I threw up on the airport floor before my solo flight to Buenos Aires in 2017. I hadn’t slept more than half an hour the night before because I lay there, completely paralysed with travel anxiety and unable to even get out of bed. My brain kept telling me over and over that solo travel was going to disintegrate my long-distance relationship and leave me alone on the opposite side of the world, where no one would want to talk to me.
Anxiety usually manifests itself as extreme nausea in my body, which explains the vomiting on the airport floor. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, as other passengers physically recoiled from me in the line to check-in, and I had to watch a complete stranger clean up my mess. In some ways it was a positive, because the humiliation distracted me from the strength of the travel anxiety, but I hope to never repeat the experience.
This wasn’t my first solo trip, not by a long shot. I travelled alone through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in 2013, and to Vietnam in 2016. I intellectually know that I am capable of travelling alone and meeting new people, but anxiety is not a rational beast.
A few readers have emailed me recently and asked how to overcome travel anxiety, and whether it gets easier. In all honesty, it hasn’t gone away for me, and I don’t anticipate that it ever fully will. I’ve taught myself strategies along the way so that I can cope more easily, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect the travel anxiety to leave completely.
Leaving is always scary.
Rather than just a physical place, your home represents comfort, stability, and the familiar. Your brain craves stability subconsciously because it increases your likelihood of survival. Simply speaking, if your environment is well-known, easily controlled, and lacking in danger, then you are more likely to live longer. Leaving your comfort zone and travelling are exciting, but they are in direct contradiction to these natural desires. It’s normal to feel travel anxiety because you are stepping into the unknown, but you can’t let it rule your actions.
Interacting with strangers is difficult.
In this post I talk about how I used to struggle with crippling social anxiety. I was terrified of talking to strangers and would hide in my room rather than socialise in a hostel. Over time, I developed confidence and taught myself skills for overcoming social anxiety. However, I have to use these skills constantly if I want to keep feeling confident. The longer I go without pushing myself socially, the more anxiety creeps back in.
Some people are naturally very extroverted and thrive off socialising with new people. If you are more introverted or struggle with social anxiety, you will need to continually practise approaching and talking to strangers. If you don’t travel solo for a while, then the travel anxiety will come back, although the levels are usually lower and more manageable with your strategies.
Travel anxiety must pass.
I used to struggle with insomnia and I experienced distress because, in the moment, I believed that it would never end and I would never fall asleep. I think that you can use the same mentality for anxiety, including travel anxiety. When you are experiencing it, you worry that the anxiety will never end. However, your body can’t physiologically sustain anxiety forever, and it’s important to remember that it will end.
“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise”- Victor Hugo
In the meantime, you can reduce your travel anxiety by:
- focusing on slowing your breath
- focusing on bodily sensations (engage the five senses)
- using self-soothing techniques
Travel anxiety gets easier.
You may never fully shake off travel anxiety, but it’s important to remember that with time and practise, you can travel with more confidence and happiness. Continually practising techniques for overcoming social anxiety and forcing yourself to face your fears will gradually reduce the strength of your anxious feelings. You will learn proficiency in anxiety management and with each new situation, you will feel more capable of proceeding.
Solo travel is well worth the investment, and will help you to gain confidence and greater purpose in your life. Anxiety may still take over your body sometimes, but you have the power to overcome it.
Do you struggle with travel anxiety? Has it lessened over time?