When I ask people what they like about living in Germany, there’s one response I hear over and over: travel opportunities. I was happy to see that members of the Kaiserslautern Military Community are encouraged to take advantage of their time in Germany by traveling. Not only do many personnel enjoy the adventure of exploring, but travel has shown to be beneficial to wellness.
Travel can be a proactive measure to protect mental health and prevent sadness, or, in some cases, more serious depression said U.S. Air Force Capt. Abigail Wolfe, 86th Medical Group psychologist.
“Vacation travel as a means for getting away from the rigors of work and relaxing a few times a year is proven to be beneficial to overall mental health,” Wolfe said.
While travel is not a means of avoiding day-to-day problems or a substitute for treatment, Wolfe highly encourages getting out and exploring with the desire to learn and grow as a result.
“One must begin with a great amount of respect for the other culture and an openness to the experience of spending time in that culture,” Wolfe said. “The key to benefiting from travel is multicultural engagement and openness to seeing other parts of the world through that culture’s lens. Someone who visits another culture but does not engage with its people, foods, history, art and things like that will receive fewer benefits than someone who engages with and learns from the local environment.”
I had the opportunity to meet one Airman who has made it her mission to experience a myriad of cultures while traveling to every accessible European country.
“Travel opens up my mind,” said Staff Sgt. Shawn McMahan, 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron clinical technology and simulation technician. “Growing up in a small town, you only get exposed to so much.”
I love that McMahan doesn’t just travel for the sights, but to make a genuine connection with people, culture and history. I was reminded of how deeply taking time to read the history of the places I’ve stood on has enriched my travels. The green mounds among the trees at Verdun look a lot different when you know where they came from.
“The most challenging part about adapting is the language,” McMahan said. “I’ve traveled to places like Montenegro and parts of Spain where nobody speaks English.”
Since the way we communicate is largely nonverbal, there are ways to understand each other. McMahan used body language, gift-giving and some creativity. Just getting over fears and making an effort might be a lot more successful than expected.
McMahan probably does herself a favor when she puts herself in a challenging situation.
Adapting to cultures and getting out of comfort zones promotes neuroplasticity, Wolfe said. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways and change how circuits are wired.
“Travel positively contributes to new connections in our brains, making us more creative, open, and adaptable,” Wolfe said. “Over the past decade psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying this theory and the research appears to prove it again and again.”
Another trait that I’ve realized travel promotes is openness to experience.
“Openness to experience is a positive attribute that will take a person far in their career and relationships,” Wolfe said. “A lot of military training is aimed at getting an individual out of their comfort zone for this reason. Openness to experience is an important part of an individual’s personality because it makes a person less reactive to day-to-day challenges, positively impacts emotional stability and improves interpersonal interactions overall.
I can see that McMahan has experienced increased openness by integrating into new cultures.
“Traveling broadens my appreciation for things that I’m not exposed to regularly,” McMahan said. “There’s people who know me and I couldn’t speak their language and they couldn’t speak mine but they invited me to their house for dinner because that’s the tradition around there.”
Work will always continue, but the time Airmen are assigned to Germany may be brief. I think most people can benefit by regularly taking leave from the routine of work and home to explore somewhere new. If they approach a country with openness to new cultures, desire to connect and willingness to leave comfort zones, they may come back with a more positive mental state, which is good for work and home.
While traveling, personnel must remember to conduct themselves appropriately, be a good ambassador and ensure the safety of themselves and their wingmen. To ensure destinations are safe and permissible for travel, personnel are required to check the Department of Defense Foreign Clearance Guide before traveling.