Opinion | How to Relax on Vacation After Two Years of Not Relaxing

You might be thinking: Well, yes, you had a toddler — what do you expect? But it wasn’t just that. I was also exhausted by what felt like 36,902 months of Covid and other horrific world events. When we finally boarded the airplane, I was wound tighter than my overstuffed roller duffel.

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In the scheme of things, these are minor challenges, I know. We were lucky to have the freedom, funds and good health that this kind of travel requires. But for a few days, that sort of reasonable perspective and good old gratitude were largely beyond my grasp.

First, I was flattened by what I will modestly refer to as “traveler’s tummy.” Then I was scared out of surfing by waves that seemed too messy and powerful for my skills. A chilly, billowing fog kept me from unrolling the sundresses I’d carefully packed, and I ended up wrapped in the same milk-stained sweatshirt that I wore on the airplane (and for approximately two years preceding the trip).

To the seasoned traveler, such hiccups are just that — hiccups. But instead of slapping on some SPF and a smile as I might have in 2019, I spiraled: Here we were, finally on our Big Vacation, the one I’d been looking forward to for months, and I wasn’t even enjoying myself . And then I was beating myself up for not enjoying myself. When I made the mistake of opening Instagram, as one is wont to do when a stomach bug lands one on the toilet several times over the course of a morning, I was inundated by action shots of friends splashing happily in the sun. Scrolling through the news was worse: It was all horrific, and I felt guilty for feeling sorry for myself amid all the real suffering in the world.

There’s a concept known as psychological flexibility — the quality that helps us to go with the flow in an unpredictable or stressful situation — the Los Angeles-based therapist Stephanie Pearl told me. Covid gave us very real and scary reasons to try to control our circumstances and environments, which left us with few opportunities to use the psychological flexibility that could help us cope with an airplane full of unmasked tourists or a jet-lagged toddler. “We couldn’t practice loosening our grip,” Ms. Pearl told me. “And the control that we did have was coming from a fight-or-flight place.”

Given this context, my utter inability to relax didn’t seem quite so absurd. During such an episode, Ms. Pearl advises acknowledging your feelings and granting yourself some patience and compassion: “We drive ourselves crazy trying to be like, ‘How can I make this better? Can I find a different route in the traffic? Can I do a weather dance?’” she told me. “And sometimes it’s just acceptance: getting into the moment, accepting what is, and trusting — trusting this may not be the best moment of the vacation but there can still be good moments of the vacation.”