A version of this article originally appeared in CBC Life. You can read the original travel anxiety article here.
Going on a vacation or travelling long-term is usually accompanied by thoughts of relaxation and happiness. The reality, however, is that travel can cause a significant amount of anxiety for both new and well-seasoned travellers alike. It can sometimes even hold people back from taking a trip at all.
Although Dominic and I are avid adventurers who find any excuse to explore new destinations, we experience travel anxiety too. Despite this, we embarked on a six-month trip — facing our anxiety head-on. It hasn’t been easy, but each day we’re learning more about ourselves and how to better manage our anxiety so we can explore the world.
Registered psychotherapist Janna Comrie describes anxiety as a fuse to our stick of dynamite. “You want your fuse to be an appropriate length. Too short, and you’re anxious frequently, but too long and you’re not getting anxious about things that may be threatening to your physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual health.”
“The goal while traveling”, she says, “is to keep your anxiety fuse from shortening and negatively impacting your trip.”
Anxiety is so personal. It’s different for everyone, and no two people are the same, but here are some of the ways that we’ve been managing our anxiety on the road, keeping Comrie’s advice in mind:
Landing in a new city for the first time is exciting. Our first instinct used to be to hit the ground running and attempt to see as much as possible, as fast as possible. That has taken a bit of a toll though, and I’ve had a few days in new cities that ended in tears because we were completely over-scheduled and overwhelmed. We now try to take the first few days in a new place to get our bearings and don’t try to be too ambitious.
Letting other people guide us through unknown places helps us from having to worry about everything. Walking tours are a great way to do this, and many cities offer free tours that touch on all of the highlights and hot spots. Being in unfamiliar, crowded areas can also cause a lot of stress, and when you’re anxious, your senses feel heightened. Comrie suggests to always carry sunglasses, earplugs, gum or candy and clothing you can layer if you feel hot or cold. “Simply using these throughout crowded or busy areas can help you feel more in control by dulling and controlling the sensory input.”
Communicate with your travel partner
Spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with one person can be difficult, especially if you have travel anxiety. Dominic and I have had a few tense moments travelling because my anxiety often presents as impatience. Acknowledging my triggers and talking to him about how I’m feeling in the moment and what kind of things he can do to support me has been a huge help.
Comrie advises that “if you have panic attacks, take note of what happens when you get anxious. The pattern is different for everyone, but it generally involves feeling hot or cold, heart racing, difficult or shallow breathing, dry mouth, cold or sweaty hands, light headed/brain fog, etc. Identify your pattern and share it with your travel partner. Look at each step as a step closer to the end of the panic attack and have your partner remind you what’s coming next. Often, just recognizing the pattern helps us to avoid getting anxious about being anxious.”
Take breaks, practice mindful techniques and form a routine
According to Comrie, routines are very important. “Our bodies respond to routines and they help us to feel in control and relaxed. Walks, breaks, meals at a certain time, journaling, or a specific pattern in the morning and night are grounding in nature and help to keep baseline anxiety levels in check.”
There is always so much to see and do while exploring new destinations, and on a recent trip to Australia, we were finding that we were filling our days and nights with activities with no room to relax. It was mentally and physically exhausting. Instead of ignoring our bodies and pushing through, we took a few days off from sightseeing and traveling to read, stretch, relax and get into a better headspace. Comrie agrees that taking breaks is important, even if it’s throughout your day. “Take pictures and focus on details, listen to music, stretch, do a meditation, or relaxation breathing. These breaks help to keep your body physically relaxed and give your mind a break so that you feel more refreshed, relaxed and in control.”
Put Your Body First
While traveling, I’m definitely guilty of staying up way too late on more than one occasion, only to have my mind full of to-do lists as soon as my head hits the pillow (yes, even when on vacation I have to-do lists). I’m also guilty of skipping breakfast when we’re trying to get an early start on the road or rushing to make it to our next must-see sight before the crowds. I’m slowly learning that my inevitable mood swings from hangry-ness and lack of sleep are not in anyone’s best interest, and am trying my best to treat my body better, and fuel it properly. Comrie agrees that good self-care like eating regularly and getting good sleep is important. “Eating regularly and responsibly helps to avoid blood sugar crashes and spikes, and is oftentimes something people feel guilty about indulging – both of which aggravate anxiety.” Comrie also suggests if you have trouble sleeping that an Epson salt bath or sleep teas can help, and writing down any anxious thoughts prior to bed to get them out of your head.
Don’t let your anxiety dictate your life
When I’m travelling, a big source of anxiety for me is the unknown and not having everything planned out. While I’ll never be someone who completely wings it, I’m starting to embrace planning only what I have to in advance to provide more room for spontaneous activities. This still gives me a lot of anxiety, but each time I do it I get a lot more comfortable and some of the most memorable experiences on trips have come from doing things that weren’t planned. This is one of the most rewarding parts of travelling and ultimately helps me face my travel anxieties head-on. Even though it may be difficult, don’t let anxiety control your decisions.
Travel forces you out of your comfort zone and into unknown situations, which can be a major source of anxiety, but also a catalyst for growth, and once you push through, the reward is so worth it. Embrace the unknown and remind yourself why you love to travel in the first place.