Having an anxiety-related disorder can feel extremely limiting. If you have dreams of traveling, maybe you feel as though your anxiety is holding you back. In fact, fear is often the main thing that stops people from achieving their goals. It can be a very real barrier, and overcoming it is not always easy. I am here to tell you that there are things you can do to help make those dreams a reality.
So, how do you reconcile having anxiety while traveling the world?
My fourth day traveling alone in Southeast Asia I had a full blown panic attack. I had just returned to my dorm bed after a long day of exploring the Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples… a 9 hour day. I had hardly gotten more than 3 hours of sleep each of the nights before and was running on coca cola and chicken fried rice.
I was not in my best state.
So my anxiety took hold. The anxious thoughts just kept coming. Oh my god, what was I doing here traveling alone? I missed home. Who are these people I’m sharing a tiny room with? Can I trust them? Can I trust myself? I want to go home.
I have grown accustomed to panic attacks, for I have a conditioned called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This means that although there are situations that are more anxiety-inducing for me, my anxiety often has no rhyme or reason to it. It can happen at any place and at any time.
Including while I travel.
If you have GAD or an anxiety related condition, you may be wondering how it is possible to travel to another country on your own. Maybe the thought alone is anxiety-inducing, yet you have dreams of seeing the world. I was once in your shoes.
So how does one cope with anxiety while traveling in a new environment?
In this post I hope to combat some of the stigma around anxiety, and offer some helpful suggestions on how to deal with anxiety while traveling.
I will also talk about my own experience on having Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Although these conditions are a large part of who I am, they are not everything. With some patience and determination I have not let these conditions interrupt my dream of traveling the world.
Whether you have social anxiety, OCD, or anything else in between, you will still experience it as you travel. That is just the reality. A change of scenery can help relieve some of these things, but it won’t be a fix-all solution. Many people try to “run away” from their problems. This avoidant behavior is often more detrimental in the long run. When issues build up over time, they become much harder to face. Having this come crashing down on you while traveling abroad is not fun. Be honest with yourself. Anxiety can be very scary, but hiding from it does not make it go away. My suggestions here are baby steps toward reducing your anxiety while traveling over time.
Why is the idea of traveling solo with anxiety so daunting?
Traveling by definition means that you are visiting a destination that is not your home, often for the first time. And usually, the farther you go, the more likely you are to encounter unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, foods, and people. This alone can be intimidating to anyone, as we are used to the comforts of home. Being in a new place can be challenging and exhausting. These two elements often increase anxiety.
While traveling solo in particular, you encounter these stressors on your own. You don’t have friends and family to run to, a counselor to seek advice from, and are often void of many other coping mechanisms. Back home, you can avoid triggers and experiencing new things, if you want to. When you travel alone, you have to face them head-on. The realization of this can be scary. Fear is one of the top reasons why people decide not to travel alone. I understand that this can be a significant mental barrier. The key here is to remember that is is a mental barrier. That doesn’t mean that it does not exist, but that it does mean there are things you can do to change your state of mind.
I have discovered that in some ways my anxiety while traveling has been better than it is back home. At first this was perplexing to me, but now it makes sense.
Traveling alone grants you a significant amount of control. You have complete control in deciding where you want to go, when, how, and how much money you are going to spend. You get to decide if you want to interact with people… or stay in your room reading a book.
It also means you have more time to stop and listen to what your body is telling you. Back home you may feel bogged down by work and obligations, unable to take a break when you really need one. When you make your own schedule, you can decide to opt out of that all day tour or jungle trek. You are more in tune to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
1. Give yourself freedom.
After my panic attack in Siem Reap, I knew I needed some time to myself. I got a relaxing aroma therapy oil massage, went on a walk through town, and worked on one of my blog posts. Pretty soon I felt much more prepared for the long trip ahead of me.
Sometimes the desire to see it all and do it all can be counter intuitive. Fixing yourself to a strict schedule can be tiring, stressful, and sometimes just plain boring. It is okay to allow yourself some freedom. I usually make a list of the main things I want to see and plan my trip two days in advance. That means that if I get to a city or hostel I don’t like I am not obligated to stay. I can change hostels, buy a bus ticket out, or change what I want to do altogether. In contrast, setting an itinerary in advance may mean you get stuck in a city you don’t like, or not have enough time in a place that you do like. It may mean scrambling to catch your flight, or not losing your deposit at a shitty hotel. These constraints can be stressful and thus increase your anxiety level.
2. Choose your own adventure
Don’t feel like you need to prove yourself to anyone else. This is your adventure. You may feel obligated to show other people that you had a great time, saw all the major sights, and bring home stories they will all be envious of. You don’t need to have the picture-perfect Instagram-worthy vacation that you feel like you are *expected* to have. Do what you really want to do. i promise you, you will be much happier, and it will decrease your anxiety immensely. Perhaps you need to take a break of social media to truly experience it on your own, free of judgement. Remind yourself that you paid the money to get there, you made the plan, and you are the one experiencing all these great things. Those facts alone are enough to be extremely proud of. Do what makes you happy and you will definitely experience things to write home about.
Everyone I had met who had ever been to Thailand just raved about Pai. They said I had to go there. That is was green, gorgeous, and great for backpackers. Before arriving in Thailand, I had every intention of going there. But after spending almost 2 weeks inland, I really just wanted to go to the beach. Everyone thought it was such a shame and that I missed out. Instead, I booked a flight out of Chiang Mai and made a beeline to the islands. Eventually I ended up on Koh Tao and stayed there for 12 days! And I could not have been happier.
3. Your body will tell you what it needs.
Listen to what your body is telling you. Sleep when you need to sleep. Stay hydrated. Eat wholesome, energizing foods. Skip out on that night of drinking so you will feel well-rested the next day.
This is so important, because if your body is not happy and healthy, your mind won’t be either. Your brain, like every other organ in your body requires energy, sleep, oxygen, and hydration to function. Exercise, a healthy diet, and getting the recommended hours of sleep per night will do wonders for your overall physical and mental health.
Some psychological conditions require medication for treatment. Before your trip, make sure you have everything you need in order to follow the plan you have set up with your doctor. The advice I offer in this post are suggestions on how to reduce anxiety while traveling. I would never encourage anyone to stop their medication if they need it for their mental health. Obviously this is an important decision one has to make for themselves. Just be aware that in another country, these resources may not be available. Be prepared, and know what resources are available at your destination.
4. Make a plan.
Try to keep track of when you are most anxious. Does it usually happen at a certain time of the day? Is it triggered by certain events, like plane travel or awkward social situations? Make a note of these things. When a bout of anxiety does occur, take a breath, and pause. Your anxiety is likely from one of these triggers, rather than an actual threat to your well-being. That means that rather than “reacting” you can try reflecting. Those things have already passed. What can you do to reduce your anxiety level in this moment? Do what you need to do to get yourself back to your ideal state. This can mean removing yourself from the situation, writing in a journal, going for a walk, calling a friend, etc. It can be helpful to write down the things that trigger your anxiety, how you responded, and how you felt afterward. Recognizing a pattern can help you gain more control over what you can do when anxiety does occur.
5. You have all the skills you need, and then some.
I promise you, you will amaze yourself. Anxiety can often feel like something that is acting against you. This idea gives “anxiety” a lot of power. That is not to say that anxiety disorders are not psychological illnesses. Much of it may in fact feel out of your control. However, you have other psychological strengths that will help you cope and even flourish in new situations. When you only have your intuition and judgement to rely on, you feel greatly accomplished when you succeed. Traveling with anxiety may pose as a significant challenge, but it also an opportunity to learn more about yourself. You will discover strengths you never knew you had. This again will make you feel more in control. When you feel more in control, you become less afraid of things outside of your control.
Take time to recognize these strengths. Build upon them. Practice gratitude for the things you are doing well. Maybe you have found out you are great at navigating new surroundings, in spite of your social anxiety. See in what ways you have overcome triggering situations. By focusing on the positives you will feel better about yourself and see minor successes as major victories.
For example, I am terrified of heights. As a challenge to myself, I chose to take a rock climbing course while on Koh Tao. In the process I found a new hobby that I love and am extremely proud of myself for trying something new. You can read more about my rock climbing experience here.
6. Some days are harder than others.
f you are someone who has an anxiety disorder, you know that some days are just simply harder than others. Maybe you have followed all my tips above and are still having a hard time. It happens. Don’t get too down on yourself. You have not failed. There may be some underlying stressor that is finally rearing its head. Maybe is just from the exhaustion from traveling. Everyone is different in how they cope in these situations. I cannot offer a simple fix, but it comes down to knowing yourself. It is okay to use coping mechanisms, avoidance, or other behaviors to make yourself feel safe. Knowing what you can do to reduce anxiety and take care of yourself is key to having a great solo trip abroad!
I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD involves obsessions (fixated thoughts and fears), and compulsions (responses to the obsessions in order to reduce anxiety). My obsession is oriented around the contamination for my food and drinks. My OCD often limits a lot of what I can eat and drink. While I travel, finding things I can eat is even more difficult.
One day I may muster up the courage to try some pad thai from a street vendor, the next I may only eat packaged foods. After a month of traveling alone in Asia, I resolved that some days I would have to give into my compulsion or avoidant behaviors in order to feel safe. Never jeopardize your own mental well-being or safety for the sake of “trying new things”. If today just isn’t your day, try again another time. Be patient with yourself, my friend!
A Final Note On Traveling With Anxiety
Always, in the case of a mental health emergency, contact someone you can trust. This may be a friend or family member back home, the receptionist at the hotel, a new travel-mate, or a mental health resource in your area. It may help to research a list of contacts for your destination ahead of time. Let loved ones know what you are up to and check in with them when you need to. Know when to take a break, and do what you need to do to feel safe. Happy travels!
I hope you all have enjoyed my post on traveling with anxiety, including my own experience and advice on how to manage anxiety abroad. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments below.
Stay healthy, be happy, and keep traveling!