health

Stuck at home? Trick your brain into treating a staycation like the real thing.

Taking a vacation has many benefits for your body and mind. A timely getaway can lower your stress and, with it, your risk of life-threatening issues like heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Even short vacations—four nights, according to one study—can significantly improve your feeling of well-being. Traveling to faraway lands can boost creativity and, when you’re back at work, heighten your productivity.

But when you can’t travel—because of time, money, or a global pandemic—can you get the same satisfaction from a staycation?

It’s difficult, but not impossible, says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm. The crucial thing, Blair explains, is to understand that most vacation-related benefits have little to do with the activities we partake in while traveling. “[It’s about] what we don’t do,” she says.

When you travel somewhere new—whether it’s a short drive or half a world away—the change in setting helps you escape the environmental cues that reinforce your daily routine. “What we need is to get away from those habit loops,” Blair says, like the briefcase by the door or the highway signs pointing to the office. These signals, while subtle, remind you of your responsibilities and push your brain to focus on the future, which can revv your anxiety.

On a true vacation, these reminders of work and regular life slip away. When you’re exploring a world that is foreign to you, you experience a kind of “forced mindfulness,” Blair says. “You may have to speak another language, you have to walk around new places, you get to eat new food. All of these things make you stop and think.”

Unmooring yourself from your typical habits is definitely harder when you’re surrounded by objects and locations that fit into your daily routine. The surprise of the unfamiliar can be hard to simulate in your own home, but Blair says there are loads of tricks you can try to help vanquish your routine thinking.

Step one: Shake up your routine to the point of absurdity

Your instinct on day one of your staycation is probably to have a nice, leisurely morning—and well you should. But Blair suggests treating your morning lie-in a bit more like an early bedtime.

Start your staycation with a backwards day, Blair says. This entails eating dinner upon waking, doing evening activities in the morning, and follows from there. The experience calls attention to how much of our life is driven by habit, and offers an opportunity for psychic escape. This will mean something different for everyone, but try to flip your ideal Saturday completely on its head (except perhaps for caffeine consumption, which has no place in your nighttime routine).

Step two: Steer clear of typical workday cues

“The second thing is to become aware of and get rid of the triggers,” Blair says. Put that briefcase away for as long as your out of office response is turned on, and try to drive down different roads when you head into town for errands.

You want to remove all the cues that tell your body and mind it’s time for work. If you work from home, this might even mean staying off the computer for the duration of your staycation—try to use devices that you associate more with recreation, or just take a break from the Internet entirely.

Step three: Pick a destination

Just because you’re not going anywhere doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a few of the benefits of traveling to a new place.

Once your usual cues are neutralized, replace them with new kinds of stimuli that mimic the vacation you wish you were taking. If your dream had been to travel to Spain, then Blair says the next step is to create that feeling with a Spanish-themed evening. But don’t just order the ingredients for paella; work to create an environment that mimics your vacation vision in your home. Even little touches, like buying snazzy new placemats or donning your favorite Hawaiian shirt in the middle of winter, can help you stay mindful in the moment.

You don’t have to try to turn your house or apartment into an Epcot-esque facsimile of your favorite destination—the point isn’t to actually fool yourself into thinking you’re there. But consider how a day spent abroad might feel different from a day spent on your own couch, and use those disparities as inspiration for ways to break out of your humdrum routine.

Plus, one benefit of a staycation is that you can simulate a different kind of trip every night. A spa in the bathroom and a margarita bar in the kitchen? Cozy hygge vibes in the bedroom and a VR amusement park in the living room? The world is your oyster.

However you get there, “fun is the bottom line,” Blair says.

Step four: Enjoy your staycation by planning your vacation

Cutting loose from your typical routine will help you get some of the stress relief and related health benefits associated with jet-setting. That’s a huge win. Your staycation might feel a little awkward or silly, but know that your body and mind are benefiting from time spent in a new and unusual routine.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to curb your urge to actually travel. If a Spanish-themed staycation just isn’t quite cutting it, consider this: You have the power to kick off the most enjoyable portion of a “real” vacation at any time. Seriously. You could start right now.

“Do you know when you’re happiest? When you’re planning,” Blair says. In one study of Dutch vacationers, researchers theorized that the building anticipation we experience when sketching out itineraries and scrounging for hotel deals was the source of this pre-trip euphoria.

That bodes well for people feeling cooped up this winter. You may not be able to get up and go, but figuring out your goals and plans for future trips—and experiencing all the good feelings that come with that process—is just a click away.