Overcoming Social Anxiety Through Travelling Solo

I didn’t speak to another person for the first five weeks of my solo trip to Southeast Asia. I hid in private rooms in hostels, made shy smiles at other people, but never took the initiative to approach anyone and start a conversation. I was only 18 years old, fresh out of high school and quite frankly terrified. I cried the entirety of my first night away from home and wondered what the hell I was doing by travelling alone. I’d never planned to be undertaking this trip alone; I’d originally planned it with my ex boyfriend and broken up with him two months before I left. My heart had yearned for the pure freedom and learning experience of taking on the world alone.

I grew up as a shy, introverted child. I remained mostly silent at family gatherings and spent several years playing soccer where I didn’t make a single, real friend. I had plenty of friends at primary school, but was decidedly part of the ‘weird’ group in my year level. I spent a few weeks at the start of high school hiding in the library or walking around the yard in circles when my two only friends were busy. It took me a long time to make more friends and never felt like I could talk to new people. I always felt boring, overwhelmed, and above all, anxious.

Whenever I thought about talking to someone new, it was like my body shut down. I would feel waves of nausea and panic crashing over my body, and my brain would race at a million miles an hour. Consequently, I would just remain silent. No one can hate you or think you’re boring if they don’t even notice you. I spent a lot of time feeling lonely, wishing I had more friends and wishing that I was invited to more social events. In my late teens, I learned to lean upon alcohol as a crutch, but hadn’t yet learnt the lesson of moderation.

White temple in Thailand

After spending those five weeks of not talking to anyone, I felt so crushingly lonely that I was desperate to try anything. Through trial and error, I slowly learnt to use these tips that helped me to initially pretend that I wasn’t anxious.

Open body language. It can be really easy to sink into yourself and seem closed off or standoffish if you are anxious and not monitoring your body language. I learnt quickly that if I held eye contact and genuinely smiled at people, more often than not, they would approach me first. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I was so initially terrified that my body language made me seem unfriendly.

Mental pep talks. I usually plan when I am going to try and socially interact with other people in a hostel. Before I enter the bar or common social area, I usually take a moment for myself in the bathroom or somewhere private so that I can focus myself. I think about how I am going to enter the room and where I am going to walk. If I don’t have a plan of action, I run the risk of getting stuck in the middle of the room and looking desperate and afraid. I remind myself that everyone else there likes to be social and that if someone is unfriendly, I can just try again.

Breathing exercises. During these pre-socialisation sessions, I also take a minute or so to focus on my breathing. I have always failed at proper meditation because I find it hard to completely empty my brain of thoughts. But I have found that deep abdominal breathing and soothingly rubbing my inner arms helps to reduce my heart rate and at least lessen the physical symptoms of anxiety in my body.

Picking the right people to approach. I carefully select the people who I approach. People who are on their own are my first choice because they are generally open to a conversation. It is harder to approach pairs and any more than two people is a last resort for me. I find groups particularly intimidating. I also look for people who seem to be of a similar age to me and who have open body language.

Asking lots of questions. I’ve noticed that one of my main sources of anxiety is that I believe I am boring and have nothing to add to the conversation. An easy way to get around this is to make the conversation mostly about the other person until I feel more comfortable within myself. This puts the other person at ease because they feel like you are genuinely engaged and interested.

Temple in Chiang Mai

Banter. Sometimes I find it easier to use humour and playful insults to hide my fear and anxiety. This is a very Australian-style of humour that not everyone will respond to, but more often than not, people respond positively to playfully being paid out a little. It generates familiarity and breaks the ice a little.

Signing up for activities. If all else fails and you genuinely feel like you can’t approach people in a more natural setting, I find it beneficial to sign up for group activities. It places you in close proximity to people with similar interests and gives you an initial topic of conversation. It takes away some of the initial anxiety around choosing what topics to talk about and allows you to relax into the process a little more.

I came back from my first solo backpacking adventure a changed person. My old friends hardly recognised me. I would walk up to complete strangers in the bar and start talking to them as if they were old friends. I had no issues talking to anyone, anywhere, about anything. I felt this huge surge of confidence in my ability to be funny, interesting and engaging. From forcing myself to pretend that I was confident so much, it has gotten to the point that I feel reasonably comfortable meeting any new people. I still feel sick in my stomach sometimes, but I just trust in myself and my ability to trick people into thinking that I am confident and extroverted.

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  1. I’m going to share this post with one of the girls I met when I was in Berlin. She suffered an anxiety attack when we were together, and I think there are some tips in here that will really help her x

    • Thanks, I hope it can be helpful. Anxiety attacks can be really scary, I’m glad that you’re a supportive friend

  2. Wow, I totally relate to your post because initially even I used to find it tough to randomly walk up to people and talk to them. I would rather be left alone and be on my own. After a couple of times of travelling solo, I began to see a lot of change in myself. This is a good post, loved reading it!

    • Thanks! It definitely takes a bit of practise to get better at talking to strangers, I’ve gotten so much better but I still freak out sometimes

  3. Love your openness and honesty. I also love how you went on your trip wven though you broke up with your boyfriend. I sometimes get anxious too when I am alone in a new place and don’t know the language. Thanks for a great post

  4. It’s funny as I’ve just released a post on the different types of friends we make while traveling, and in the post I wrote how making can be easy for some people but extremely difficult for others. To be honest with you, I was always that guy that would try and make friends as soon as I entered a hostel but I have met and understand people that have social anxiety. I actually felt it a little myself during my last trip, I don’t know if it was due to the fact that I felt like I was over traveling (I had been on the road constantly for 6 years) or if anxiety had really started to creep into me. I do have a friend that suffers from it really bad so I do know how difficult it is and how much of an obstacle even a simple hello to strangers can be. This post is really insightful and helpful for anybody that’s going through it – I’ve shared on twitter too 😀

    • Thanks! I really appreciate the people who go out of their way to chat to everyone in a hostel, they make my life so much easier! So keep doing what you’re doing

  5. Such an insightful piece! I used to be so confident but now find myself struggling sometimes. These are some great tips especially the pretending one! I do this a lot lol thanks for sharing.

    • I hate the cliche nature of the phrase “fake it until you make it”, but it really does work!

  6. Firstly, traveling that long at 18 years old is super awesome! I can relate to your social anxiety. In high school I had some issues with talking to new people, I would get sweaty, look away and it was awkward. These are really helpful tips for people who experience this. Something that is natural for some, is a learned skill for others.

    • Thanks! I have always envied those who naturally and easily socialise with strangers!

  7. Travelling is indeed a very helpful way to overcome your fears and be your true self. Great article and nice tips that im gone use next time! Thanks for sharing!

  8. i envy on how young you already travel so far away from home and seeking the freedom. I was able to do that when i was younger. 🙂

    • I am definitely very lucky and make sure to prioritise travel in my life and not spend money on clothes or needless things

  9. Wow, your post has such an inspiring message. You worked on your social anxiety and overcame it to some degree. I find that so brave. From your beautiful pictures, I’m taking a wild guess to say they are scenes from Cambodia? Or it could be Thailand…Thanks so much for sharing these tips, they help a lot.

  10. Nice post and I’m sure many people can relate. When I first travelled I had the same, didn’t talk to anyone but I met a guy who changed all that. He said his tactic goes against everything your natural instincts tell you. He said he’d always find the biggest group and just ask if he can join them. They never say no and that way you can just hang out and listen until you feel comfortable to chip in. What’s also great is you get to meet a lot of people really quickly. It’s not easy, but works well.

    • That’s such brave advice and I can definitely see how it would work. If you have the guts for it, then it could be really effective

  11. Good approach, glad you could find one at the right time for yourself and this post can help many who are crowd shy or intimidated with the thought of being alone. If you could change your personality to an extent that your friends don’t recognize the new knew… that means you are headed in the right direction, all the best 🙂

  12. Thank you for this post! Growing up, I had the same issues as you… just being super shy and quiet. I also only had those “2 friends” who I stuck to and who are still now my good friends. The tips are really helpful – I especially like the idea of signing up for activities. Might try a few of these next time I’m out solo.


  13. These are some great tips and Such an insightful post 🙂 I really like the idea of signing up for activities. I used to be a shy an quite one too in my childhood.

  14. It takes a lot of courage to travel alone, even more so if you have to deal with anxiety too. I have never suffered from any real anxiety, and though I get shy I generally have no problem talking to people I have just met. But I worry about travelling alone all the same, especially as I am female, and you know how it gets sometimes. Anyhow, what I am trying to say is that you are much braver than you may think. Especially as you are obviously determined to overcome the hurdles you are dealing with. I have nothing but admiration for you.

  15. Those fantastic pictures of the white temple, and the next one I do not recognize (yet)… symbolize how drained of color and life we can feel when socially isolated. Who would want to talk to someone who looks and acts like a ghost?

    By employing the tips you’ve given, we can bring some color back into our lives Thanks for providing those strategies. Some I’ve tried, some I haven’t, but I’ll try to re-up my game when I go on my next trip – three months in Southeast Asia starting in January 🙂

    • They are beautiful (and also stock photos apart from one of them because my photography skills were 3/10!). Your upcoming trip sounds amazing, I have so much nostalgia for Southeast Asia, and there are still some parts, like Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, that I would like to return to experience. I was so, so terrified when I first started travelling and I still get really scared for the first few days, worrying that no one will like me. I think it’s normal to struggle at first and then you feel more comfortable.