How I Manage My Anxiety While Traveling
Anxiety, hypochondria, OCD, and travel might sound like a recipe for disaster. But I've seen the world despite my mental health. Here's how I manage my mind on the road.
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As a neurotic 27-year-old New Yorker with a cocktail of mental-health issues—anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and hypochondriasis—travel seemed impossible for most of my life. I grew up desperately wanting to see the world, but any time I’d get close to planning a trip, I’d chicken out before booking the flight. I soon grew tired of letting my anxiety confine me to an increasingly small comfort zone, and knew I had to make a drastic change. So at 23, I quit my job and took a two-month trip to Southeast Asia.
When I first set foot on the plane, I was convinced that everything bad that could happen to me would happen. I thought I’d get kidnapped, mugged, or trapped in a foreign country, that a single mosquito bite would mean a malaria diagnosis. Four years later, I’ve been to 21 countries and don’t plan to stop traveling any time soon. Along the way, my perspective was completely rewired to the point that anxiety no longer dictates my life at home. I’ve learned that I’m far more daring and independent than I ever thought possible.
Last year I started the website Anxious and Abroad as a way to show others with mental-health issues that travel is not only accessible but far less intimidating than you think. Here are my five go-to methods to managing my anxiety on the road.
Plan—But Don’t Overplan
When you have anxiety, heading into an unknown environment means your brain works overtime to prepare for the worst-case scenario. It’s important to remember that this isn’t inherently bad but an evolutionary skill meant to help you avoid danger. Unfortunately, this means pre-trip anxiety wants to stop you from leaving, because your brain equates the uncertainty inherent in going to a new place with an imminent threat. While there’s no cure-all for preventing this, I find that plenty of preparation eases the fear of the unfamiliar.
Start with your route. I always plan a rough itinerary ahead of time that includes my entry and exit points for the trip and the sites I want to see along the way. This is based on my time frame, with a breakdown of approximately how long I plan to spend in each place. I also make a budget using the average costs of one night of accommodation, three meals, and one activity per day. In addition to researching what to see and do, I look into smaller but important items such as the currency-exchange rate, visa requirements, and health information. Despite having the details nailed down, I usually only book my flights in and out and my first hostel, so I have the option to change course. Having a solid point A and point B gives me a sense of control and direction, while the overall flexibility removes the pressure of sticking too closely to a plan and the stress that comes when it inevitably goes off course. It’s usually easy enough to find domestic flights or hostels at the last minute.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the best advice comes from fellow travelers, not the internet. Talking to others who have been where I’m going offers me peace of mind, knowing that they came back in one piece, along with valuable recommendations on what to see, do, and eat. Whether they’re friends, family, friends of friends, or a friend’s ex-girlfriend’s brother, personal accounts always get me much further than any Google search.
Once on the ground, I use a select few travel apps to make communication and planning easy. My must-haves usually include Hostelworld for easy and reliable accommodation booking, WhatsApp for international calling and texting via the internet, and Maps.Me for offline directions.
Pack Your Essentials and Don’t Worry About the Rest
Packing gives me a lot of anxiety, and for good reason. The items in my backpack represent the familiar things I can bring with me from home, sort of like a child’s teddy bear. For most people, this leads to a tendency to overpack. But keeping track of too many things can be more of a burden than the risk of not having something you need, especially when most things—from clothes to toiletries to earbuds—will be easy enough to find regardless of where you go. The things that are more difficult to replace that I always keep on me are my contact lenses, passport, wallet, and phone.
Of all my essentials, my contact lenses are what cause me a comical amount of stress when I travel, because I’m functionally blind without them. I always pack at least ten extra pairs of contacts as well as my backup glasses, just in case I happen to rub my eye and lose one along the way. Give yourself more space for a few extras of the important things, even if you likely won’t need all of your supply. This is especially the case with medication—talk to your doctor about getting enough to last you for your trip and then some.
Believe It or Not: Socialize
I was surprised to discover that social interaction is paramount to keeping my anxiety in check while I’m on the road. Making friends with other travelers is a great way to create a makeshift comfort zone when I’m so far outside mine. It’s also an excellent grounding tool, because it forces me to step outside my ruminating mind and be in the present.
Some of you are probably thinking, But I have social anxiety! Well, so do I. However, I’ve found tremendous camaraderie with other travelers after finally getting the courage to break the ice. In fact, during my 61-day solo trip to South America, I spent less than one day by myself because I took the initiative to chat up strangers every step of the way, starting with my first hostel. I’ve found that the benefits of these friendships are worth the five minutes of discomfort at the outset. Never underestimate the power of a simple hello; it can change the whole trajectory of your trip.
It helps to remember that the standard rules of socializing don’t always apply during travel. People are friendlier because they often don’t want to do things alone and welcome the company. Hostels, group tours, and hiking trips are built around fostering this sort of interaction. Despite what your brain might tell you, people want to talk to you. Because you are all in similar circumstances and will likely share experiences, you have preprogrammed icebreakers. They can be as simple as “Where are you from?” or “Where have you been so far?” to asking for local recommendations.
Be Your Own Therapist
On your trip, you won’t have your usual support system on speed dial. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in moments of stress, and it’s just as easy to get mad at yourself for feeling that way. Instead of crumbling, use this opportunity to practice some of the techniques you’ve learned in therapy. For me, that takes the form of daily meditation, sitting quietly by myself and listening to a five-minute guided recording. While doing your usual full-on meditation, workouts, or yoga to decompress would be ideal, it’s not always possible on the move. So make mini models of your typical coping techniques, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t stick to your routine.
Occasionally, however, these practices may not feel like enough. For those moments of panic, I keep these reminders in the notes app on my phone to help me reframe my perspective when the stresses of travel start to feel like too much:
Travel in today’s world is not a complete cutoff from your life at home.
Regardless of how remote a place might seem, odds are that it’s possible to find an internet connection that will allow you to stay in touch through apps and social media.
Your trip isn’t permanent.
Any time I start to feel overwhelmed, my obsessive brain tries to make me think that my trip is a lifelong adventure that will certainly end in disaster. It’s important to keep in mind that your trip is a temporary discomfort, and that you will be back home again soon.
The point of a trip is to enjoy it.
While it might not always feel like it, your trip is meant to be fun and exciting. If you find yourself hating it, it’s not fulfilling its purpose and you’re not obligated to continue. If that means going back to a city where you felt more comfortable, you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing so. Remember that the only one forcing you to stay is you.
There is no shame in feeling scared.
There’s this misconception that being scared while abroad is in some way a negative reflection on you. If you ever begin to feel shame about that fear, remind yourself that you’re doing something that many people are too afraid to do. You’ve already done the hardest part—getting on the plane in the first place.
Have an Exit Strategy
Whenever I travel, I make sure that I have enough money in my bank account to book a flight home at a moment’s notice. I’ve never actually had to return before my planned departure date, but it’s extremely comforting to know that I have a panic button I can push at any time. Yes, it’s an expensive safety net, but at the end of the day, your mental health should always take precedence.
Despite that, I implore you to try to stick around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost booked a flight home. But I always give it a few more days and find that the patterns of my mind change with time. Force yourself to talk to one new person and explore one new place each day. Single, small steps out of your comfort zone eventually add up. In my opinion, travel is immensely worth all this fuss, because as someone with anxiety, I’m going to worry anyway. Why not do it on a beach in Thailand?