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Taking the Stress out of Travel: Micro-Triumphs en España

Personal Perspective: 3 tricks to ease international travel.


  • Experimental research supports the utility of redefining threats (stress) as challenges.
  • To reduce stress while traveling, redefine the stressors as challenges.
  • Other strategies include breaking down decisions into one small challenge at a time and planning in advance.

When I was younger, I found travel almost overwhelmingly stressful. One night my son Dave and I missed a train connection in the Netherlands and had to wait till the next morning outside a deserted train station with white supremacist graffiti on the wall. Another time we arrived in Paris during peak tourist season only to discover that our hotel reservation had never been confirmed, and we needed to make a new one using very bad French. For a long time, my official position was that I’d never travel again.

But there are benefits and costs to travel, and my younger son, now in college, deserved a chance to practice the Spanish he’d studied in school. As part of my sabbatical, I’d proposed to visit some of my research colleagues in Europe. So, here we are on a train from San Sebastián to Madrid.

On the first leg of our journey, we had a six-hour layover between planes in Philadelphia. Then, after flying all night, with very little sleep (or none, in my son’s case), we arrived in Madrid at 8 in the morning–eight hours before our room would be ready. We were carting around our luggage, and although there are luggage storage places around Madrid, it was a holiday, and everything seemed to be closed. It seemed like a formula for disaster, the kind of day that would have led to a meltdown in my younger years.

A few years back, after my younger son and I had successfully avoided a series of travel disasters in Vancouver, I suggested the idea of “micro-triumphs”–savoring little everyday victories when you overcome what could otherwise be a stressful setback. A classic study by Salvatore Maddi, Suzanne Kobasa, and Stephen Kahn compared a group of executives who had gotten ill after facing a lot of stress to another “hardy” group who handled stress well (Kobasa et al., 1982). A big difference: Hardy executives looked at life changes as challenges, while unhealthy execs regarded them as stressors.

Experimental research supports the utility of redefining threats as challenges (e.g., Tomaka et al., 1993). I also remembered a paper by Karl Weick called: “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.” Weick noted that big, seemingly unsolvable problems become solvable when broken down into small steps.

We faced a matrix of problems when we arrived in Madrid, with eight hours to kill (and dragging luggage) before our reservation check-in time, and all the luggage storage stores seemed to be closed for a holiday. But I focused on one problem at a time. First, getting from the airport to the city. Looking online, there were too many complicated options and too many signs in the airport, so I did what real men aren’t supposed to do–I asked for directions. The ones I got seemed complicated–taking a bus number 200 to a train station, and then a train, I think, but it all came fast, in Spanish. So we simply headed for the first place the information guy had pointed–outside the airport, and there was a bus there–but 203 rather than a 200. Turns out it took us fairly close to our destination and would not require a train connection. So one problem down, several more to go.

Though I am wont to complain about the problems of modern technology, I was grateful for my cell phone, which nicely provided a map to follow once we arrived in the bustling center of Madrid (right outside the Prado, with busy streets radiating in every direction).

We were supposed to pick up our key at a lockbox later in the day, so we first walked over to see where the lockbox was and where the apartment was (to be opened later by the key). It turned out that the lockbox was inside a luggage storage store, but it was closed. Uh oh. We walked to a nearby square, found a little café, and ordered some lunch (tostada con aquacate).

While eating, I looked back online and discovered another wonder of modern technology–luggage storage stores don’t have to be open to use them. The information was written in Spanish, but I took a chance–entered my information and double-clicked on my phone to pay. Voilà–I got a lockbox number and key code to open the store door. So, we walked back, unloaded our heavy luggage, and were free to walk down to the beautiful park and experience being in Spain.

Since that day, we’ve had a lot of micro-triumphs–figuring out how to use the local metro systems in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, and Valencia, buying tickets to museums featuring art by Miró, Dali, and Picasso (almost always busy, even in May before the tourist season), figuring out where to eat delicious pintxos in Bilbao and how to find food at American dinnertimes (when Spanish restaurants are typically closed). It’s always a major accomplishment to figure out how to buy everyday groceries. Doing so allowed me to avoid eating breads for breakfast, which are abundant in Spain, and instead prepare my own plate of sliced fruits (and to learn that blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are called arándanos, frambuesas, y fresas).

Besides the stress-reducing tricks of 1) thinking challenge instead of stress, 2) breaking down complicated tasks into single ones, there’s something else I have learned as I’ve gotten older: 3) planning in advance.

One day we walked up a giant hill to arrive at Gaudi’s Parc Guell. It was Sunday afternoon, so we figured it would be easy to get in. Wrong. It was fully booked for the day, even online. When I was younger, I used to get annoyed at all these older people who booked all the campsites in advance, leaving no room for spontaneity. I just became one of them.


Kobasa, S. C., Maddi, S. R., & Kahn, S. (1982). Hardiness and health: a prospective study. Journal of personality and social psychology42(1), 168.

Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kelsey, R. M., & Leitten, C. L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology65(2), 248.

Weick, K. E. (1984). Small wins: redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist39(1), 40.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

Photo by Tranmautritam

Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric

Original post by Psychology Today

About the Author  Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D. is a professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.