Let’s talk about anxiety.
When I started traveling when I was 17, I was not aware that I suffered from anxiety. But knowing as I do now that I have serious social anxiety, so many of my less enjoyable experiences of traveling make more sense.
For anyone who is unclear on what it means to have social anxiety, it’s not simply that I’m shy or nervous around new people. I am those things, but it also affects how I perceive certain events or actions, especially my own. When a situation causes me anxiety, my heart rate increases, my mind blanks, my whole body heats up immensely, and all I can think about is ending the moment as quickly as possible.
It should be noted also, that different people experience anxiety differently. Just because those are my symptoms doesn’t mean that the way other people experience anxiety is any less valid. And the solutions I’ve come up with to handle my anxiety, which I’ll be discussing below, are not right for everyone.
So, here are my top three tips for traveling with social anxiety.
1) Bring a trusted friend
The trip that I remember being the most significantly stressful for me in terms of my social anxiety was my second ever trip to Europe. On that trip, I stayed the first week in Rome with a friend, then moved on to travel for some time by myself through Venice, Vienna, and Prague, before meeting up with another friend in Munich.
And while I remember that week in Rome with extreme fondness, the rest of that trip was varying degrees of horrible.
Any time I was by myself, I questioned every one of my decisions, I was certain I was making a fool of myself with the locals, and in general I felt extremely out of my comfort zone. While there’s something to be said about stepping out of your comfort zone in order to grow, there is a limit, especially when you have anxiety. I didn’t feel like I grew on this trip, I felt like a fraud.
So when I got the opportunity to travel again, I made sure to do it with friends. And with friends that I knew would understand and be there for me.
My Fall Break Trip (so capitalized because it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had) to Sweden, Scotland, Amsterdam, and Bruges was the first trip that I took after learning these things, and it was far more successful.
When we found out that I had mixed up my flight when we’d booked our travel, for example, it was immeasurably helpful to have a calm headed person there to let me cry a little, and be there to help me get things worked out.
Or when we had to interact with other people, like the manager of the hostel, having a friend beside me sometimes gave me the will to complete the interaction myself. And if not, my friend was there to do it for me.
2) Have a plan
One of the biggest problems with my Europe trip was that I had been told by tons of extroverted, non-socially-anxious people that the best way to travel was to not have a plan. Just go with the flow, see what comes up, leave yourself open to possibilities.
This is one of the worst possible things you can do, at least if you’re like me.
When I travel now, I like to plan as much as I can. The internet makes this so easy, it’s incredible. I pick out exactly which attractions I want to go to, I try to find a selection of restaurants that I can choose from, I know exactly what activities I want to go to and when they are happening.
Of course, this makes me a huge tourist in the places I go. I do not end up off the beaten path, and I like it that way. Going off the beaten path makes my anxiety flare like crazy. Trying to do things “like the locals” makes me feel like a fraud. The only thing that will get me away from the tourist attractions of a place is if I have a guide. Whether it’s a friend or a paid tour guide, it doesn’t matter, as long as there’s someone there to tell me if I’m doing something right/wrong.
And you know what, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You’re on vacation to enjoy yourself, not have an anxiety attack.
3) Accept your limitations and be forgiving with yourself
This one can be the hardest of all of them, I think.
You do have to accept that, while traveling, you are going to make mistakes and do silly things. You’ll end up on the wrong train or have booked the wrong flight. You’ll try to order something on the menu and butcher the pronunciation. You’ll get lost and go the wrong way in the rain for thirty minutes, and end up giving up on the destination because at that point, you want a hot shower more than you want to see that place.
And it’s ok to be upset about that. It’s ok to have a little cry in frustration, it’s ok to freak out, it ok to be embarrassed.
Just don’t let it ruin your vacation.
Book a new flight, make a joke about your language skills, try again tomorrow. And know that you are doing something extraordinary, just by being there.
That’s my best advice.