Amazing experiences. Unforgettable life lessons. Skills you can’t learn anywhere else.
Traveling abroad offers extensive benefits for your career, the three listed above being only the beginning. Employers and schools often favour candidates with travel experience because it shows they’re eager to take on new challenges and truly push themselves out of their comfort (and time) zones. But for those suffering from anxiety, travelling, especially in a new country you know little about, can appear to be a daunting, insurmountable task. Fortunately, there are ways of managing this fear – I did!
I was seated alone in a congested train compartment. Through the windows, I saw vast, scenic vistas of France.
Then I felt tides of panic inside me.
I had been psyching myself up for this journey for days. It was the first trip I would be taking alone through several countries where people speak little English. There were several connections to make and I knew I’d need to navigate these complicated transfers on my own. Days before leaving, I reminded myself I would have my smartphone (newly equipped with a 12G data SIM, thank you cheap UK phone plans) that I could use to rendezvous with other classmates, who had arrived at our Airbnb the night before.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was the SIM deactivating once outside the digital boundaries of the UK, meaning my phone was essentially useless – unable to call, text, or get online. This might not seem like a big deal to some, but as someone who struggles with anxiety, it was a huge blow.
Since I had just assumed I could use this phone while traveling, I hadn’t pinned down a meeting place with my travel mates, the address where we were staying or their phone numbers (if theirs worked at all)!
At this point, the anxiety became worse, rooting itself like something solid in the pit of my stomach. I felt like an idiot for naively thinking I could handle traveling solo.
And fearful thoughts came unwanted and unbidden. What if I became stranded somewhere in Europe? What if I can’t find my friends or a place to stay? What if my lack of local knowledge and tourist status cause me to become a target of a mugging or worse? These negative thoughts grew stronger and stronger while the train compartment appeared to be shrinking, feeling smaller and more cramped by the minute.
I realized then that I needed to get a grip. I had spent extensive amounts of time and money on this trip and was convinced I could do this. People travel solo all the time, right? Be adventurous. Be like them, I told myself. And even if I had to spend a night on a public park bench, well at least I’d always have a great story to share.
I wasn’t going to let my fear dictate my traveling experience.
While traveling with anxiety is no walk in the park, it’s something that you can prepare for and overcome. Through my own experiences, I’ve come up with a few tips for myself that might work for you too!
1) Take a Notebook With You Everywhere
When I travel I always, always tuck a small notebook in my purse or carry on. For one thing, I can use it to meticulously detail my day’s itinerary and map important locations. Having my schedule on hand definitely lessens the fear of the “unknown”. It’s also a great place to record important details like emergency numbers such as the Canadian embassy or the address of where you are currently staying.
Secondly, carrying a notebook brings the added benefit of creative pursuits. Whenever my anxiety surfaced, I’d find a quiet place to sit and sketch (museums, anyone?). Reflecting on your day, scrapbooking tickets and brochures that you pick along the way – a notebook is the perfect place to do all of these things and keep your trip organized!
Tip: While a phone can do all the things above, a notebook is less likely to be pickpocketed. So I’d bring and use both!
2) Leave a Paper Trail for Yourself
For anxiety prone travelers, another important step in preparing to travel is to make copies of important documents, such as your ID and other travel documents. In fact, make up backups of the backups. When I left to study in the UK I made sure to pack original documents, a photocopy of documents, and then took pictures of the originals with my smart phone (and emailed them to myself). This may seem excessive, but in the event that your wallet or bag gets lost, you’ll be able to prove your identity when filing a police report.
3) Create Action Plans to Combat Your Biggest Fears
For me, my biggest traveling fears were getting lost, losing my phone, and having my wallet or passport stolen. So to combat my nerves I made sure to have a solid action plan for all three scenarios. For example, while my French may be très terrible, I was sure to write down or memorize translations for “Do you speak English, can you help me please?” in case I got lost. And if my passport or wallet went missing, I found out through research that the Canadian embassy should be able to replace your passport and connect you with someone from back home who can send money to you through the embassy. PHEW!
4) Follow a Routine
The fear of the unknown can bring you a lot of anxiety, especially if you’re travelling to a place where there are lots of unknowns. That’s why it can be incredibly comforting to establish a daily routine or habit. Maybe it’s getting up at the same time each morning, going for a jog at noon, reading in a park and or planning for tomorrow – whatever it is that gives you a sense of stability and strength, make sure it’s a part of your day!
Maybe you’re a socially anxious person or you’re the opposite and are worried about being alone. Either way, when you’re traveling you’re going to have to interact with others, which is a good thing! For introverts, it pushes you out of your comfort zone a bit and the conversation can be easily managed (How can I get to the Louvre? What’s a good restaurant near the hostel?). You’ll find plenty of people willing to recommend new places or share their experiences. If you’re anxious about being alone, try and seek out locations where other travelers are likely to hang out. Odds are you’re likely to meet plenty of people looking to make connections.
6) Be Proud of How Far You’ve Come (literally!)
There is nothing like words of positive affirmation to reassure yourself that things will get better and you’re doing the right thing. I mean, you’re traveling in a foreign country, how cool is that (see how easy this is)? Congratulate yourself on any accomplishment, no matter how small. Figure out that complicated public transit system? You’re brilliant! Finally checked your bank statement? You’re such an organized and responsible person. Didn’t cry once today? Wow, check out how in control of your emotions and life you are! Don’t discount all the progress you’ve been making while traveling – be proud and keep the praises coming!
Regardless of whether you’re backpacking through the Rockies or sitting in your living room, anxiety can strike anytime. But you can choose to move forward and not let it deter you from taking an amazing trip abroad to enhance your life experiences and resume. If you want to travel but are deeply anxious about it, I hope my personal story and the tips above will help reshape how you feel about travelling. Positive thoughts and preparedness can go a long way in overcoming travel anxiety. So go on and get lost in a new culture – you’ll be glad you did!
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