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We’re excited to introduce the next guest author in our accessible travel series. Nicky writes the blog, That Anxious Traveller, where she is documenting her journeys around the world while trying to keep her anxiety at bay. In this post, she tells the story of how traveling has actually helped her manage her anxiety and shares tips for overcoming travel anxiety. If you experience anxiety before travel, have a fear of flying, get nervy navigating a new place, or just want to smile at an inspiring tale, read on!
Meet Nicky, That Anxious Traveller
I’ve always thought that living with anxiety is a bit like carrying around an item with you from day to day, but that item has a variable weight. Sometimes it’s pretty light, and you can slip it into your pocket and forget about it – at other times, it’s so heavy that you’re not sure if you can get it out of the house.
Travelling with anxiety can be like having an extra backpack. It’s heavy and unwieldy, you keep trying to juggle it and stop it from slipping, and you’ve got a constant sneaking suspicion that at some point, when you let your guard down, it’ll tip you backwards and give you an unpleasant landing on your backside. Probably in a puddle, too.
That’s certainly how I used to be, before I decided to take action and turn things around a bit.
In my early years, I was a very enthusiastic traveller. I loved going on holiday with my family (though apparently I turned an interesting shade of pale green on my first flight), mostly short hops to Spain, Malta, or Portugal. I studied maps and travel books, and made my own travel brochures for fictional places. In my early twenties, I flew solo to the USA, and had an amazing time. Flights were still a bit of a worry, but I distinctly remember walking around Cincinnati Airport with a giddy grin on my face, smiling widely at confused airport employees, high on the feeling of having survived. That rush of adrenaline was an amazing feeling, and I got somewhat hooked on it.
Then, everything changed. I was having a pretty rough time at work, with a boss who was abusive and singled me out, as she’d done with about six women before me. She had a 100% victim resignation record. Uneasy, I booked another trip to the USA, far away from my stresses – a tour to see the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Monument Valley, and all the other awesome sites that I yearned for.
That was when the targeting from my boss got even worse, and I felt my self-esteem getting systematically stripped away by cruel comments and threats. Anxiety quickly filled the void that it left. I googled scorpions and snakes in the American southwest. I read reviews of the cabin I’d be staying at near the Grand Canyon, and tried to find out how close to the edge it was, in case the ground crumbled. I was utterly convinced that I’d get deep vein thrombosis on the 15-hour flight from London.
Looking back, it was all completely irrational. But that’s what anxiety does: it takes a small worry, a random thought, and rolls it like a snowball until you’re convinced that your instinct is telling you not to do Activity X, because you’re absolutely certain to be stampeded to death by mutant unicorns. You even visualise your own funeral.
So I cancelled the trip, losing £1500. Then I resigned from my job. And then I felt even worse for having let both of them beat me.
The anxiety I’d felt after the situation with my ex-boss became the norm. I was increasingly housebound, holing away in my room. I didn’t feel capable of travelling – flights, which had been a worry before, became absolutely terrifying. I didn’t want to go to anywhere new, because new places were unknown and full of danger. I think I’ve always had anxiety, but it was now fully realised. This went on for too many years, locked in a stalemate with myself.
Then two things happened in the same week which made me start to think differently.
The first was that I read a book written by a travel blogger, a fellow anxiety sufferer, who’d overcome everything and travelled the world. This was huge – it was proof that it could be done. Her anxieties were so similar to mine; it was like reading my own biography. There was no reason why I couldn’t beat it, if she had.
The second was the day I spent in London looking around London Bridge and Borough Market, leaving in the evening, then hearing an hour later that there had been a terrorist attack in the exact place I’d been. I’d almost stayed there in order to watch coverage of a football match: if I’d decided to do that, I would’ve certainly been right in the middle of it.
This gave me a shocking reality check – home wasn’t safe, either. Staying in the UK and barely setting foot outside the country did not keep me safe from harm. And the majority of people who’d died in the attack had been tourists. They couldn’t travel any more, do what they loved. But maybe I could do it in their honour.
So a mere three months after that attack, I was sweating profusely on a plane to Naples, Italy.
Some people would think Naples and its surrounding area a bit of an odd choice for an anxiety sufferer to go to – aside from the age-old rumours of dodgy dealing in the city itself, it has a live and extremely grumpy volcano just outside it. But I’ve always felt strangely at home there. I love Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast despite their volcano-proximity, and Naples holds no fear for me. I’ve been there before, and I never feel at risk or intimidated, and I’ve never personally seen any crime, organised or otherwise. I only realised afterwards that Naples is the perfect example for travel anxiety. Everyone says you should be scared of it, avoid it, not entertain it, but once you get there, you realise it’s completely fine. There’s nothing to be worried about.
I got through the flight by listening to a football podcast and pretending that it wasn’t happening, before I focused on using the trip to really push my boundaries. I ignored my maps and went off the beaten track in Positano, got hopelessly lost, and managed to stave off a panic attack halfway up a mountain. I braved buying tickets to Capri in Sorrento’s port, something that’d previously scared the heck out of me. I went on an underground tour of Naples, clambering through tiny enclosed passageways. And each time I did something new, something that pushed my admittedly small boundaries, I felt strangely empowered. I wanted to keep pushing.
The most noticeable thing was my anxiety levels – the longer I was in Italy, the more they dropped. By the end of the trip, my only anxiety was the thought of going home and not travelling.
Amsterdam was next, a trip that confronted me with one of my fears – drunk people, thanks to an incident years ago – which I came through. More importantly, I used apps on the plane which talked me through the whole process of flying, and took away the fear of the unknown. I actually started to look forward to flights, which was a completely new experience.
My next trip was Munich, where I left my guidebooks and philosophy of rigidly planning every single sight and place to eat – a sure sign of the anxiety sufferer attempting to put some control and routine into a trip – and went with the flow. Nothing was planned, I did things on impulse, and had an absolute blast. I hopped on a train to Salzburg, and did exactly the same thing there.
Finally, I felt like a traveller again, and set off for a week on the Amalfi Coast to celebrate. I’d returned to the Naples region within a year – a year which had seen my life change in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
I’m not finished. There’s still many aspects of my mental health – some anxiety, and a slightly self-destructive streak – that I need to work on. But travel has been the key, the absolute single defining aspect, which has brought about do many good changes and improvements to my well-being. I can read my blog posts from a year ago, and feel like I’m a better, healthier person than I was then.
And I’m certainly not finished travelling – there’s so many places that I fully intend and expect to get to. If I can come this far in a year, I can’t wait to see where the rest of my life will take me!
Tips to help overcome travel anxiety
1. Connect with people who understand
The biggest single revelation I had, when embarking on my journey of getting back into travel, was reading Lauren Juliff’s book How Not To Travel The World: Adventures of a Disaster-Prone Backpacker, and realising how closely I identified with her story. It was huge, because anxiety convinces you that you’re the only person who’s ever gone through these fears, that people will think you’re mad if you voice them. And it’s so inaccurate! You might think it’d be really hard to find people who understand – after all, do you google “people who love to travel who are scared to travel”? – but it’s not the case. Just look online for travel anxiety groups, especially on Facebook – there’s more than you might think. I myself joined Lauren Juliff’s excellent Overcoming Travel Anxiety course with a private Facebook group for support, and it was one of best things I’ve done. Plus you’re always welcome on my site or social media if you need a chat!
Feeling prepared for a trip can make all the difference – it lets us anxiety sufferers feel like we have a little bit of control over the situation, and less like we’re randomly flailing our way through a trip. So make use of guides, TripAdvisor, and Google Maps to look up as many places you’re going to be visiting as you need. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can pretty much plan all the big events of your trip – where you’ll be staying, where you’ll eat, what the menu is like, and how it looks. Make things more spontaneous when you’re feeling more comfortable with your situation!
Also, if you look up places on Google Maps’ Street View, keep an eye on the date at the bottom of the picture – I had a mild panic before I left for Munich, because it appeared that my hotel was a construction site. It turned out that the image was from 2008!
3. Make use of technology when abroad
Even though it’s lovely to go abroad and completely forget about your phone for a while, there’s no denying that smartphones can be a real boon for anxious travellers. There is a literal pile of apps that can take the uncertainty and fear you might encounter, and dispel it immediately. So look into apps like SkyGuru for talking you through the flight, maps.me for offline navigation, Rome2rio for finding good routes, and Moovit for public transport. The latter in particular will make navigating an unfamiliar country under your own steam a doddle.
If you have any tips for managing anxiety when you travel, we’d love to hear them. Share in the comments.
Nicky Cade, or That Anxious Traveller, is loving rediscovering the art of travel after having spent too many years at home thanks to anxiety. Now, she’s pushing her comfort zone one step at a time, travelling to new countries, and trying to avoid being embarrassed in them, whilst chronicling the whole thing on her blog (embarrassments included). She likes travel, cats, football/soccer, cats, food, and cats.