Henry David Thoreau once said that “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” I find this to be overwhelmingly accurate for myself. Travelling is the sweet state of limbo, where for a few days or weeks you live in another world. It’s an escape. It’s shedding your comforts to find your freedom.
And for as long as I can remember, I have been exploring the world around me. I spent my childhood in the mountains of Idaho poking at bugs, running from snakes, and swimming in glacier lakes. I spent my teenage years doing much of the same. And my adult years I spent travelling from state to state for work.
However, as a life-long adventurer, I suffer from this annoying, but fairly severe character quirk called anxiety. Through my years of battling this menace, I have learned how to calm myself when I'm freaking the eff out on the road. Here’s how you too can travel when travelling gives you anxiety:
Acknowledge That Trip Anxiety Is a Real Thing
Take a minute to repeat this with me: trip anxiety is a real thing.
If you suffer from it, you are not alone. Anxiety is far from uncommon. In fact, 43.6 million Americans experienced mental health problems in 2014, and that number hasn’t changed as the years have gone by. If anxiety and panic effect you, know that it is real, and you are not alone.
I enjoy travel because it alludes to a more distant land with experiences I have not indulged in yet. However, I also enjoy my home. Scratch that, I love my home. And with this love, I have developed what I call home comfort, where I have an agonizing fear of being in a place too far from home, because my home is a stress reliever, and unfortunately, travelling is not always relaxing for me.
This is also not uncommon. Those who get panic attacks or general anxiety more often than not associate their home with being safe. And often times the idea of leaving home for an extended period of time can become very stressful. This type of anxiety can affect even those without a documented history simply by taking them out of their comfort zone.
It’s possible that you may not be anxious post-trip but may develop travel anxiety while on your trip. If you are going to a place you have yet to explore previously, there may be a lack of comfort that you experience with the new area. It may come from a communication breakdown with those around you (common when you are visiting foreign countries), or it may be normal anxiety and jet lag that can come from a long flight.
Don’t Avoid Traveling
Whatever you do, no matter how much anxiety you experience, don’t avoid travelling if you want to explore the world. I know this can be so much easier to say than to do, but do not let your anxiety take over and talk you out of buying that plane ticket or into pushing back the dates of your vacation.
By giving into your anxiety you create what is called “negative reinforcement.” Once you’ve reinforced your fear by avoiding it, it becomes your primary way of dealing with fear. If you want to overcome travel anxiety, stare your fear right in the eyes, say “you don’t scare me,” and go!
It’s always helped me to try to pinpoint my fear when my anxiety takes over. In the midst of a panic attack or anxiety, flare take a minute to write down your specific fears you are experiencing. Are you nervous because of the flight? Are you afraid of being away from home? Has the stress of planning this vacation been too much and burnt out your nerves? The answer to any of these questions may be “yes.” By identifying your monster, you can learn the tools you need to defeat it.
Plan, Plan, Plan
Sure, planning can take the spontaneity out of a trip, and too much planning is not always the best approach, but it can also calm an anxious soul and make you feel more in control of your adventure.
My anxiety is deeply rooted in the unknown. So when I travel, I create an incredibly detailed itinerary. I focus on the things that are a priority for me to see, and add in the things I might want to see farther in the day. This way, I guarantee that I see the important stuff, and leave time in the afternoons for me time if I end up needing it.
If crowds bother you, book or plan your trip during non-peak times so that it is less crowded. If you are prone to travel anxiety it can be exacerbated by being surrounded by other thrill seekers.
I personally get really anxious about eating when I’m travelling, because surprise, anxiety affects the digestive system pretty significantly. I always make sure that I have a few snacks like trail mix, granola bars, or fresh fruit that I can replace a meal with if need be. Trying new foods can be exciting, but it can also be stressful if your anxiety manifests itself in your stomach. This way, if you run into a new food that isn’t palatable for you, you can just eat a granola bar in your bubble bath.
Pack Ahead of Time
If you are flying, make sure that you pack the essentials (think underwear, toothbrush, medications, etc.) in a carry-on. In the case that your luggage gets lost, you will have enough essentials to get by until you can get it back. Knowing that you have all the things you need near to you can provide some comfort if travel plans veer off the itinerary.
When packing clothes, check the weather regularly and plan accordingly. I usually lay all of the clothes I want to bring with me out on my bed to make sure that they are all things I will actually wear, that they are functional and versatile with other things I plan to bring. Most important to my packing list, however, is comfort. As long as I have the clothes that make me comfy, I can feel more at home in a foreign place.
The last but most important part of packing? Do not wait until the last minute to do it. This can be hard, so hard to follow. And I get it. As a fellow procrastinator, I’d like to spend as much time as I can saying my goodbyes to my bed and my animals, and as little time packing as possible. But waiting will only cause more anxiety, and no one wants that.
Keep Some Routine
Simply ignoring your anxiety will not make it go away; trust me, I’ve tried for years (but wouldn’t it be great if it did?). If you have a home routine that helps you calm down when you are a panicky mess, bring it with you. When I know I’ll be staying somewhere with a bathtub, I treat myself by bringing either a bubble bath or a bath bomb. This helps me unwind when I’m in my room with all the time to panic.
Exercise has been a beneficial release for me and my anxiety. Exercise has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, so this is why I always plan to be active in my travels. Whether you are travelling by plane or on a grand road trip in an RV, there is always a way to continue a workout routine. And finding a way to relieve pent-up energy when you are experiencing anxiety is important. This means you should plan for exercise on your trip.
Pack a few essential fitness clothes or gear. Take your workout into the great outdoors or bring a few essentials that make it easy to workout before bed. You don’t have to fall off your fitness goals just because you are travelling, by planning to keep this routine while on the road, you ensure that you can work out any kinks or anxiety that may arise. Sometimes anxiety can rear its ugly head because you are on a grand adventure and your concept of daily routine has gone out the window, by keeping some routines close, you can keep the comforts of home.
Don’t Assume You Will Be Anxious, but Be Prepared
For a long time, the fear of facing my anxiety in a foreign place made me even more panicky. But in my years I have learned that by focusing on the trip and the adventure you are about to embark on — not in the feelings you may have during the trip — you can help to keep the anxiety under control.
This can be super difficult if you are prone to travel anxiety, but if you automatically assume you will be riddled with anxiety to the point that you won’t have a good time, chances are your anxiety will manifest itself respectively. Don’t assume you will have anxiety, but plan for the panic. This can be the most annoying and challenging things about suffering from travel anxiety. But if you know are an anxious traveller, prepare for it, so you don’t end up ruining your trip fighting your own monster.
One of the most reassuring things for me when I am travelling is to have someone at home that I can call if I do experience anxiety. It’s usually my mom (because mom's rock), but for you, it could be a friend or other family member. Choose someone whom you know will be around and who understands your panic. Knowing there is a person available if you need them can be enough to defeat your anxiety monster.
If you use medications to help keep the anxiety at bay, make sure you have enough before you head off on your adventure. Having a fast acting anxiety medication can help you feel comforted. There’s no need to actually take it unless you absolutely need it, but when you’re out in the world — especially if it’s unfamiliar — it can be comforting to know that if you have an attack you can help bring yourself back down within a few minutes.
Take Time for Yourself
If you find that your anxiety is rearing its ugly head while you are on your trip, take a short break from it. Don’t try to tough it out or fight the anxiety because it is the type of monster that is nearly impossible to “fight.” Biologically, anxiety increases stress which ultimately just creates more anxiety. And no one, I repeat no one wants to be stuck in the middle of an anxiety tornado.
It may be counterintuitive, but take breaks from your vacation. Take some time for yourself. If you get overwhelmed by the onslaught of new people and places you are facing in a new place, remove yourself to your room. Allow yourself to relax alone to reset. Check in with your body and determine how you are feeling and why.
By giving yourself some alone time, you have the opportunity to figure out how to practically stop your anxiety. If you are feeling a lot of feelings, let yourself cry and be sad if you need to. Don’t feel like you are being selfish by taking time away from your vacation, self-love is the most important part of any adventure.
This is by far the most important piece of advice I can give about travelling with anxiety. No matter what the situation, have fun. You are going on vacation. You are exploring. You are taking the world by the horns and saying, “I am invincible!”
Ok maybe you’re not, but the point is, anxiety is a character quirk that will most likely never go away. So learning how to live with it while enjoying your life is essential to becoming a well-seasoned traveller. Focus on the reason you are travelling, and enjoy your damn vacation!