Like most people, my Instagram feed only shows the parts of my life I want people to see. Trips abroad, meals out, days out with friends… You’d be forgiven, from a quick scroll of my social footprint, for thinking that I am a generally well-adjusted, rounded individual who has no problem in seizing life by the horns and travelling the globe. For every moment of joviality captured on film, however, there are countless moments of self-doubt, blind fear, and what I can only describe as sheer and total panic.
I like to think I am pretty open about my struggles with mental health. The potent combination of severe social anxiety, general anxiety disorder and agoraphobia often makes it difficult for me to complete even the most simple of tasks, such as going to the supermarket, or going to lunch with colleagues. Sometimes it seems easier for me to not do anything at all, rather than have 5 minutes socialising and then spending the next week picking apart every utterance to find evidence that indeed everybody hates me. My anxiety often gives way to depression, where I just feel so powerless and useless that these feelings of area and fear overwhelm me and leave me unable to lift my head, let alone function as a human being in the outside world. Usually I can hold it together in the hours between 9 and 5 (hooray for the British stiff upper lip), but often by the time I make it home I am so exhausted by the day’s social interactions and consequent feelings of failure that I just go straight to bed without a word.
It is no surprise, then, that I am something of a homebird. With the world so full of challenges, I draw great comfort from my home comforts, from familiar routines and surroundings, so when I go away and I lose this framework it can be difficult. Unfamiliar streets look to me to be full of danger, a 40-minute plane journey seems almost impossible and the thought of days spent with people judging my every comment and move tortures me for weeks before we’ve even packed our suitcases. Mostly we stick to weekend trips in western Europe for this very reason – I panic so much for longer trips that it pretty much drains all enjoyment for everyone involved – but it’s getting to the point where this isn’t sustainable anymore. My work now requires me to travel every few months to exotic locations that are decided completely out of my control for weeks at a time, whilst we already have a family trip booked to Canada this summer. Wonderful, amazing opportunities I am sure you will agree, but nevertheless these trips fill me with terror. The thought of being far from home, for a prolonged period, with people I barely know and in a place I have no control over… It’s not a recipe for success in my head.
Nevertheless, I know I will do it. Just as I did it with Paris last month, or London this month, even with Barcelona last week. Not because I am brave or inspirational; more because I don’t want to miss out on great opportunities to develop myself, personally and even professionally. Even if it does mean a few tears at bedtime the weeks before and a small breakdown on the plane next to strangers. With that in mind, I thought I would put together some of the tips I have found most useful for travelling in the past few years.
Find your familiar
As I said, being away from my home comforts is a huge part of the whole travel anxiety thing for me. I am a creature of habit, so when things happen out of their order it can really put me out-of-sync with myself. I have found that finding ways to bring home away with you – in whichever way possible – is one of the easiest and most effective ways to put yourself at ease somewhere new. For me this means:
- Packing a few of your favourite teabags in your suitcase, so you don’t miss out on your pre-bedtime cuppa
- Putting up with cabin luggage so that you can bring your entire skincare regime (or even just packing your favourite mask!)
- Calling home, because even though you are in a different place from normal, they aren’t (hearing how ‘normal’ everything works wonders for calming, believe me)
Understand what scares you
Probably the most difficult one as this really requires you (and only you) to actually work on it, but I have found this to be probably the most useful. For many people, traveling anxiety stems from the feeling of loss of control, the fact that they cannot predict how a certain place works, or that they feel that ‘culture shock’ of suddenly not understanding how things happen or how people communicate. How do I call 999? What if I order water and they bring me wine? How do I get home at night? Is it safe?
It probably goes without saying that taking time to research where you are going is probably a good idea – from healthcare to tipping, even if you won’t, in all likelihood, need it – and indeed I think most people with travel anxiety are keen researchers for this very reason. But for me this point is especially useful for things beyond culture and place. I have a huge fear of flying, and I am well aware that my fear largely stems from a lack of control; not being able to see what’s coming, not understanding what every sound and sensation means, and the idea that if something does go wrong there is likely very little I can do about it. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m sat on a malfunctioning plane I would 100% prefer to have a trained pilot in the cockpit than myself, but I do find it admittedly difficult to ‘sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.’ However, once I took the time to research the basics on how take-off works I found myself a lot more able to take myself through the process. Here’s how I find it:
- 1st beep: landing gear retracting into the aircraft…
- Anxiety translation: … so no immediate return to the airport (i.e. take-off went well and no technical faults)
- 2nd beep: cabin crew prepare to get out of your seats…
- Anxiety translation: …so no huge bumps predicted
- 3rd beep: seatbelt sign off…
- Anxiety translation: … so take-off complete and auto-pilot on
I’ve really found having this small routine to talk myself through really makes take-off a lot more bearable for me as I can just focus my entire brain on getting to the next beep. I’ve also found having my mobile phone on hand throughout the flight so I can check the exact time a huge help, as I can always check just exactly how long is left to go. Additionally, cutting the flight into stages is a huge help – so take-off (20 minutes), landing (20 minutes) and cruising (whatever is left) – as I can always work out where I am at, and it makes the flight seem a lot shorter when you treat it like ticking items off a list (take off: done, cruising: only 20 minutes left etc. rather than ‘2 hours to go’).
Make it yours
As a self-professed introvert, I cherish my time alone. Whilst for many people travelling is about meeting new people and making cross-cultural connections, I find that after a few days out and about, I just need to regather and regroup. For a long time I was 100% a proponent of making every minute count when on the road, but now I know that for me to get the most out of my adventures, I actually need a few hours sat doing nothing at all, in near-total silence. Trust me, I’m a really fun travel companion.
Last week I was in Barcelona with work and every minute of my time was taken care of. It was amazing; from office to restaurant to bar, we were pretty much out from 7:30am to midnight. Great fun with fantastic people, but the lack of time for myself really built up and by the end of the week I was practically twitching to just have a few hours in bed, reading my blogs and doing my normal activities. So much so, that for the last two nights of the trip I couldn’t really commit myself to the moment because I just felt so on edge and in need of ‘me-time.’ Maybe it was again the lack of control over my own time, or maybe it was simply introversion, but it definitely left me feeling anxious. And it wasn’t just me – speaking to others on the trip, they felt the same way, guilty that they couldn’t fully appreciate these amazing things we were getting to do because all they really wanted to do was be at the hotel, in bed, eating room service alone.
So lesson learnt for next time: don’t force yourself to do things because you’re worried you’re missing out; you do you and don’t bend to another’s agenda (unless, you know, you actually want to do the things). You’ll feel a lot better for it.
You do You
Travelling is an incredibly personal thing, and what is one person’s dream holiday may be another’s trip from Hell. The age of Instagram can place a lot of pressure on us millennial to live – and by extension travel – within a certain aesthetic, as we feel we must share daily updates on our feed in an effort to validate our holiday as something worthy of envy rather than disdain. This is something that I personally struggle with quite a lot, and it can often mean that travel anxiety can actually already be an issue in my mind before the trip has even been booked.
With all of my mental health issues, it quite simply means that I am not up to planning – or executing – trips that take me halfway across the world for weeks at time, and instead I much prefer the long-weekend or city break. It’s just easier. However, with many of my contemporaries frequently getting off to Asia or South America for 2-3 week breaks, it can often feel like my travels just aren’t very interesting. It can be very disheartening t feel like you simply can’t go anywhere because of invisible demons any our mind, whilst everyone else around you can and constantly tells you you should.
But then I think, if this is the kind of travel that sustains me, then so what? For me noticing the small cultural differences that exist in countries only a few hundred kilometres apart is one of the beauties of traveling within Europe, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the list of places I want to go. Sure, the beaches aren’t as golden and my Instagram feed maybe isn’t so aspirational (unless you aspire to eat a lot of pastries), but I am taking it at my own pace and only doing what I feel ready to do. Putting down the social media and throwing yourself into your stay/vacation is probably one of the most surefire ways to avoid travel anxiety, before during and after.
Phew. Looks like a ‘few handy pointers’ very quickly turned into a personal essay there. Apologies. But still, I hope this can provide some help to anyone out there who is experience or has experienced travel anxiety. You can do it!
Do you have any tips for travel anxiety?