I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder at age 18, after a months-long nervous breakdown that began in my first year of college, hit fever pitch on my first solo trip to Ecuador, and kept at it until halfway through my sophomore year. Despite my love of new places, traveling with anxiety this intense felt impossible.
I’ve since addressed my anxiety through counseling, reflection, journaling, building my friendships, and seeking medical treatment. This has been my journey. Yours will, invariably, vary. Since attaining treatment, I became well enough to travel to over 30 countries over the last 9 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.
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1) Understand your body
If you suffer panic attacks or profound anxiety, it is a terrifying feeling. Your heart beat increases; you shake uncontrollably; your breathing becomes shallow to the point you wonder if you’re having an asthma attack; tears won’t stop. You may wonder if this is what dying feels like. Traveling with anxiety or panic disorders is even harder because you fear that if something goes truly wrong with your body, you won’t be able to get the medical help you need as easily.
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 hyperdrive 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. Accelerated heart rate and breathing prepare us to run to protect ourselves. Sweating keeps ourselves cool while the rest of the body kicks into high gear.
I haven’t experienced a panic attack in many years, but when I start to see warning signs — hyperventilation, pounding heart, ringing in my ears, a sense of constriction, sweating — I try not to assume my body is failing. I recognize what it is doing, 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. Start to feel comfortable with them, and code your body to resort to these rituals in times of stress, rather than letting stress escalate into anxiety or panic.
Having specific calming rituals in place to deal with these moments will give you an action plan when traveling with anxiety. My ritual is lying on my stomach, face down, taking deep breaths. I find that 10 minutes working on my breathing can usually calm me. Progressive muscle relaxation is also another excellent calming tool. I also love listening to meditation “body scan” podcasts.
3) Identify sources of anxiety and triggers
What is it about daily life that frightens you? 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 and making a list of what events and what times trigger you. Rank them in order of most to least anxiety-inducing. Then, consider if there are any way those triggers can be mitigated.
Some examples: If you are anxious in the evenings, think about why. Do you have thoughts from the day that have been niggling at the bank of your head? Write them down and put them on paper. Exorcise them. Do you have anxiety for the day to come? Write down your plans for tomorrow, identify any research that needs to be done to prepare for the day, and close your book. Exorcise it.
If you are anxious in the mornings, develop morning rituals that are calming – whatever that means to you. Maybe you need to stay away from the smartphone. Maybe you need to do some stretching. Travel uproots you from your rituals, which is both good and bad. Inject some regularity into your travel life if that calms you. Try a brief walk in a familiar neighborhood, a cup of coffee at the same place every day, preparing your own breakfast… Part of traveling with anxiety is prevention. Identify what anchors you and prioritize that.
4) Traveling with anxiety is made easier by researching your arrival
In my opinion – the very first hours of arriving at a new destination can be the most anxiety-inducing. You likely have pent-up anxiety from being sequestered in a tiny seat on a plane. And when you arrive, you most likely won’t have 4G immediately on call to answer any questions you may have once you hit the ground.
Make an action plan for arrival. This includes: knowing visa requirements, understanding the local exchange rate, being prepared to take out money from the ATM, having some of your country’s currency on hand in case the ATM fails to accept your card, understanding the best mode of transit to and from the airport, knowing any airport scams, having a map (paper or screenshotted) of your hotel/hostel/guesthouse location as well as local phone numbers, maybe identifying a place for your first meal near your guesthouse, and maybe a list of a few activities you’d like to try to do that first day. I’m sure there are so many other ways you can plan, but having at least these down will help alleviate your first-day-of-travel anxiety.
5) Practice “negative visualization”
Thanks to the recommendation of Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads, I read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. This book has been crucial in learning how to look at my anxiety from another perspective.
The basic premise is this: the “cult of optimism” – spread by pinnable, Instagrammable quotes – 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 – or just had periods of their life that just plain sucked, for whatever reason – know this often rings hollow.
One quote from the author, Oliver Burkeman, still holds tremendous power:
“Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power. Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle, negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.”
When traveling with anxiety, truly consider what you are afraid of. What is the absolute worst situation that can happen? If you are running late and anxious about missing your flight – acknowledge that you may miss it. What will happen? You will not die. You will not be incarcerated. You will not live a life of poverty, forever ruined by this one mistake. You will wait. You will maybe pay a hundred or hundreds of dollars for your error.
If you are anxious about talking to new people, again, consider the worst-case scenario. The absolute worst situation would be that you make a complete and total fool of yourself. You may be disliked or ignored. People may say things about you. Oh well. You will not die. You will not be forever ostracized on some super-secret backpacker blacklist. You will move on. You will have a lonely night in a foreign land, and you will have time to think about you and yourself and do some internal work. 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
Again, to quote Oliver Burkeman:
“And here lies the essential between Stoicism and the modern-day ‘cult of optimism.’ For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word, ‘happiness.’ And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances.”
We’ve been lead to believe that happiness is a simple choice, and it’s a permanent, ecstatic state – should you so choose to accept it. We believe that 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. And when you start to move towards those outcomes, and anxiety intrudes, it can feel like a betrayal.
Understand that life – even the life of travel you’ve been lusting after – is multifaceted. It is as equally filled with joy as it is with pain. The pain we experience validates the joy we feel at other times, and vice versa. We need pain in order to define and understand joy. Therefore, when we experience fear and panic when traveling with anxiety, acknowledge it — don’t hide from it. Observe the feelings in your body without judging them.
This is the other side of the coin of joy and happiness. Without anxiety, you will not appreciate those perfect moments of tranquility, where your mind is at peace. This is a unique joy, one that people who do not experience anxiety will never experience. When you have a moment of true peace, true tranquility, embrace it and be grateful.
7) Have money set aside for days when you really need it
When you experience anxiety, illness, and panic, 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 a pricy group tour will alleviate your anxiety, splurge on yourself. You are worthy of being loved, and that starts with loving yourself.
8) Speak with a medical professional about your anxiety or look into alternative medicines
Let it be clear: I am not a doctor. As wary as I am of Big Pharma, sometimes medical interventions are necessary. I still take the occasional anti-anxiety pill. It enables me to be functional more often than I would be were I on my own. If you experience chronic anxiety or panic attacks, this is something you may want to consider doing.
I understand that many people have concerns about pharmaceutical drugs. I share those concerns as well. There are also many alternative herbal medicines that purport to relieve anxiety. I personally get relief from kava kava, which tastes like a wrung out sweaty sock and tingles your tongue but does a great job of calming down my thoughts, especially at night. Other herbal remedies include passionflower extract, skullcap, valerian root, Saint John’s wort, and chamomile. Be mindful of drug interactions — especially with Saint John’s wort, which can cause complications — and speak with a doctor or herbalist with an open mind about these before taking them. This is not medical advice; this is just me testifying my own experience.
9) Don’t forget activities of self-care
When you are anxious or depressed, basic self-care feels like a Herculean task. Make a deal with yourself to take care of yourself – eating frequently and properly, hydrating, washing your face, brushing your teeth, stretching, engaging in light exercise, etc. To motivate myself to do these things, I often make positive reinforcement rewards for myself (it’s a side effect of being a teacher). 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, a nicer dinner, or admission to a slightly more expensive cultural event.
Traveling with anxiety is not only possible; it’s life-affirming, empowering, and absolutely worth the hard work. To read about other travelers fighting mental illness, please check out some of the following inspiring travelers:
- Danie of Like Riding a Bicycle writes about traveling with depression.
- Lauren of Never Ending Footsteps writes about being a full-time traveler with an anxiety disorder.