You may have noticed that I’ve been writing a little less about anxiety lately, and a little more about travel. I believe that there’s a direct reason for this: namely, that travelling more is decreasing my anxiety. It’s been quite a sudden transformation, but I’ve definitely noticed a change, and one that I hope is permanent.
I’ve gone from dreading flying, from B.A. Baracus-style “I ain’t gettin’ on no plane!” moments at the airport and having to prise my fingernails out of the seat at the end of the flight (sorry, various airlines), to looking up at the sky and actually longing to be there. The trip itself used to have to be planned to perfection, every moment mapped out in order to retain control of the situation; I arrived in Italy last month with nothing planned at all. And I had a blast.
So, how has this apparent miracle – as anyone who’s ever witnessed one of my half-marathon walks around an airport terminal, trying to build up the courage to go through security, will testify to – actually come about?
Simple. The act of getting out there, and travelling.
And it’s not just helped with travel anxiety, but the anxiety that was pervading my entire life. Everything.
I’d like to encourage you to do the same; maybe take some of the same steps I did. Because they definitely work.
You can keep that anxiety under control. And you can travel the world.
You Need The Anxiety Lows To Experience The Highs
Anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog (and if you’re not, that’s okay, and I am totally not side-eyeing you right now) will know that I’ve had a fair few travel fails. And these were not the interesting kind of fail, such as accidentally navigating a rental car into piranha-infested waters, although I have no doubt that I’ll probably do that sometime.
No. These were travel fails when I ended up not doing any travelling at all, because my anxiety got the better of me. These involved cancelling a £1500 trip the week before departure, and being too scared to go and see a victory parade or any of the games when my beloved football team, whom I’ve supported for over twenty years, pulled off a once-in-a-lifetime legit sporting miracle. These are quite big things to miss out on.
And they were utterly demoralising. Given that I used to be quite the happy, confident traveller who did solo trips to the USA, it was a real shock to the system to think that I had this anxiety within me which wasn’t going to allow me to do the things I loved anymore. I quickly got to the point where I thought that there would be no more trips anywhere. Trips outside of my house became a big deal, a headache, something I didn’t really want to do.
In retrospect, and I know it sounds cliche, you do need those lows in order to push on, and get the highs again. You need that mental kick in the teeth, the sting to your pride. It hurts, but it does give you a stubborn will to prove yourself wrong. If you don’t have that pride-wounding boot to the face, you just coast on, content in your diminishing horizons.
At this point, I was low but primed to rise – I didn’t feel able to travel myself yet, but I had a desire to. I still wanted to see the world, but I thought that I’d have to do it vicariously through other people.
One book proved to me that wasn’t the case. And a tragic incident in London proved to me that you have to go out and grab life while you can.
As part of my vicarious-travel program, I devoured everything I could which had any remote connection to seeing the globe.
I’ve always been like this. As a child, I terrorised my local travel agent by going in and coming out with armfuls of brochures. I read them from cover to cover, longing to go to places that my family couldn’t possibly afford to go to, forging a lifelong desire to visit them (hello, St Lucia!). When I’d read them, I resorted to making my own by cutting out the pictures and pasting them into a notebook which was dedicated to the fictional travel-planet of “Saffron”. No, I don’t know why I chose that name, either. I wrote descriptions for hotels which didn’t exist.
As I got older, I branched out into maps and books. I still haven’t stopped with that obsession. I have a vast collection of Lonely Planet guides, and an even vaster collection of travel writing – books which took me away from where I was, to places I thought I’d never go to. Books by Bill Bryson, William Dalrymple, Michael Palin; they were all eagerly consumed.
One day, I was preparing for a train journey to go and visit my boyfriend (or as regular readers will know him, The Otter) and at the last minute, I popped on to Amazon for a browse through their Kindle store. There I found a book that I hadn’t heard of – How Not To Travel The World by Lauren Juliff. It had great reviews, so I downloaded on a whim and resolved to read it on the train.
Well, it was outstanding. I don’t think I’ve ever connected with a book as much as I did with HNTTTW. It follows Lauren’s story as she goes from being almost housebound with anxiety, to quitting her job and travelling the world. And it was open and honest – not everything went perfectly. She had plenty of misadventures, which made her anxiety threaten to get on top of her, but she pushed through strongly and dealt with it all. She became a full-time traveller, whilst journaling her travels on her blog.
This was a revelation. Here was someone who’d had similar problems, but similar dreams, and she’d gone out and done it. It was possible! And a blog sounded like an awesome way to not only record travels for posterity and my own reminiscing, but motivate myself to keep pushing onwards. I finished reading Lauren’s book on 2nd June 2017.
The next day, The Otter and I decided to go and spend the day in London – no set plans, just a general wander as I was too nervous to go anywhere via the Underground. We ended up spending the day at Borough Market, exploring all the stalls and making a full day of it, checking out all the shops in the area around London Bridge. We briefly considered staying in the area for the night in order to watch the Champions League final, but decided on home and a takeaway curry instead.
That was the evening that terrorists attacked, killed, and injured many on London Bridge and in Borough Market. We’d missed it by a couple of hours. Whilst it would be a gross overstatement to say that “we survived the attack” or some-such – when it did occur, we were nowhere near the area – it definitely shook us to see somewhere we’d been just a couple of hours before on the news, police lights flashing, victims terrified and dying.
I passed through London again a couple of days later, and was standing on Blackfriars Bridge looking backward towards London Bridge. It occurred to me how everything in your life can change in an instant, and that there are no guarantees – I was seemingly no safer here than if I travelled elsewhere. It was a choice between staying at home forever, or taking steps to living life the way I wanted to,armed now with the knowledge that it could actually be done.
So I booked a trip to Italy.
I love Italy. I’ve always loved Italy. I was going to an area that I was already familiar with (less nerve-wracking!) and had no doubt whatsoever that I’d have an amazing time exploring, eating, and getting hopelessly lost. There would undoubtedly be moments filled with anxiety, but I speak Italian, and Italy has a way of looking after me.
But first, I had to get there.
One of the worst things about anxiety is that you can have a grain of doubt, a germ of unease, and it’ll grow in your mind. It’s like a sticky ball rolling down a hill, and picking up every last shred of worry on the way. My doubts about my Italy trip came into being about a week before I left; the night before, I was a shivering wreck. I didn’t think I could do it. I would’ve happily cancelled it. And it was completely down to a vague, anxious feeling of “but what if…?”
Anxiety, as any sufferer will tell you, is a total bastard for this. It’ll take something that you’ve been really looking forward to, and corrupt it like a rotten apple. The fact that you’ve been looking forward to it becomes completely irrelevant, and it probably seems completely illogical to the friends and family who’ve been watching you excitedly babble on about it. It makes you actively dread whatever it was that you were about to enjoy.
Luckily, I’d prepared for anxiety’s dastardly antics this time.
As I’d been reading Lauren’s blog in preparation for my new life of travelling (and because it’s an awesome blog!), I was aware that she’d written a course aimed at people like me, who wanted to overcome travel anxiety. It was perfect, and was quite genuinely responsible for getting me on the plane that day. I’m not sure I would’ve made it otherwise. You can check out the course here, and it was another valuable lesson – courses such as this do work. They will help you, reassure you, get you to push yourself. Lauren’s course has not only helped with travel anxiety but the everyday variety of anxiety too. I’ve had so much great support from the course, and the private group chat which accompanies it.
I made it to Italy fine, although still fearful of flying. But the anxiety felt manageable, for the first time in years.
Online courses such as Lauren’s are invaluable for giving you a voice of experience and reassurance, and a group of friends who’ll support you. Whether it’s travel anxiety or general anxiety, it really does work.
Starting To Fly
I was so much more relaxed about travel now, though I did still feel the need to over-plan everything. Planning what you’re going to do while you’re away is great, and it helps us folks with anxiety retain some form of control in a situation which can feel out of control, but over-planning can strangle the spontaneity out of a trip. My next journey was to a country new to me, namely The Netherlands, and my copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Amsterdam had so many Post-It markers sticking out of it that it resembled a hashtag.
But my biggest concern was still flying.
On my pathetically-short flight from London Southend to Amsterdam, I was all set to be a nervous wreck again, until I discovered the SkyGuru app (you can read my review of it here). This taught me another lesson: in these times when we walk around with mini computers masquerading as phones in our pockets, we have so many tools for keeping the anxiety at bay. SkyGuru walked me through the flight and set my mind completely at ease; other apps such as Google Maps or Moovit assist you to navigate around somewhere you’ve never been with the least amount of fear. The amount of resources available to us is pretty stunning, and it’s all able to be carried in your pocket. Another step for the anxious: embrace technology.
I got off the plane from Amsterdam craving another trip, and – surprisingly – craving another flight. A major hurdle had been conquered, and one that I never expected to get under control.
It was time to do something a bit more spontaneous. It was time to go to Germany and Austria.
The Merry Merry Month Of May
May 2018 was a game changer. I wasn’t in one country for longer than a week at a time. And I loved every minute of it.
I’d never visited Germany or Austria before and I threw myself headlong into both of them, alongside The Otter. My Lonely Planet had no Post-It notes at all. I didn’t plan anything, in reaction to the over-scheduling which had been quite exhausting in Amsterdam. This led to the Otter and I being completely unprepared at Munich airport, trying to find a train to the city centre at 11pm on a public holiday, and spending at least three-quarters of the journey worrying that we were going in the wrong direction. So okay, some planning is still good.
But we had the time of our lives. We went up a church tower which invoked panic attacks in both of us. I had a German lady inspecting my boobs as I tried on a dirndl. I ate foods which I’d always been deeply suspicious of (sauerkraut), or which I had no idea what it was (a mysteriously stuffed pretzel). We arrived in Salzburg with no plans of what we were going to do, and only a vague idea of how to get to our hotel.
A week later, I was in Italy again. No plans. I explored Pompeii and Ischia, and finally put my feet up and relaxed for a bit.
And I felt completely free of anxiety.
I genuinely believe that travel is the best form of treatment for anxiety. I’ve said before that it forces you to live in the here and now, but it also makes you learn lessons.
In all the things I’ve described above, there has been a lesson learnt. They’ve taught me about life, anxiety, travel… but they’ve also taught me a lot about myself. Going away takes you out of your comfort zone, plops you somewhere unfamiliar in an uncertain situation, and forces you to deal with it. Problems can’t be ignored; they’re dealt with straight away. It teaches you to cope with things that are out of your control, by controlling yourself. That’s the main thing you need for helping your anxiety.
And above all, it gives me a sense of pure joy and wonder, of seeing and experiencing new cultures, new foods, new adventures. I have so many more travels planned; in fact, the only thing giving me anxiety right now is the thought that I might not be able to visit all of them. Travel makes me feel alive.
That is worth beating anxiety for.
Got any awesome tips for travel anxiety, or anxiety in general? Does travel make you feel a similar way? Let me know in the comments!
Please note that this article may contain affiliate links – these incur no extra cost to you. Also, I don’t affiliate with anything I haven’t tried myself, or anything that I don’t completely recommend – I’m much more interested in helping other people than anything else!
NathanJune 17, 2018 at 6:51 pm
I used to actually get more anxiety when traveling – mostly worrying about not speaking the language, knowing the local customs, etc. But after a while, it just began to fade and it made me a more mellow, go with the flow sort of guy.
thatanxioustravellerJune 17, 2018 at 9:57 pm
I think travel is the thing which pushes you out of your comfort zone the most – you either hate it and never do it again, or you let it expand that comfort zone. I’m glad that mine was the latter! 🙂
CarlyJune 22, 2018 at 11:06 pm
The idea that you have to experience the low to push through to the high is SO important. I did some training in supporting adolescent anxiety at my local children’s hospital, and they spoke extensively about how children today struggle to deal with even minor anxiety because their parents so often remove the source of the anxiety, rather than allowing the child time to experience the stressor and develop coping strategies. They need to experience the full range of emotion and come out on the other side, in order to develop in a mentally and emotionally healthy way.
thatanxioustravellerJune 28, 2018 at 8:16 am
That’s really interesting, and matches up with what I’d thought myself – I don’t have any kids, but I come into contact with them through my job, and even just through that short contact, it’s quite noticeable.
AnnikaJune 23, 2018 at 10:51 am
I really really love your story. Super motivating and the one thing that really stuck with me too since the we had so many terrorist attacks in Europe over the last few years: safety is an illusion, not just when we travel but just in general and that is something we just have to get used to.
I also appreciate how you approached your journey to traveling – one step at a time!
thatanxioustravellerJune 28, 2018 at 8:17 am
Thank you so much! Yes, sadly nowhere is safe, it’s just not possible. Accepting is hard, but necessary.
MoJune 23, 2018 at 11:07 pm
What a great read! It’s inspiring to see how you have been able to challenge something that used to inhibit you in the past. I hope you get to experience many more adventures to come!
thatanxioustravellerJune 28, 2018 at 8:19 am
Thank you very much! 🙂 Yes, lots of travel planned for the future! 😀
HeleneJune 24, 2018 at 6:56 am
And this right here is why everyone should travel. Thank you for sharing your story and motivating others with it as well. I think this is why I truly love your blog!
thatanxioustravellerJune 28, 2018 at 8:24 am
Thank you so much, Helene – coming from you (I absolutely LOVE your writing!), that really does mean a lot!! I hope it does poke a few people into travelling more than they would otherwise! 🙂
ViolaJune 25, 2018 at 5:41 am
So great to hear stories like this. Travel truly has so many benefits for us. So awesome of you to share girl. Hope more anxious travellers can be inspired by your experience!
thatanxioustravellerJune 28, 2018 at 8:22 am
Thank you, BFF! <3
Julian GreenJuly 3, 2018 at 2:49 pm
What a great read! It’s inspiring to see how you have been able to challenge something that used to inhibit you in the past. I hope you get to experience many more adventures to come!
thatanxioustravellerJuly 3, 2018 at 2:58 pm
Hi Julian, thank you very much for your kind words! I hope so too; it’s made such a big difference in my life – I’m finding that even looking up flights and planning trips makes me feel less anxious. I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be the stressful bit! 😉
KellyJuly 9, 2018 at 9:59 am
I connected with you on so many levels reading your post! I’m a very anxious person and I hate flying my nerves are shot but I do not let it stop me! No way! You are so right that you have to go through the lows to get to the highs but it’s so worth it! Great read thanks
Karen ChingJuly 12, 2018 at 5:42 am
I can totally relate on you for so many things. I’ve been suffering form anxiety for how many years now, but I still haven’t tried travelling alone. I want to travel alone for I think that will really make me feel that I’m in control and that I’m not just something that sways with everything that’s happening. Thank you for sharing your experience 🙂
thatanxioustravellerJuly 19, 2018 at 11:48 am
Great to hear from you! I completely agree – I think travelling alone really does give you that confidence boost. It can be scary at first, but there’s also a very definite freedom; once you push through the initial nerves, it becomes very empowering!
karimJanuary 8, 2019 at 11:24 pm
I think your anxiety has been reduced due to practicing and participation in what you are anxious about. You have handled your anxiety successfully by not allowing it to take control over your plans and by not allowing it to be in the driver’s seat.
This, in my opinion, is how anxiety should be treated. Putting anxiety in the driver’s seat will only make matters worse.
Experiencing things is a great way of diminishing fear.
thatanxioustravellerJanuary 9, 2019 at 9:56 am
Hi Karim, you have very wise words – I completely agree. The more familiar the trigger for anxiety is, the less power it has. A lot of anxiety is fear of the unknown, and if we can push ourselves to the point that the experience becomes familiar, then we take control of it. Thanks for your comment! 🙂
SuzFebruary 26, 2019 at 7:43 pm
I really enjoyed reading your story so much!!! I am a teacher in the US and I am taking 22 other students and parents with me to Italy in 22 days. I have anxiety, but flight anxiety puts me out of reach. Our longest flight will be 10.5 hours and I’m afraid I will have a panic attack. My idea is to take something to make me sleep, wear noise cancelling headphones, and see what happens. It’s hard to be excited when I am allowing anxiety to consume me. I have been reading exciting things about Italy and trying to focus on the fun, but it is so hard. Thank you for sharing. Hopefully, facing my fears will lead to more exciting travel in the future.
thatanxioustravellerFebruary 26, 2019 at 8:50 pm
Ohhh, thank you so much for writing to me!! I know exactly how you feel, and I’ve been there so many times – but keep your end goal in mind. Think of how good it’ll feel when you’ve done the flight, and kicked anxiety’s ass; really visualise it. Because you’re going to get there! And Italy is just the perfect place; everyone is so friendly, and the cities are completely navigable!
The items you’re taking sound perfect; load up a phone with music or podcasts; something that’ll make you concentrate hard on it. And feel free to email me if you want a chat at any point! 🙂
SuzMarch 11, 2019 at 1:24 pm
Ok, so I had an anxiety attack last night, because I had read about the Ethiopian plane that crashed yesterday and it scared me so much. My 17 year old daughter is also traveling with me and she has never flown before and she is about to unravel. I hide my anxiety from her, but if she loses it, I’m afraid I won’t be far behind. She doesn’t even know about the crash, she was just saying how she really does not want to leave home and she is dreading the trip now. How can I help her and help myself? We leave for Italy on Wednesday, March 20, so like 9 days away.
thatanxioustravellerMarch 11, 2019 at 5:08 pm
*hugs* Aw Suz, I know exactly how you feel – I’ve been there so many times before! I still get that feeling of not wanting to leave home, so remember that what you’re going through is normal for travel anxiety – you’re not having a portent of the future, even if your mind is trying to convince yourself that you are! 🙂
Firstly, remind yourself that crashes like the one in Ethiopia are super-rare – they wouldn’t make the news otherwise. Don’t focus on it: you can avoid the footage of it if you want, but keep telling yourself “it’s awful, but it’s not going to happen to me.” These aren’t just empty words – it’s definitely not going to happen to you!
Secondly, focus on all the things you’re going to do in Italy. Feel the sunshine on your shoulders, and taste the gelato; visualise the golden sunsets. The flight will take a few hours, but the memories you’ll make with your daughter will last forever. Sounds so cheesy, but it’s true! 🙂 You’d regret it soooo much if you didn’t go!
Keep reminding your daughter of the above if she gets nervous. You don’t have to put on a brave face on for her, because that can be tough, but you can support each other through it. It’s okay to say “I’m a little nervous too, but I know we’re going to be fine, so it’s okay”. Don’t let either of you dwell on thoughts of it – make a deal that you’ll be strong for each other, and that you’ll keep each other distracted. If one of you looks worried, the other tells them how safe it is, and how you’ll be fine on your journey. It’s reinforcement, and it’s true.
I always find that once I get through security at the airport, my nerves disappear. It’s taking a step across a threshold, and once I’ve managed to do that, then I can do anything. I can handle the rest of the process. So think of that threshold, and choose when you cross it – it could be at the airport, it could be when you leave your house, it could be when you pack your bag! But pick that point, and overcome it. You will overcome it, because you’re awesome!
Lastly, if either of you are still feeling it when you’re on the plane, don’t feel like you’re alone – you can let the flight attendant know, and they’ll take good care of you! Also, consider an app like SkyGuru, which I have a review of on this site; it talks you through the flight, and is really, really reassuring – I’ve used it, and my flight anxiety reduced significantly!
Also, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you fancy a chat – we can talk about the flight, and how you’re going to kick the butt of anxiety, or just chat about Italy! (I’ve just got back from Florence!) I’m genuinely here for you, and you’ve got this! 🙂 <3
Sheetal SharmaOctober 16, 2019 at 9:53 am
I couldn’t agree more. I have personally suffered from clinical depression and anxiety. And I have personally experienced how much good travelling made me feel. It lifted the fog from my mind. I remember being so numb all the time, the only thing that made me happy was packing my bag and the smell of a sandwich in an airport.
Cynthia LoganMarch 19, 2020 at 8:05 am
Your story is super inspiring. Considering the current situation of the travel sector due to the pandemic and rising violence in different countries, safety seems like an illusion. thus increasing anxiety among travelers. However, I loved how you approached the topic as the only way to overcome your fear is to face it head-on. You’ll never know, you might enjoy it after all!
Cynthia Logan recently posted…7 must-know tips before planning your trip to Bhutan