TRAVEL
11/11/2019 8:31 AM AEDT

Here's Why It's So Hard To Unpack After A Trip

Travel and mental health experts examine the common tendency to delay and ways to stop stalling post-vacation.

When it comes to unpacking after a trip, it seems like there are two types of people: those who unpack their bags immediately upon returning home and those who let that suitcase full of dirty clothes and souvenirs sit for days, weeks or even months until they need to empty it for the next trip. 

Many identify with the latter scenario. 

But why does it take some people such a long time to unpack their suitcases? And what are some ways to deal with this tendency? HuffPost spoke to travel and mental health experts to find out.

The Excitement Is Gone

“When packing for an upcoming trip, the anticipation of the trip helps you feel more excited about it, and there are packing checklists that help guide us to know what to pack,” said Jessica Norah, a travel blogger with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She added that some people enjoy picking out the clothes, toiletries and gadgets they’re taking, and a plane or train’s departure time sets a hard deadline for the task.

“But when you return from a trip, the excitement is gone and there is no deadline to unpack,” Norah said. Unpacking becomes just another chore. 

“Some people may not be wanting to get back to the mundane tasks of tidying and doing laundry yet,” she said. 

Jean Kim, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, suggested that delaying unpacking may be an attempt to hold onto the pleasures of travel. 

“It might be a way to retain the feeling of freedom they may have had while traveling, basically pretending they are still on the road, instead of back to the grind of their regular lives,” she said. 

Procrastination Can Be Tempting

Not unpacking can be a form of procrastination mixed with denial, according to clinical psychologist Tamara McClintock Greenberg.

“Procrastination often happens when we are nervous about something or have unpleasant feelings about the thing we are avoiding. Unpacking represents an ending of something good: vacation and travel,” said McClintock Greenberg. “I think of not unpacking as a way to avoid a kind of mourning that the fun is over. So in that sense, perhaps unpacking is a way to hold on to the trip or a kind of denial that vacation is over, though in an unhelpful way.”

After a recent work trip, Kim said she didn’t unpack her tiny carry-on suitcase for three days. She blames this on a simple case of procrastination ― delaying the completion of organizational tasks due to fatigue or busyness.

“This often happens after returning from a trip and catching up on the regular routine back home and at work,” Kim said. 

Maybe There’s A Deeper Issue

But procrastination isn’t always a matter of being tired, busy or wishful that your vacation lasted another week. There can be some real anxiety behind it.

“The reasons for the anxiety can vary depending on the situation,” said Kim. “Sometimes people put off finishing an assignment because they’re worried about failure or doing it incorrectly, i.e., perfectionism. For others, it is a control issue. Delaying a project gives them some sense of temporarily being in charge, even though it is ultimately self-defeating if what needs to be done isn’t done.”

Norah echoed this notion that there’s a mental health aspect to unpacking ― or choosing not to unpack. The delay may mask deeper personal issues. 

“While going through one’s luggage can bring back happy memories of a fun trip for some, for others it may be depressing,” she said. “It is normal to be a bit sad and disappointed to be back from a much-anticipated vacation. ... For some people, this could also represent something bigger such as unhappiness with their job, relationship, home situation, etc.”

We Have Too Much Stuff

According to freelance writer and travel blogger Rupert Wolfe Murray, the reason so many people have trouble unpacking comes down to their having too much stuff and therefore packing too many items. 

“We tend to compress each item and cram in as much as possible. Dealing with such a volume of stuff is a big task psychologically and traveling is tiring, so we tend to leave it to one side for ages and use other clothes and things,” he said. For many Americans, there may be no pressing need to unpack because people have duplicates of their possessions. 

“We tend to deal with having too much stuff by putting things in the attic, cupboards, drawers, under beds, in the shed and who knows where else,” said Wolfe Murray. “Most of us never go through those things with the question ‘What do I need/want?’ as it’s too much effort psychologically ― and we do the same thing with luggage after a trip.”

What To Do About It

Of course, it’s not the end of the world if you let your suitcase sit for days, weeks or longer after returning from vacation. But if you want to get better about unpacking in a timely fashion, there are ways to help yourself. 

Wolfe Murray recommends traveling with smaller bags and packing fewer items to reduce the chore of unpacking. He also generally tries to cut back on how much stuff he owns and specifically goes at unpacking bit by bit. 

“Every time I walk past my suitcase or rucksack, I pick up one single item, like a sock, and put it where it’s supposed to go,” he said. “This actually deals with the issue really quite quickly.”

In the same vein, Norah advises having set places for everything in your home and keeping your suitcases organized with aides like laundry bags and packing cubes. 

“Unpack as soon as you return home, so you don’t have time to dwell on it,” she said. “If you see an unpacked suitcase a week after your trip, it is likely going to make you feel bad about not unpacking it and that can make it even harder to unpack. If you can develop a habit of unpacking right after each trip, it will become easier.”

You can also ask a loved one to hold you accountable or to sit with you as you unpack. Norah also suggested rewarding yourself for unpacking with something like chocolate, a relaxing bath, wine or a movie. 

McClintock Greenberg had some other ways to implement a reward system. 

“What I do is put small souvenirs from a trip in the bottom of my bag and look forward to finding it when I unpack, but I have to do most of the unpacking to get it,” she said. “And in general, I tend to cope with real life after vacation by really cherishing the things I brought home. I also give little gifts to my friends so I feel like I am sharing the good I experienced on my trip.”

If the delay in unpacking is tied up with the desire to hang onto the feeling of travel, you can reflect on the happy memories of the trip by looking through photos or souvenirs you brought back. 

“Visualize a particularly pleasant moment from the trip and turn to it when you are feeling stressed,” said Kim. “You might also want to reevaluate things in your everyday life that are making you feel bogged down and see if there are ways to either change or address them, so you can retain some of that sense of joy or freedom you had when traveling.”

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