Posted Date: February 10, 2021
Am I going to die? What if I get malaria? Are there hospitals around here? Is this food going to make me sick? What if there is a natural disaster?
Welcome to the mind of an anxious traveler. Or welcome to my mind as an anxious traveler.
I experience a lot of anxiety when traveling. Stepping out of my comfort zone and into a foreign culture where everything from the food to the language is unfamiliar is not easy for me.
Yet, despite my anxiety, I have managed to travel the world, having visited 33 countries so far.
In this post, I am sharing 10 ways that have helped me cope with anxiety when traveling.
Stay Within Your Comfort Zone (At First)
It’s fun to get excited about traveling and want to cross off the most exotic places from your bucket list. However, as a fellow anxious traveler, let me offer you a few words of caution.
If this is your first time abroad, save the exotic places for your second trip abroad, or if you are traveling long-term, save these places for your second or third destination.
Traveling internationally can be overwhelming at first – new culture, different food, foreign languages, and completely unfamiliar places. All of these elements together are the perfect storm for someone with anxiety and can cause culture shock.
Culture shock happens when you feel overwhelmed by being in a new and unfamiliar place. This is something that you can most definitely overcome, but it can also be a catalyst for panic attacks and anxiety. I have experienced this myself.
From my experiences, I have learned that it is best to start your trip (or spend your trip) in a country that may feel more familiar and comfortable to you. This will help ease you into being in a foreign place for the first time (or to be on the road full time) without having to deal with the anxiety that comes from culture shock.
For example, if you are from the United States, you could go to Western Europe, New Zealand, or Australia for your first trip abroad or first stop on your trip. Several of these countries use English as their main language or have a lot of English speakers that live there. They also have similar customs and foods to the United States.
After this initial exposure to international traveling, you will become more confident, and you can slowly start to branch out of your comfort zone to more exotic countries and cultures.
I always like to travel knowing that the first few days of my trip are fully planned out.
I experience the most anxiety when I first arrive abroad, which is mainly due to the culture shock that comes from being in a new place. During this time, my mind is usually a bit foggy, and the last thing I want to deal with is having to plan a trip.
Plan out where you are going to stay, what types of activities you are going to do, and how you are going to get around for at least the first couple of days of your trip. This covers your basics – you have a place to sleep and a way to get around.
Next, know the details. What currency does this country use? What types of foods do they eat there? What language do they speak? What modes of transportation will you have to use?
Prepare yourself ahead of time with these answers, so you won’t face any unexpected surprises when you arrive. For example, if you are worried about being stranded because your bank shuts down your debit card, take out some cash beforehand. If you are worried about how to get from point A to point B, do your research ahead of time to know what method of transportation you should take.
These small preparations will help you avoid any unnecessary worrying and anxiety when traveling.
Have A Back-Up Plan
My mind constantly runs through worst-case scenarios while traveling. What if I get sick? What if our stuff gets stolen? What if I get a food-borne illness? What if this happens or that?
Instead of dwelling on those thoughts and causing unnecessary stress, create a back-up plan to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
For example, I worry about getting seriously ill from food poisoning. Whenever I feel nervous about something like this, I grab a pen and a paper, write down these questions, answer them, and put together a plan.
What if I get food poisoning?
- I can take charcoal pills to help absorb toxins in my stomach and to help with other stomach issues like diarrhea.
- I can stay in the hotel until I feel better.
- I can go to the doctor if I do not feel better after a few days to get some further help.
How can I prevent food poisoning?
- I can avoid raw, uncooked vegetables and certain meats.
- I can stay in Airbnb’s with a kitchen in order to prepare my own food.
What’s my backup plan?
- Pack charcoal pills and antidiarrheal medicine just in case. Know that there is always a doctor nearby if needed. Avoid raw, uncooked vegetables and meats if absolutely needed.
There you go. Now, you don’t have to constantly stress about getting food poisoning because you are prepared and know how to handle the situation if it occurs.
You can do this exercise for anything that could potentially cause anxiety to help your mind work through it beforehand. Sometimes it helps to write it all out, so you can see that oftentimes the worst-case scenario in your mind isn’t actually all that bad in reality.
Have an Emergency Fund
If you have read my anxiety story, you will know that my anxiety became so unbearable that I had to temporarily fly home from our year-long trip around the world.
I bought a ticket to fly home that same day. I flew out of Vietnam to the United States, which cost around $800.
Luckily, we had an emergency fund in case something like this happened.
Here is my recommendation – have an emergency fund of at least a couple of thousand dollars before you leave on your trip. You never know if you will need to book an emergency flight home or pay for an unexpected cost.
The last thing you want is to be experiencing a lot of anxiety in a foreign country with no way out. With an emergency fund, you will always know that if you absolutely need to, you can afford to fly home.
Being far away from home without close friends and family nearby means that it is easy to feel lonely when you are traveling.
The best way to cope with this is to meet people and socialize. Talking with other people helps you get out of your own thoughts and focus on other things.
Anxiety often deals with fears of the future and memories from the past. Socializing can help bring you to the present moment. Find a group of people that speak your language or spend the day exploring with someone who is going through a similar experience as you. This can be a nice mental refresh and will give you a sense of belonging.
It’s surprising how easy it is to connect with people on the road. Most of the time, other travelers are in the same boat as you – traveling alone – and they also want to make friends. The one question that I always start out with is “where are you from?”, and the conversation usually flows from there.
Meditating is a common way to cope with anxiety – that’s because it helps!
I’m not the best meditator. I often let my mind get distracted by wandering thoughts during a session, but even then – it still helps me to feel calm. Try to start and end your day with a 10-minute meditation session. I always do this when I travel because it helps my mind feel at peace during the two times of day when my mind is usually buzzing with thoughts.
The most effective form of meditation for me is guided meditation. I use the Headspace app and Calm app. Whether you can’t sleep or are feeling anxious, these apps have different guided meditations for any circumstance.
If meditation doesn’t work for you, try breathing exercises. Anytime I experience anxiety, I immediately practice my breathwork. Breathwork is proven to help calm you down when you are feeling anxious, and it’s one of the main things I do to help when I feel shortness of breath (a side-effect of anxiety).
Here’s what I do – slowly inhale through your nose for 8 seconds, release, and exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 more seconds. Repeat until you start to feel that your breath is getting back into a normal breathing pattern.
If you are traveling with someone, ask them to help you work through the breathing exercises. Sometimes it’s hard to pull yourself together to do anything during a moment of anxiety so having someone there to help is really nice.
Tell Your Travel Partner About Your Anxiety Before Your Trip
If you are traveling with someone, tell them about your struggles with anxiety before you leave on your trip. Tell them what to expect if you do experience anxiety or a panic attack and ask them if they are willing to help you if this does happen.
Walk them through the situation. What will they need to do to if you are having a panic attack? Is there anything they can say to help? Can they guide you through a breathing exercise?
If there are certain things that help you with your anxiety, let them know, so they can help you out.
Often, panic attacks happen out of nowhere, and you don’t want your travel partner being confused and panicked as well. Communicating beforehand is crucial so that you can both be prepared.
Write In Your Journal
Take a journal with you and write in it anytime you start to feel anxiety when traveling. Your journal is meant to be your safe place where you can write down anything that is on your mind without the fear of someone else reading it. Sometimes you just need to get your thoughts out on paper to release any stress you are feeling.
Get Help Before Traveling
One of my biggest mistakes was not seeing a doctor or a therapist before I left to travel. My family encouraged me to go see one, but I didn’t think my anxiety was that big of a deal.
So, I didn’t see one, and it cost me time, money, and a lot of unnecessary stress.
If you are feeling anxious about your trip or you have a history of anxiety, I would recommend seeing a mental health professional before you travel, especially before a long-term trip.
Speaking with someone will give you the opportunity to work through any thoughts and worries before you head out and potentially get advice on how to handle anxiety away from home.
Not every tip will work for everyone. Know what works for you or give these 10 tips a try if you are experiencing anxiety for the first time. Feel free to share any other ways that help you cope with anxiety while you are on the road below.