ARC Blog

Taming the Beast, How to Manage Anxiety When You Travel

06.16.15 | by Lizzie | Anxiety Management

The brain is an amazing thing but it’s also very, very powerful.

There’s something I haven’t spoken much about on this blog. It’s not because I’m ashamed or worried (though I’m sure those feelings are in there somewhere), it’s because I don’t know how to bring it up in the right way.

Travel is supposed to be this happy, amazing, confident thing and the word anxiety just doesn’t go hand in hand with it. Well, it doesn’t go hand in hand with that fluffy, ‘you-can-do-anything-you-want’ notion of travel, but it does go hand in hand with life. Real, gritty, no-sunshine-and-unicorns life.

wrote briefly about my struggle with an anxiety disorder before, so I won’t rehash it. But I guess it makes sense for me to shed a little insight onto it and how it’s affected my travels (if you don’t want to read my sob story – I don’t blame you! – skip to the next part of this post which offers tips for managing anxiety whilst you travel).

I don’t know how it started. I can’t pinpoint the moment. It was more like a tidal wave hitting me and pummelling me down, down, down until I was so weak and tired that I didn’t know how to get back up. I was sick up to five times before I even left the house in the morning and then I’d continue to vomit throughout the day. Cold sweats, light-headedness, and a lightning-speed heartbeat were all part of the deal, too. It was hell.

At one point it was so bad that I didn’t leave the house for three months straight. If I did have to go out I’d work myself up into a hysterical frenzy. As you can imagine, that didn’t help.

I thought that this would be my life, forever. I couldn’t see a way out.

I’m one of those people who really hates talking about their emotions. I feel embarrassed, exposed, self-centred if I do, so getting help was pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But by that point I was so sick (ha ha) and tired of my life not being my own anymore that I was willing to try anything.

Therapy didn’t ‘get rid’ of my anxiety disorder, but it gave me the courage, confidence, and tools to manage it.

Now, there are many reasons I don’t talk about the few years that my life was controlled by anxiety because I’d rather not dwell on it. It wasn’t a happy time and, in all honesty, I’d rather forget about it. I’ve somehow managed to box it away at the back of my metaphorical wardrobe. It’s like it happened in a different lifetime, to a different person.

That doesn’t mean I’m completely over it though. Sure, I can manage it very well these days but the truth is anxiety never really disappears. It’s always there, prodding and poking at the back of your mind like an incessant pest.

How Does Anxiety Affect Your Travels?

As I mentioned in the post about my anxiety disorder, travel really helped me see the bigger picture. Anxiety makes your world really, really small, and makes everything in it huge and significant. Travel blew open my world (which had become tiny and, let’s face it, self-centred) and made me feel insignificant. No really, this was a good thing.

But anxiety thrives in unfamiliar situations so I’m always awaiting that surge of nausea when I’m somewhere new. As of yet, it hasn’t happened. Yes, I still get the clammy hands and the cold sweats sometimes when I can’t imagine how a situation will turn out, or if I start imagining worst-case-scenarios. But I have trained myself (and my good ol’ brain) to enjoy it and manage it.

Want to know how have I done that? What to know how to manage anxiety when you travel?

Well, there are a few things I do and tell myself to fend off the anxiety. Not all of these will work for everyone and it’s worth spending some time figuring out what works for you. The thing with anxiety is that it affects different people in different ways – no two cases are the same, and this is why those of us who suffer with it often feel so alone and alienated.

I’m certainly not offering a cure to anxiety whilst you travel, but I hope these tools and techniques will help you manage it so you can enjoy your time away.

It’s Okay to Be Anxious

This point has single-handedly helped me the most over the past ten years. For some reason we’re told to believe that anxiety makes you weak, that you should be stronger, that being anxious is not okay.

Confession time: it’s absolutely perfectly okay to feel anxious, especially when you’re travelling. I mean, you’re in a new place, meeting new people, doing things outside of your comfort zone – why would you not feel anxious?! It’s human nature to want to know what happens next and travel doesn’t give us that luxury.

When I start to feel anxious I remind myself that it’s perfectly okay. It’s just part of being human.

Plan and Prepare

Gah – I know, boring right?! But if, like me, you can’t stop your brain from imagining certain scenarios then doing a little preparation and planning will go a long way.

I’m not saying you should itemise your whole itinerary by the hour, but it’s worth giving yourself plenty of time to sort out transport, where you’re going to stay, and the finer details. Things you can control. But it’s also worth reminding yourself that travel is notorious for cock-ups. Things go wrong all the time which is pretty much game-over for anxiety sufferers, but it certainly helps to have some kind of control over the situation in the first place.

Give Yourself Some Space

Everyone is entitled to their own space, though it can sometimes be difficult to find it. If you can feel the anxiety getting the better of you, step away from the situation and take a moment to regroup.

I used to go into myself when I could feel an attack starting, and the worst thing anyone could do was talk to me and tell me everything would be okay. Because, really, that doesn’t help. My brain is categorically telling me that everything is not okay and it won’t listen to anyone else.

If you’re travelling with someone just say you need to make a phone call outside or you’re not feeling very well so you’d just like some time alone.

Travelling can seem hectic and non-stop at the best of times, so it’s important to step away from it every so often and remember that there is absolutely no rush. Nothing is worth more than your mental health.

For example, if you’re feeling anxious about catching a bus, remind yourself that you don’t have to catch it. There’s always the next one. Basically, don’t pressure yourself or feel like you have to do anything because that’s when anxiety really swings into its element.

Breathe, Breathe, Breathe!

I know it’s so clichéd for people to tell you to breathe when you’re feeling anxious. The last thing you have time for is breathing, right?!

But, in reality, focusing on your breath can do you the world of good.

Did you know that you can fool your body into thinking you’re relaxed?

Try this exercise right now for two minutes: breathe in for five long seconds and breathe out for seven long seconds. How do you feel afterwards? More relaxed?

This can be tricky to master when you’re in the depths of an attack but you have to persevere – trust me! There have been too many occasions for me to count where this method has prevented me from chucking up in a very public place.

Take Baby Steps

Anxiety often fills you with a feeling of dread. It can be overwhelming trying to see the end, especially when there’s so many obstacles standing in your way (this is particularly the case when travelling).

For such a long time I thought travel was completely out of the question for me. I couldn’t even get on the local bus let alone a plane, so how would I ever venture to new lands?

The answer? Take it slowly. Once I’d managed to catch a bus without an attack I’d try for a train. Then a weekend away somewhere local – you get the idea.

You can even break down the travel process into more manageable chunks. Start by getting to the airport, then take a break. Next get through the security checks and take a break. See your trip as a series of little goals and, as you start reaching them, you’ll realise that you can do it without having an attack.

This is literally the best feeling in the world.

Anxiety will forever be a part of my past (and my present) but I refuse to let it ruin my passions and my life. Take it from me, it can be managed! I know it can seem impossible, but it’s all about re-training your brain and being kind to yourself.

Remember it’s absolutely, totally, one-hundred percent okay to feel anxious. And, what’s more, it’s two-hundred percent okay to feel anxious when you’re travelling. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself and take it one day (or one moment) at a time.

Other posts by awesome travellers who successfully manage their anxiety:

Your turn! Anxiety is often considered a taboo subject but I’d love to hear how you guys manage whilst travelling. Part of learning to manage my disorder was discovering that I was not alone, so I know a lot of people would be grateful to hear your stories and techniques – only if you feel comfortable with it, though!

Lizzie is a freelance travel, culture, and arts writer who spends her time flitting between Brighton and Barcelona. She quit her job in 2014 to live her dream of being a writer despite her being the least brave person she knows. She’s definitely not an inspiration, but she hopes her stories will at least inspire you to get out there and see the world and discover your true passion in life. Follow Lizzie’s blog: wanderful world for the curious the creative and the inspired.
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