The amount of people who, upon hearing that I travel full time by myself, insist that I’m brave is staggering. I always balk when they say this, as I would NEVER consider myself to be a brave person. I’m scared of almost everything. The word ‘carefree’ would never be used to describe me. And I regularly get myself into situations where I’m sure my death is imminent.
If I’m not brave, then how do I travel with anxiety so often, and even by myself? I don’t have all the answers, but I would say it’s a combination of not allowing my fears to stop me from doing what I want and a handful of tips and tricks that I’ve picked up through the years. If any of these tips can help one of you travel more, or by yourself, or what have you, it would make me endlessly happy. Think you can’t travel with anxiety? Let’s take a look at some of the common reasons why you’re afraid to travel, and break them down.
I Can’t Travel Because I’m Afraid of…Flying
Perhaps the #1 reason why most people are afraid to travel, and MAN do I understand why. A fear of flying, though often irrational, can be debilitating. First of all, let me say that there is no substitute for real therapy if you have a true phobia of flying that prevents you from getting on an airplane. If, however, like me you have mild to moderate anxiety about flying, read on.
I was never afraid of flying until the age of 18. In my first year of life I took a plane ride, and for the next 17 years of my life, I didn’t bat an eyelash when flying in a plane. All of that changed on a flight from New York to London the summer after my Freshman year of college.
I was separated from my friend and suddenly started to worry about being up in the air. Before I knew it, my obsessive thoughts had turned into a full-blown panic attack. Crying, I clambered over my seat mates and sought out a flight attendant. I explained, through gasping sobs, that I was having trouble with anxiety. Well trained in calming anxious flyers down, my flight attendant assured me that I was perfectly okay. Just having a voice of reason and authority tell me that I was safe was all I needed to hear. And that brings me to my first tip..
-If you are traveling alone or with an unsympathetic travel partner, seek out a flight attendant to assuage your fears. They’ve (usually) been through many flights, in many different situations, and can assure you that the little bumps and noises that are freaking you out are perfectly normal. I’ve even had one flight attendant tell me to just keep my eye on her. If the plane was going down she would not be sitting in her seat playing Candy Crush, she assured me.
-Dance it out. I know this sounds weird, and you may not feel comfortable doing it on a crowded flight, but it works for me! Even a simple bounce in your seat will distract you from bracing for every bout of turbulence. On a recent flight from New York to Panama City, there was quite a bit of turbulence. Rather than panic, I put my tunes on full blast and had a dance party in my seat.
-Close your eyes and imagine you are on a roller coaster, or in a car or bus. Any movement that we deem as ‘normal’ in any other moving vehicle, is suddenly ‘scary’ on a plane. Which makes sense! After all, how many of us are used to flying airplanes? I am used to driving a car and therefore feel more in control when riding in one. It also helps that I can see out the window to any bumps in the road, and brace for impact. Plane turbulence is scary because we feel that we have little warning or control over when the plane will bounce. Close your eyes, breathe, and pretend that you’re on a road trip with your most trusted friend or family member at the wheel.
I Can’t Travel Because I’m Afraid Of…Doing Things By Myself
So, you’re thinking about traveling solo. But the thought of sitting down to a meal in a restaurant by yourself gives you anxiety. If you regularly spend your days doing things with other people, whether they’re friends, family, or a partner, it’s understandable that you would be hesitant to travel solo. Will you get totally lost? Will it be unbearably lonely? Will people stare at you in pity? The answers are probably, possibly, and if they do, screw them.
When it comes to being a solo traveler, it’s important to know that you will hardly ever be truly alone. If you stay in a hostel, there is a high likelihood that you will meet SOMEONE. They may not turn into your best friend, but if all you want is someone to tag along with you on adventures, you have ready-made friends in the hostel common room.
But what about if you’re not about that hostel life? Try joining a walking tour (lots of cities have free walking tours almost every day!) It’s easier to meet people when there’s a reason to interact. Ask where people are staying, where they’ve been, what their plans are. More than likely, they will invite you to join them.
And the dreaded solo meal out? At first, it might be intimidating. You might feel everyone’s eyes on you. Just know that you are probably being paranoid. People, in general, think mostly about themselves. If they shirk at the sight of someone eating alone it’s probably more of a ‘them’ thing than a ‘you’ thing. Meaning, your self-assured bravery in eating a solo meal makes them deeply uncomfortable.
Own your badassery! Bring a book and act like a mysterious cafe-dweller who probably thinks deep thoughts. Or, my standby, bring your laptop and get some work done (scrolling Facebook also counts as work!) Why not bring a journal and write down your memories and impressions from your travels? People may just start to think you are penning the next great novel, not a sad lonely sap sitting by themselves in a restaurant. If you still feel terrible, just breath through it.
If you continue to dread eating out alone, stop doing it! You don’t have to do anything that makes you feel truly awful. Get takeaway food, room service, street food to eat on the go, or cook a meal at the hostel. It’s important to push yourself out of your comfort zone, just to see if you might actually enjoy something you thought you wouldn’t. If you try it a few times and hate it, though, maybe don’t do it anymore. No one is docking “solo travel points” from your score.
In terms of getting around by yourself, I know it can be scary to be in an unknown place all alone. I will admit that on travel days (i.e. taking a bus from one town to the next) I usually prefer to travel with a buddy. Whether that’s someone from the hostel or a friendly local, you might be able to find someone to make transit easier. Even if you’re by yourself, in a place where no one speaks English, most people around the world know “travel sign language.”
Some more tips for getting around by yourself:
-Download an offline Google Map
-Download the app maps.me
-Take photos of directions before you leave on your phone
-The app Google Translate is a life-saver. It can translate signs by using your camera, and you can record someone speaking and translate it into text. Just be sure to download the language when you have wifi!
-Learn a few handy words and phrases in the local language, or carry around a phrase book.
I Can’t Travel Because I’m Afraid Of…Meeting New People
Ten years ago, I would never introduce myself to people. I tried to blend into the walls. When teachers called on me in class my heart started beating out of my chest. The thought of going up to that cute guy across the room and starting a conversation made me want to vomit (okay, it still kind of does).
Today? Just this morning I asked the guy sitting next to me in a coffee shop where he was from, and we got into an hour long conversation about travel and music. But it definitely did not come naturally. I still had to go through the rigamarole of “He sounds American, I should ask him where he’s from” to “No, he’ll think you’re weird. He’ll be offended you asked” to “Most likely he won’t, and if he is, who cares? I’ll never see him again.” Finally, I plucked up the courage, looked over at him and asked, “Where are you from?” Before we parted ways he told me that he was glad I asked because he doesn’t meet many people from the States on his travels. If I had let my inner critic silence me, I wouldn’t have made a new friend!
Overcoming social anxiety definitely doesn’t happen overnight. When I went on my first backpacking trip, right out of college, a mysterious phenomenon happened. I found that I was starting conversations with strangers. Travel allowed me to open up in ways I never did during “real life.” When I moved to New York City, I continued the trend. Soon enough, it was almost second nature for me to start up conversations with strangers. In fact, one of my many jobs in NYC was one where the sole objective was to say hello to people on the street and start conversations. Travel was the catalyst that allowed me to start being myself in more situations.
But what if it’s the opposite for you? My experience certainly isn’t universal. Maybe you are outgoing in your familiar environment at home. But when you leave the safety and comfort of that setting you clam up. Or maybe you find travel doesn’t turn you into the social butterfly you dreamed it would. What then?
Again, I’ll go back to hostels. They’re really the perfect place to meet fellow travelers. Stay in a dorm room, the smaller the better. If you can stay in a 4-bed dorm it will be almost impossible NOT to meet someone new. Most travelers are friendly. The typical “where are you from?” “how long have you been here?” and “where are you going next?” will be heard at least 2392048203 times a day in a hostel common room (scientific fact).
Plus, many hostels have social activities held specifically so that solo travelers can meet each other. Bar crawls, trivia night, open mic, board game and movie nights are just a few of the organized activities I’ve seen advertised in hostels I’ve stayed at. Many more activities revolve around various drinking games and getting as drunk as possible. If you drink, there’s no denying alcohol helps loosen you up to meet new people. If you don’t drink, seek out a non-party hostel. Avoid sitting with your computer, as tempting as it is. Look up, look around, and someone will most likely approach you and start a conversation. I’ve met some of my best travel buddies by sitting in a hostel common room.
I Can’t Travel Because I’m Afraid Of…Being In Unsafe Situations
You’re certainly not alone in this fear. Especially nowadays, with so much uncertainty in the world, many people are opting to stay within the comfort of the familiar. What with reading headlines of tragedy and family members urging you to “stay safe,” travel can feel like the last thing you want to do.
But you know what? Bad things happen everywhere! You could get mugged in your very own apartment building (I did). And any illusion of “safety” is just that: an illusion.
That’s not to say that anxiety around safety isn’t justified, though. I will admit that I still struggle with it a fair amount. I just refuse to let it stop me from traveling.
-If you’re a first-time solo traveler, avoid going places that seem too far outside your comfort zone. I have yet to travel to certain countries that I think would be too overwhelming for me to tackle solo. There’s no shame in knowing yourself and knowing your boundaries.
-Safety in numbers. Here’s the honest truth: I rarely go out after dark without a buddy. It just makes me feel better to know that I have someone else by my side. If I have no one to go out with, I either go somewhere close to where I’m staying or I get everything I need before night falls. This may seem “weak” or like I’m being too cautious, but the key is that it makes me feel comfortable. You do you, girl!
-Take a self-defense class before you leave to travel. I have actually never done a self-defense class, though it’s something I am considering for the future. If you feel strong and prepared for any situation, it can only be beneficial in easing your anxiety.
-Keep your valuables in sight. This is more for your peace of mind than anything, though there are definitely certain destinations where it’s just common sense. In Central America, I traveled with my smaller “technology” backpack on my front and my larger backpack on…my back. I put all of my valuables in the smaller backpack and kept it on my lap the whole journey. Sometimes I even kept it strapped to my front. Occasionally there wouldn’t be enough room and I would have to store it in the overhead rack. In that case, I stood next to my bag and kept an eye on it.
How To Travel With Anxiety
I hope taking a look at some of the most common fears surrounding travel has helped you to see that you CAN travel with anxiety. I do it every day! You just need to be extra gentle on yourself.
One secret that I take with me everywhere? My own personal mantra. I learned it on my women’s retreat in Costa Rica. I’ll share it with you in the hopes that it will help you as much as it’s helped me.
Everything is always working out for me.
When I feel like there’s no possible way that I will survive, or my heart is beating out of my chest with anxiety, I repeat this mantra to myself. And slowly, I start to believe it. Try it out for yourself when you feel anxiety coming on. Or even when things are going well to confirm to yourself that it’s true. This mantra doesn’t mean that things are necessarily going to work out the easy way, or that there won’t be bumps in the road. There will. But it will all work out exactly how it’s supposed to for you. Breathe into it and let it become your reality.
Happy Exploring, Wherever You Are!
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Do you travel with anxiety? What are your best tips and tricks? Leave them in the comments below!