Indiana Jo after a volcano hike
Relieved to have survived the hike up Haleakala Volcano in Hawaii.

As scary as it might sound, switching off the brain and being a bit stupid is a tactic that can worked. It’s pretty much the ‘don’t over think it’ school of thought. It might seem like an outrageous suggestion, but it can help. Give your brain time to work through the travel opportunities and it will almost certainly talk you out of them.
But I can’t switch off my brain, I hear you cry. I get it. It’s a big problem over here too. So what other ideas do I have? Try these:
The question then is how do you take the first step?
Many trips across the ocean haven’t fixed it either. In fact, I’m more alert than ever to the potential dangers that lurk behind the rocks (or the snakes that can slither through your open window in Vietnam, true story). So, it would be one heck of a gift if travel could simply fix your anxiety. Doctors everywhere would be: “Here, I prescribe 10 days in Jamaica. The food is great.”

Confession: I’m an anxious traveller

Spider in my bathroom in Nicaragua.

Why have I made such basic mistakes? Mostly because my brain has been so caught up worrying about the more unlikely scenarios (kidnapping cows), that I’ve not applied common sense.
But here’s the good news. If you travel often enough and far enough, you become almost immune to your anxiety. The thought still pops up but after years of travel you’re more likely to meet those thoughts with a shrug rather than running back to the safety of your hotel.
Want some examples of my stupidity?

  • Falling – down, off or over pretty much anything bigger than a step.
  • Getting lost.
  • The spiders, cockroaches, wasps and scorpions that wander the world.
  • Mosquitoes – for good reason, they tried to kill me.
  • Water – deep, shallow and even some powerful showers. Nope, not putting my face under that spray, no, sir-err.
  • Zucchini (courgette) – hey, nobody said that fear had to be rational.
  • While we’re at it, I’m adding eggplant (aubergine) to the list.
  • Sounding stupid when I try to speak a new language.
  • Eating out alone without a book to read. Or sometimes just eating out alone.
  • Being on my own – at check-in, in my room, ordering room service, even in a dorm filled with 12 other people.
  • Being robbed, raped or shot (I suspect even non-anxious people have this fear but I bet their mental imagery isn’t a patch on mine).
  • Women with hairy legs (especially my own).
  • Men with shaved legs or, sometimes, just men.
  • Any knife bigger or sharper than a steak knife, even if I’m cooking. And sometimes my Spork.
  • People not laughing at my jokes
  • Flying before 9am
  • Being out alone after dark.

So, how do I do it? How do I travel despite the anxiety. I’m not talking about a once a year vacation. I’ve lived nomadically for many years, and I’m still a frequent traveller even after having settled back in the UK. Do the fears simply melt away the more you travel?

Does regular travel make you less anxious? Yes and No

haleakala volcano in Maui

And as anxious people, we’re always trying again tomorrow. I hope some future version of your tomorrow includes travel.
As I take myself solo around the world I encounter many people who, for some unfathomable reason, consider me brave. I suppose when I retell tales like the one above, I can see why. The reality, however, is quite different. I’m not very brave at all. I’m actually an anxious person and the pandemic only made it worse.
The moral of my story is this: If you don’t have what it takes to be brave, try disengaging your brain. We all have the capacity to be stupid. Who knows, something exciting might happen.

Travel doesn’t fix your anxiety

Every time we go out there and rub shoulders with our fears, every time we come home (largely) intact, we create a new memory of our great experience. One that says, hey, that travel thing, it was ok. In fact, it was more than ok. I saw the Greek islands and ate gyros and went on a tall sail ship. It was fun. And, guess what, anxiety, it was worth it. And I’m going to make sure I remember that next time you tell me that travel is too scary.
I have been anxious my entire life. I didn’t learn to swim until quite late (scared of the water). I never did get back on the bike after I fell off the first time (and I still can’t do more than a wobble on two wheels). I’ve been shadowed by panic and doubt my entire life. As a student, as a lawyer, as a freelance writer, as a blogger. And as a traveller.

But travel can reduce your anxiety

I went swimming with whale sharks in Mexico‘s Yucatan Peninsula without realising how flipping HUGE they are. I then spent the entire time nearly drowning because having a panic attack into a snorkel while frantically flapping around in the water isn’t the easiest thing to do.
One of the things I have learned from traveling is that opportunities can pass you by in a split second, and you may never get the chance to seize them again. I spent years afraid to scuba dive and now that I’ve found the courage, I’m unable to give it a try because of a inner-ear problems. (It wasn’t much fun on my skydive in Hawaii either).
Yep, anxious and stupid. What a winner! Where’s my crown?
I was treading water in the dark wondering how the hell I was going to fit through the tiniest crack in the rock when I had a flashback. I’d been in exactly this situation before, in Guatemala, about a year previous and I’d sworn then I’d never get myself into the same fix again.

How to feel the fear and do it anyway? Disengage the brain

cave during a hike in Hawaii
Screaming the entire way, I twisted my body through the crack and dropped into the water below.

I originally wrote this on 28 November 2012. I have updated and republished to include more travel tips.
Got any questions or tips, drop a comment below. I’d love to chat travel, or anxiety, or both.
It’s a terrifying thing, making yourself do the things that scare you most. And I can write you a list of very sensible, would please your therapist, tips. In fact, I’ll do that below. But the truth is, most of the time I’ve done scary things out of pure stupidity.
Oh, look, I could write a whole book of worries. Right now I’m anxious that the postman will knock at the door and catch me in my PJs when it’s well past ‘PJ o’clock’.
Let’s start with why travel doesn’t make you less anxious. For me, and for most of us, anxiety is wired into us. Yes, I’m taking proper ‘psychological’ steps to fix but no, it hasn’t fixed my anxiety despite years (and oodles of cash) trying.
But above all, worry plagues me when I travel. Let’s make a list of the things I’m anxious (read: scared witless) of when I travel:
It has almost certainly contributed to me getting diagnosed that ‘fun’ chronic illness, fibromyalgia.
Imagine the fun (not to mention the photos) I would have had if I hadn’t estimated the likelihood of death from doing a bungee jump on a motorbike into a nightclub swimming pool while being set on fire. Sadly, it’s an operation in Bali that has since shut down. (Ok, fine, I’m grateful my anxiety AND common sense talked me out of that one).
The cave swim I mention above came about in much the same way – I completely failed to find out that the ‘local hike’ was actually underground, in caves, with water. The same happened when I found myself 8,000 feet up, clinging to the face of a volcano during a 12-mile hike in Maui, Hawaii.
…except the whole point was that that I trying to avoid getting into these situations in the first place. Because, the thing is, despite appearances: I’m an anxious traveller.

Tips for dealing with anxiety when you travel

I guess there’s something to the idea of immersion therapy i.e. jump in and you’ll cope. Because you do cope. Anxiety, as we know, is just a thought pattern. A pretty damn debilitating one at times. But more often than not, our fears don’t come to fruition. We don’t miss that flight. We don’t fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon. And we certainly aren’t kidnapped by a herd of wild cows in Scotland. We might get a bit travel sick or run into a bed bug or two. But it’s not fatal. We survive and, here’s the magic: in surviving, we grow.

Yes. And no. I’m not hedging my bets. Travel both does and doesn’t help anxiety. Here’s why.

  • Start small – a local trip for a night or two will help you gain your travel legs without the challenge of culture shock.
  • Make a plan – I find planning my trip with checklists gives me a sense of control over something…anything.
  • And that includes having an epic packing list.
  • Keep reminding yourself why you want to travel – look at those travel photos that inspired you in the first place.
  • Take a trip you want to go on – travelling to someone else’s dream destination is going to be harder to motivate your anxiety.
  • Go slowly – a trip is easily ruined by putting too much into your itinerary, especially for an anxious traveller.
  • Don’t try to keep up – you’ll always meet someone who has been there, done it faster and better. Who cares. You’re not them. Do your trip in the way that suits you.
  • Do the things you enjoy – coffee and a cake in a cafe or a spa day are always on my travel agenda. They’re things I love back home but don’t often take time to do. It’s a real treat when I travel. And it just adds to my sense of enjoyment and calm.
  • Journal, meditate, do yoga – a lot of us anxious folk have tools to calm our nerves. Most of them are portable. Add them into your trip to keep yourself level.
  • Have a back up plan – whether that’s emergency cash, good travel insurance, a phone number back home or the route to the airport planned. You probably won’t need it but it can be a comfort.
  • Have some local knowledge – guide books are the best source for balanced info on how things are locally from money and culture to safety and things to be aware of.
  • Don’t over think it – and by that I mean don’t ever Google ‘how many people die in [insert country]. Seek and ye shall find. And that will just feed your anxiety.
  • Enjoy yourself. Isn’t that the whole point? The reason you’re challenging yourself?
  • Get home and book your next trip. You’ll be on a high and it’s the best time to hit ‘repeat’.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go as planned. I love the saying, ‘Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘try again tomorrow.’

Yet, there I was, chin deep in frigid dank water, this time without a candle between my teeth and instead of a waterfall to scale up by rope I had a 20 foot wall of rock and rotting bamboo to ascend in order to reach the light of day. Obviously I had to scale the rock barefoot and wearing a bikini so unsuitable I made a mental note to buy some sort of sports version for these very activities…
comfort zone quote
Of course, psychologists might give you a more textbook answer but I’d like to raise the point they’re generally not anxious and they don’t usually travel that much. Here’s what I can tell you as an expert anxious traveller. Does regular travel make you less anxious?
It’s a pattern than seems familiar throughout my entire trip – I took myself to South America not knowing a word of Spanish, I’ve gotten lost so many times because I can’t read maps and I’m too anxious to admit I’m lost. I’ve turned up in towns at 3am because I didn’t read the bus schedule properly, and, perhaps most traumatising of all, I’ve eaten zucchini because I’ve failed to ask what was in the veggie curry.

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