Coping with anxiety as a world traveler

I remember the first time I flew on a plane. I was eight years old, and I was headed to Disney World with my family. I remember feeling both terrified yet exhilarated, anxious yet excited. I loved the takeoff: the feeling of the plane leaving the ground and watching the world fade away. The travel bug had bitten me, but there was one problem.

I had (and still have) generalized anxiety disorder.

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of everything. That’s just how generalized anxiety works. And although it makes me anxious at times, I have always craved travel. I’m sort of an anomaly. Sure, sitting in a classroom at UW-Madison with 20 other people is enough to send me over the edge, but a spontaneous trip to France or a solo trip to Argentina? Sign me up.

Anxiety may stop me from doing a lot of things, but I refuse to let it stop me from traveling.

Of course there are bad days – I can’t just shut off my anxiety while I travel – but over the years I have learned how best to deal with the anxiety that I inevitably encounter while traveling. Please find some of my best tips and tricks for preventing and mitigating anxiety, from one anxious explorer to another.

Disclaimer: I am in no way a medical professional, and none of these tricks are foolproof. If you are experiencing anxiety, talk to your doctor and reach out to your friends and family.

Find what works best for you

Before you travel, take some time to figure out the coping methods that work best for you. Some good options are breathing techniques (ex: inhale for seven, hold for seven, exhale for seven…), meditation, mantras or smartphone apps like CalmKeeper and Headspace. I personally like breathing techniques and, when I have the space, adult coloring books (you can find some fun ones on Amazon for cheap). Find one or two methods you like so that when you start to feel anxious in the middle of a flight or waiting in line at O’Hare, you’re prepared.

Make your trip as comfortable as possible

I always like to sit in the window seat on airplanes, because it makes me anxious to not be able to see out the window. Because I know this about myself, and I know I’ll be anxious if I’m placed in an aisle seat, I always make sure to reserve a window seat when I buy my plane ticket. It seems stupid, but the more comfortable I am, the less likely I am to be anxious. Thus, if you’re like me and you prefer _____ when you travel, be proactive and do what you need to do to make your journey more comfortable (if the option is available, which it usually is). 

Get to know the people around you

This trick is especially helpful when you’re traveling alone. If you’re sitting next to a stranger on a plane, bus, train, etc., get to know them. I usually start by asking them why they’re traveling to where they’re goin, or where they’re from. Obviously some will be more receptive than others, but chatting with someone will make the time go by faster and will help take your mind off the anxiety. Plus, it can make the journey more interesting, especially when you meet someone cool.

For example, on a flight from Dallas, Texas to Lima, Perú, I started a conversation with the gentleman next to me and learned he was a Peruvian horse breeder who trained horses to compete in shows in both the U.S. and South America. He spent the flight showing me pictures of his horses, and he even gave me some helpful tips for while I was in Perú. Everyone has a story, so if you’re going to be sitting next to someone on a cramped plane for the next eight hours anyway, might as well get to know theirs.

Practice self-care

Self-care is so important. As the name suggests, self-care is when you take time to take care of yourself. It means something different for everyone, but regardless, you can always practice self-care, even while traveling; it can be as simple as meditating or visiting the airport chapel. For me, self-care means a cup of hot coffee from Starbucks, a fashion magazine like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar (or a travel magazine like Souvenirs) and a quiet corner in the airport where I can spread out and listen to my James Bay playlist in peace.

Forgive yourself

There will be moments when your anxiety gets the best of you, and that’s okay; nobody’s perfect. Sometimes you just can’t go dancing with friends or get drinks in the city; other times you need to just lay around the hotel or hostel with a good book and an episode of Friends. Just make sure, no matter what, that you forgive yourself. A bad day doesn’t mean you’re weak or lame or that you’re not getting better. Learning to forgive yourself will make healing that much easier.

Pack snacks

I learned this trick a couple years ago and have used it ever since. Whenever I travel, I throw some of my favorite snacks in my suitcase. This trick is especially helpful when dealing with the anxiety associated with culture shock. If you’re abroad and the new culture (or specifically, the food) is making you anxious, it’s nice to have a snack to munch on, one that’s familiar to you. It’s like having a little piece of home with you, even if it’s just a Clif Bar or a pack of Scooby Doo fruit snacks (you know the ones). Stuff some in the pockets of your carry-on and enjoy when you’re feeling anxious or homesick.

Talk to a medical professional

Take advantage of the resources available to you at home before you travel. If you have the option, speak with a doctor: they will be able to give you more coping tips and tricks and might even be able to give you medication to help the anxiety. If seeing a doctor isn’t an option, many (if not most) universities offer their students free mental health services, such as counseling. Take advantage of the resources available to you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help!

How do you cope with anxiety while traveling or abroad? Let us know in the comments!

Photo by Christian Zimonick.