Carousel at Zilker Park, Austin
Travel Advice

The Anxious Traveler

I arrived in Austin and had a panic attack on the street. Alone and hungry, sleep deprived from flying overnight from Portland, I had gone out in search of food because the hostel I was staying at wouldn’t let me check in early. It was hot and my body found it tough to adjust to the temperature difference. When the maps on my phone started malfunctioning, I called Aninda on the brink of tears. It wasn’t the first time. I had a panic attack on my third night in Gangtok and I wasn’t even travelling alone. My aunt and I had spent a beautiful day hiking to Enchey Monastery and gorging on plump chicken momos but later that night, something triggered me. I slept through most of my first day in Bangalore because the anxiety wouldn’t let me embrace the newness.

I tend to panic in unfamiliar situations. Over the years, I have found out that I do not enjoy the first few days in a new place. Far from faces and streets I am accustomed to, far from my established routine, my brain goes into non-compliance mode and instead of savouring the unknown, I stumble into intense longing for familiarity. It’s a strange homesickness but more for an idea of home than for a real, physical home. I attribute my panic attacks to a generalised fear of the unknown. The first few days in a new place are distressing. It is more intense when I am travelling alone. I also suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder which means I have difficulty interacting in a social setting. As a traveller, it is an experience I seek but pushing the limits and striking up conversations with people I do not know can be both debilitating and rewarding.

As someone who loves to travel, I can’t just give up and say I can’t do it anymore though that’s exactly what I say when I am panicking. In Houston, I was staying at the Houston International Hostel in the Museum District. It is run by the beautiful traveller, curator, and bike enthusiast, Joyce who has met numerous travellers on her trips and numerous others through her hostel. The evening the day before I was leaving, she showed me her collection of artefacts and paintings and advised me to not think of anxiety as an impediment to travel. Travel Anxiety can hit pre-trip or during the trip. Remind yourself of why you want to travel and remember there’s an entire community of like-minded travellers who struggle with anxiety. And remember that you are not alone. It is important to know that it will pass and you will be able to enjoy your trip.

If you have a similar story, here’s what you can do to for relief:

  • Try to figure out what triggers panic in you and avoid them. It gets a lot easier once you can identify your triggers. The first day is the most difficult for me and I usually plan to take it slow and lounge at my hostel or sit in a coffee shop. Substances like alcohol can aggravate anxiety in certain individuals.
  • Plan meticulously. I try to plan as much as I can for the first few days. Having a detailed itinerary makes me feel prepared.
  • Spend some time looking at pictures of your destination. Knowing, or rather seeing, the attractions on my itinerary helps me familiarize. In the end, it is the fear of the unknown that sets my anxiety metre ticking and knowing what to expect helps.
  • If you are easily overwhelmed, plan for one activity a day.
  • Take breaks between exploring. Find a peaceful spot and unwind.
  • Remember that you do not have to see or do everything you wanted to do. Your well being comes first. While it is okay to push yourself if you are feeling anxious, don’t go overboard. It is okay to spend an entire day cooped up in bed and binge-watching Netflix if that is what de-stresses you.
  • If you are panicking, call up a friend or someone you trust.

You can do it!

The Pacific Ocean

The Pacific Ocean | Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area, OR

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29 thoughts on “The Anxious Traveler

  1. It’s a great article. I have gone through this and I can feel your pain because I paid a heavy price of my anxiety. I suggest you also see a psychiatrist if you are unable to cure and don’t feel ashamed

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  2. i get angry when such things happen with me when i need a certain thing to work most..i do things which i dont do in general..like shouting out loud profanity inside me.. .how come u r staying all alone in a stranger country…however, suggestion is not to panic..but sit and think u might have to search the right way for some more time and your activity might start a bit late..but you are not getting pushed inside the earth…that’s the least to happen….do not walk around when such attacks take place…sit and give your mind some time…its natural..

    however write a note on your trip and discovering Austin

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing this, there are a lot of people like this and are scared to talk about it, good for you for sharing, it helps so many people overcome the fear of traveling with anxiety!

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  4. As someone who has been suffering with anxiety issues for last 3-4 years, I can relate to this. I am sure that you did your best to overcome and if you are worried that it may happen again then I’d just tell you to believe in yourself and come out strong.

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  5. What a touching post. I had never thought about how hard it would be for someone with anxiety to travel. Taking in the new and talking to people is hard enough for me simply as an introvert – I can’t even imagine what you must experience. So props to you for doing this, and, if this what you love, keep going!

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  6. Reading your post is truly inspiring. Your openness to share and help people with similar challenges stands out! So happy that you are pushing your limits despite the anxiety you feel. Once you train your mind in a certain way, it has to respond exactly like that. Good that you are doing it! Soon, the anxiety would start to fade away and become a distant memory of something you have overcome! Happy exploration!

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  7. Good for you for bringing this issue to light and being so brave about it. My son has travel anxiety too and we have all been helping him deal with it, it’s never a solo issue and family support goes a long way.

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    • Yes, Smita! Anxiety, like other mental illness, is not openly discussed in India as you might know but I have a supportive partner and wonderful friends who inspire me every day. Thank you so much for stopping by!

      Like

  8. I can relate on so many levels! I’m a very anxious flyer – to a point where I have to knock myself out (taking Rescue: calming pill) on long haul flights. It takes me time to adjust to a new place, even if I’m not alone. This isn’t something brought up in conversation but really needs to be talked about – thank you for sharing!

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  9. I guess travel is a great teacher. It helps you get accustomed to the weather, people and other conditions. The more you travel, the more you become comfortable being out of comfort zone.

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    • It is, Ambuj. Once one of my students told me that he wishes people travel more because it is only through travelling that you realize that beyond your community, your country live people that want exactly the same thing as you do: the right to a respectable life.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Live, Love & Voyage says:

    I dont have huge panic attacks but if i don’t plan or when things get out of control then I really start freaking out. That is why i have to plan like no other!!

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  11. While we all face a little bit anxiety with the fear of unknown during travelling, I’ve a lot of friends who suffer this in such extreme that it hinders their travel plans. Your article is very helpful and I’ll be sharing it with them. I appreciate your courage and will that refuses to give up on your travel love due to these anxiety issues.

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    • Thank you, Shaily. I have struggled with anxiety all my life. I am also an empath which sometimes makes life difficult because unknowingly I end up absorbing the emotions of people that I meet. I am trying to work through these issues. I might never reach a point where I feel no anxiety but I hope to learn ways to manage it. Thanks for your kind words!

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  12. So wonderful of you to share this with us. It must be a difficult thing to travel with an anxiety disorder. But be brave and don’t let this stop your travels! Enjoy life and take care

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