease.”

App Naps 

While meditation could become a regular practice in daily life, a seat on a plane for hours on end may be a good place to get a start. Several interesting gadgets have surfaced of late to make meditating all the easier, calming body and soul.

The Muse headband, which first appeared at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, may be the most advanced of the electronic meditation aids available. Available on Amazon, the headband has sensors that read brain activity and tells the wearer through a smartphone app whether he or she is in a calm state of meditation or dancing around with monkey mind. The constant neurofeedback helps the wearer return to states of alpha or theta when brainwaves jump back to stress mode.

Another item, which debuted at this year’s CES and also 2019 Travel Goods Show is the Dreamlight Zen mask. The compact, lightweight and very comfortable mask fits snugly around the head and rhythmically pulses soft orange light (the only hue that does not contain stimulating blue light) at a rate that is supposed to help bring the heart rate down.A device on the side flap is pressed and guided meditation sessions begin in quiet stereo that no one else can hear. All extraneous sights and sounds are blocked leaving the user to see and hear only what comes through the mask. The item pairs easily with Bluetooth for using smartphone meditation apps instead of what the manufacturer provides.

Devine Detox

The very act of travel – moving from one destination to another – provides ample opportunity to detach and detox from our daily, digital-heavy lives. While stress will never abate – it is waiting patiently to grab us at the airport on arrival, sit with us through groggy meetings and meals, and haunt us in our hotel rooms – we can take the time we spend in transit as a glorious moment of turning everything off.“

I personally just like to sit and either tune out the world or tune into one little aspect of it at a time. I find it calming and centering,” said Sara Clemence, whose book, Away & Aware, delves into mindful travel with tips and advice for disconnecting from devices and connecting with the destination.

“Apps can be a great way for beginners to get into the habit of meditating – things like 10% Happier or Headspace. Once you get the hang of it, I think it’s more enjoyable to do it on your own,” she says.

Similarly, just listening to the right music can help to shift consciousness and change the brain chemical activity, adds Dr. Oz. Do a little self-massage on scalp, temples, arms and legs, add a little positive self-talk, and you have some life-changing therapy taking flight.

Suddenly, life does not seem so stressful.