Anxiety in any form can be overwhelming and exhausting. Our anxious ruminations can outwit logic and rational thought, leaving us feeling restless and out of control. And long-term travel — even a short vacation — is no exception! The strain of being away from home, constantly stepping outside your comfort zone, and dealing with the constant stresses of booking transport, reserving accommodation, meeting new people and finding your way around a strange city can lead to an entirely uncharted mess of stomach-churning, shortness-of-breath worries.
Anxiety and worry are normal human emotions. They are our brain’s healthy, instinctive response to stimuli; our body’s way of alerting us to an unsettling situation, telling us to be aware, to slow down or to adjust our behaviors and thoughts. Anxiety can also serve as a call to action to fight or flee. However, our anxious feelings aren’t always accurate! And they often intrude on our everyday lives, making it difficult to do the things we enjoy.
Anxiety shouldn’t stop you from doing what you love, especially traveling. But like any type of learned behavior, dealing with anxious feelings — before they take over your life — takes practice. It’s a mindful practice of recognizing, understanding and processing our emotions and feelings, and it isn’t easy!
After 12 years of traveling, I’ve learned a few tricks of how to recognize and diffuse overwhelming travel-related situations. Let’s take a look at a few healthy, effective ways to deal with travel anxiety and how to keep following a path to fulfilling your wanderlust.
Strengthen your mental fitness…
Listen to your body. When you begin to feel anxious, slow down. Where are you feeling your anxiety? In your breath? In your stomach? Pause and ask yourself what you’re worried about. Understand how your body reacts to stress and learn how to recognize your symptoms. Observe your thoughts and feelings without engaging with them and without judging them. What are some healthy solutions to dealing with your anxiety? Taking a long shower, walking in the fresh air or sipping a coffee? Talking to a friend or emailing your parents, perhaps? What solution is most beneficial to you? Recognize what will help you to feel better. Then do it.
…and your physical fitness too.
Endorphins, the brain chemicals that are released during movement, do amazing things to your mind and body. By keeping yourself in a healthy physical condition, you can counteract anxiety while also giving your noisy mind time away from worrying. Even when you’re on the road, take time daily to stretch, do yoga, go for a run or rent a bicycle. Walk to your sightseeing destinations instead of taking public transport (given that it is safe, of course), take the stairs, or seek out local gyms for day passes.
Also, make a conscious effort follow a healthy, nutritious diet to keep your blood sugar levels in balance.. Though traveling is not always conducive to being able to always eat nutritious-rich foods, but do the best that you can to avoid sugary, preservative-filled and packaged foods. Cook if you can, pick up fruit at the local market and drink plenty of water. Be careful not to skip meals by carrying fruit, nuts and granola bars with you when gong out for the day. (Yes, “hangry” is actually a thing!) And limit your alcohol and caffeine, which can trigger anxious thoughts.
Know your triggers
Traveling is stressful! No matter how much you plan, there always be uncontrollable moments: your flight is canceled, you’re lost, the hostel gave away your booking, you get sick, and many more. Though tempting in theory, you simply can’t avoid every travel mishap. But, by knowing what your “triggers” are (i.e. your high stress situations), you can minimize your exposure to many anxiety inducing situations. Do crowds stress you out? Plan on going to the museum (or other areas) early in the day to avoid peak visiting hours. Does taking public transport cause butterflies? Try to fit extra money in your travel budget for taking cabs or Ubers. Is hostel-living annoying and stressful? Try a female-only dorm or treat yourself to a single room (or even a hotel) once in a while.
Meditation is a valuable tool
Close your eyes. Relax your shoulders and loosen your jaw. Inhale to the count of eight. Hold your breath at the top for two seconds, and then exhale slowly to the count of 10. Hold your breath at the bottom for two seconds. Breathe out anxiety, breathe in strength (or whatever you’re trying to cultivate). Try a few rounds of this mindful breathing. How does it make you feel?
Focusing on our breath can be a powerful tool for reducing anxiety. When I get anxious, I notice that my breath cycles become shorter. I often tense my shoulders and tighten the muscles in my chest and face. However, when I pause and do several mindful breath cycles, I bring myself back to the present moment.
The next time that you find yourself in an anxious situation, stop. You could be standing in line, sitting on a bus or lying in your hostel bed – wherever you are, stop and try a few breath cycles to calm your worries. For that time, tell yourself that you are safe. You are in the present moment. Many practitioners of mindfulness recommend beginning each day with 10 minutes of mindful breathing.
Trust your anxiety. It won’t hurt you.
Anxiety makes us focus on things that might happen. We worry about the worry. And then we worry some more. We often think that anxiety is a sign of something bigger, when it is simply our body’s warning sign. Trust your anxiety and the feelings that come with it. Practice relaxing your thoughts and telling yourself that you are safe.
Journal your worry
Writing down your worries can be therapeutic. By journaling on a daily basis, you can begin to identify patterns to your anxiety, Journaling can also be your “scheduled worry time.” When worry creeps in during the day, tell yourself that the worry can wait until your scheduled time slot.
Begin with making a commitment to journal for 10 minutes a day. As you write, reflect on both the positive and negative parts of your day and how and where those moments made you feel anxious.
Be kind to yourself
Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend. Be gentle and kind. Engage in positive self talk. All too often, we judge ourselves with negativity and extreme disapproval, even when we are doing our best. Make time for self care. If you’re feeling stressed, reschedule your day to take a break. It’s okay to spend an entire day watching Netflix or reading a book. Even when you’re on the road, our bodies and minds need a break and time to recover. Tell yourself that you are doing fine and that you will be okay.
Perfection just isn’t possible. We’re human. The strategies above are like snowflakes. When you try them for the first time, you may not notice much effect. But — just as snow accumulates on the ground — the more that you practice, adjust, and engage in positive self care, the more you will notice the positive effects. Not all strategies work for everyone. Find the ones that work for you. And set yourself on a positive track to enjoying the trip of your dreams!