How to Travel with Anxiety

Originally published on PassionPassport.com

Anxiety can be crippling. I know, because I have it.

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It’s a disorder with many faces and levels, meaning that it takes on different forms and leaves those afflicted with vastly different experiences. Individuals who deal with anxiety often find it challenging to make it through their day-to-day, so it’s no wonder that travel can often exacerbate the problem.

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Regardless of specifics and severity, anxiety can make travel truly difficult, even for the most seasoned of explorers. What’s more, it often rears its ugly head once you’ve already left on your trip. Whether you’re a nervous flyer, a solo traveler prone to overthinking (like me), or a die-hard, Type-A planner who’s easily overwhelmed by the details, anxiety will undoubtedly affect your ability to enjoy your trip.

Though traveling with anxiety may seem impossible at times, it’s not. Don’t let your mind trick you into believing otherwise. Whether you’re determined to see Oman’s tranquil desert pools, climb to Everest’s base camp, or float the Amazon in a dugout canoe, you can do so happily and comfortably, despite your anxiety. By doing a little extra preparation before your trip and knowing where your personal triggers lie, you will be able to fully experience and be present in your travels.

In case you need some actionable steps, here are some tried-and-true tips for conquering your anxiety on the road. The world truly is your oyster.

Consider joining a tour (or two).

I’d never thought of this as an option before my first solo trip abroad. I foolishly jumped head-first into the experience without fully considering how my anxiety might flare up. I had an inkling that it might show its face, that I may have been taking on something a little bigger than myself, but I couldn’t have predicted the emotional and physical turmoil that would follow as soon as I touched down on foreign soil. I say this was foolish because I ignored every gut feeling I experienced during my trip-planning phase. To put it simply: it could have been avoided. But I guess I had to learn things the hard way.

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This experience taught me that a great way to ease yourself into a trip abroad is to participate in a tour upon arrival. This allows you to acclimate to foreign places and, perhaps more importantly, make new friends — ones you may even travel with after the tour has ended. As someone who tends to visit more off-the-beaten path destinations, I’ve found this has saved me a lot of grief. You shouldn’t feel like you’re missing out on a more “raw” or “meaningful” experience by partaking in a tour. This simply isn’t true. I do this on most of my trips now, and I love it.

Research (and plan) meticulously.

I’ve found that if I’ve done extensive research on the place(s) I’ll be visiting, I am much less prone to anxiety attacks. Knowing the details of the currency you’ll need to convert to, what the exchange rates are, which trains to get on, and so on, helps tremendously when you’re just beginning the acclimatization process. On that same note, consider planning a few activities ahead of time. If possible, book certain experiences in advance and figure out how you will get from A to B. In my travels, I have discovered that familiarizing myself with the local transportation is about 80 percent of the battle. After all, how can we travel without knowing how to travel? So, one of my greatest recommendations is to figure this out ahead of time. It’ll save you a few unnecessary headaches — trust me.

 Photo by Zack Fackrell.

Photo by Zack Fackrell.

Be organized.

Although this is in the same vein as researching and planning your trip, it deserves a mention of its own. Do what you can to organize all of your documents, itineraries, and prescriptions ahead of time so that once you’re en route, you can easily access everything you need. This also means ensuring that you’ve packed your most critical travel items in your carry-on in case your luggage gets lost in transit, and keeping all necessary documents neatly organized in a folder so that you can locate them easily and efficiently. Being organized helps anxiety sufferers tremendously because it removes unnecessary unknowns. If you’re fearful of getting lost, missing a train, or anything else on the list of infinite possibilities that could and do happen when you travel, prepare for plan B, but also know that if these things happen, you’re going to be okay. You’ve done your research, you’re prepared, and you have someone that you can call to help you get out of an uncomfortable situation.

Avoid your triggers.

If you’re anything like me, you enjoy a glass of wine at dinner and a cup of coffee in the morning. However, if alcohol and/or coffee are triggers for you, it might be best to avoid them altogether. At least, until you’re sure that you feel comfortable enough to indulge. Similarly, if you get anxiety in any other specific types of situations, it may be best to avoid them while abroad — especially while acclimating to a foreign place.

I once rented a moped in Greece with the plan of riding it around the island — something that, in theory, would’ve been a blast. But then I got to the actual driving around part. I get anxious when operating motor vehicles, and being in Greece didn’t make me any less anxious. In fact, it made me more anxious. I should have known better. Fortunately, I was traveling with a friend and confided in her about how uncomfortable I was with driving. I was worried she’d think it was lame. To my surprise, she understood completely. We promptly returned my moped, and she graciously offered me a seat on hers. But before long, I’d gathered enough courage to try it on my own. I discovered that open communication among fellow travelers goes a long way. And people are much more understanding of your anxiety than you might think.

Ultimately, knowing your limits doesn’t mean you have to avoid having fun; it just means that if you avoid your triggers, you will have a more pleasant and comfortable experience while traveling.

Practice deep breathing and meditation.

Practicing mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing and meditation may be one of the greatest keys to mellowing your anxiety, especially if you find yourself slipping into a panic. I recommend practicing these techniques prior to your trip and/or enrolling in a class to ensure that you’re comfortable with them and feel that you have the proper tools to ground yourself when anxiety strikes. That way, when you are abroad, you won’t find yourself floundering. Instead, you’ll be able to ease right into them. Mindfulness is like a muscle. Once you’re practiced in it, muscle memory will kick in quickly.

All of this is to say that anxiety can be managed while traveling — no matter where you’re headed. If you’re feeling discouraged, keep these suggestions handy and remember that, as with everything in life, things take time. Though traveling with anxiety may have its fair share of challenges, a little practice and patience can go a long way — both of which will only open you up to experiences, people, and places you had never dreamed of.

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