I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at 18, after a nervous breakdown that began in my first year of college, hit fever pitch on my first solo trip to Ecuador, and lasted halfway through my sophomore year.
Despite my love of new places, traveling with anxiety that intense felt impossible. After treating my anxiety, I became well enough to travel to 30 countries over the last 26 years. My anxiety has not disappeared, but it is in check. I am aware of it. I acknowledge it. At times, I give in to it. But it does not rule me.
1. Understand your body
If you suffer panic attacks, it is a terrifying feeling. Your heartbeat increases; you shake uncontrollably; your breathing becomes shallow; tears won’t stop. You may wonder if this is what dying feels like.
But consider this: many psychologists believe that panic attacks are nothing more than the fight-or-flight response gone awry. Evolution primed our bodies to go into hyper-drive at the sign of a threat.
Things that we think of as our body going “wrong” are actually examples of our body doing’s what’s “right” at the wrong time.
An accelerated heart rate and breathing prepares us to run to safety. Sweating keeps us cool while the rest of our body kicks into high gear.
When I start to see warning signs of a panic attack, I try not to assume my body is failing. I acknowledge the sensation and try to convince it to do something else.
2. Develop calming rituals
Develop rituals that are easy to do almost anywhere and practice them before leaving on your trip. Code your body to resort to these rituals in times of stress, rather than letting stress escalate into panic.
Having these rituals in place gives you an action plan when anxiety strikes. I find that 10 minutes working on my breathing usually calms me. Progressive muscle relaxation and meditation “body scan” podcasts are other excellent calming tools.
3. Identify anxiety triggers
Are you more anxious in the morning or evening? Or do you experience anxiety at random throughout the day, as confusing situations arise? Spend some time journaling about what triggers your anxiety. Consider ways those triggers can be mitigated.
For example, if you are anxious in the mornings, develop a morning routine that is calming. Travel uproots you from your rituals, which is both good and bad. Inject some regularity into your travels. Try a brief walk in a familiar neighborhood, a cup of coffee at the same place every day, or preparing your own breakfast.
4. Research your arrival
The first hours of arriving at a new destination are the hardest. You likely have pent-up anxiety from your cramped plane ride, and you likely won’t have 4G to answer any questions.
Make an action plan for arrival. Research the local exchange rate, transit from the airport, and any airport scams. Have a map and phone numbers printed of where you’re staying. I also like to identify a place for my first meal and a few activities I’d like to do that first day.
5. Practice “negative visualization”
The “cult of optimism” – a term popularized by writer Oliver Burkeman – has lead us to believe that being happy is as simple as just choosing to be positive. However, anyone who has suffered from anxiety or depression knows this rings hollow.
Instead, try visualizing the negative. What is the absolute worst situation that can happen? Indulge the negative thought and sap it of its power over you.
If you are anxious about talking to new people, consider the worst-case scenario. The absolute worst situation would be that you make a complete and total fool of yourself. Oh well. You will not die. You will not be forever ostracized on some super-secret backpacker blacklist. Soon, you will travel to a new place. Maybe you’ll have observed some ways that other people have more success in socializing and you’ll take that knowledge with you.
6. Don’t force optimism – but embrace it when it comes
We’ve been lead to believe that happiness is a simple choice. We think it comes from ticking off items from bucket lists, adding new stamps to our passports, or finally being on that beach we’ve lusted after on Instagram. So when you start to move towards those outcomes and anxiety intrudes, it can feel like a betrayal.
Like life, travel is multifaceted. The pain we experience validates the joy we feel at other times, and vice versa. Therefore, if you experience fear and anxiety, acknowledge it — don’t hide from it or judge yourself. Later, when you’re happy, try to preserve and appreciate that moment even more.
7. Have money set aside for days when you really need it
When you experience anxiety, sometimes having others around you can exacerbate those feelings. People think they’re being well-meaning, asking you how you are if you look upset… when really, all you want is to be left alone.
When those days come – as they will – set aside some money. Your sanity is more valuable than numbers in a bank account. Pay for a private room if you need time to yourself. If a massage, a nice meal, or group tour will alleviate your anxiety, splurge on yourself.
You are worthy of being loved, and that starts with loving yourself.
8. Speak with medical professionals about your anxiety
There are many avenues to treating anxiety, from traditional pharmaceutical drugs to acupuncture to therapy. Whatever your choice may be, speak with the appropriate medical professionals before you embark on your next adventure.
9. Don’t forget self-care
When you are anxious, basic self-care feels like a Herculean task. To motivate myself to do these things, I set positive reinforcement rewards. If I’m having a hard time, I make a deal with myself: If I treat myself well during the day, I’ll treat myself to something – whether it be a glass of wine or a nicer dinner.