Anxiety sucks. Let’s be real, the feeling of panic, fear, and heightened nerves can hugely affect your travels. Personally, it took a toll on my social life, job, physical health and general wellbeing. I can vividly remember times in my life where I was completely debilitated as a result of severe anxiety. I quit my dream job in Japan, moved across the world, and avoided traveling for a year because of my symptoms.
My recovery was anything but short and my anxiety will never be “cured”, but there are a handful of coping mechanisms (outside of medication) I have adopted into my life especially when I am on the road that has helped to alleviate my symptoms. I’m no mental health expert, and recovery will look different for everyone, but I hope that these tips will provide you with some relief from your symptoms and restore your wanderlust.
Here are 7 useful life hacks I learned from traveling with anxiety.
1. Breathe from your stomach.
Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose, instead of expanding your chest, feel your stomach rise as you breathe in as much air as possible. Hold for a few seconds if you are able to do so. Finally, exhale through pursed lips while relaxing your muscles. Repeat this process until you feel at ease.
There is evidence that suggests 4-7-8 breathing will have a therapeutic effect in managing anxiety. A 4-7-8 breath utilizes the same principles as described above, but you inhale to a silent count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale for 8. Using this method theoretically decreases the body’s stress response, lowers blood pressure, and reduces pain. This biohack has calmed me down from countless panic attacks. You can do this on a plane, a boat, train, wherever you start to feel uncomfortable
2. Be mindful.
Breathing is a major part of this, but you can do just about anything mindfully. Mindfulness is simply being present and aware of your senses without judgment. Whether or not you spend a few minutes enjoying a single bite of fruit or take time to practice yoga, try to inject mindfulness strategies into each day. During my travels, I try to tune in to my environment and embrace sounds, smells, tastes, and sights.
I’m particularly fond of body scans. I lay down to enter full relaxation, but you can do them while sitting or standing. I start with diaphragmatic breathing (breathing through the stomach) to prep my body for meditation. Next, focus on your toes, how they feel, and see if you can relax them. Continue this process upwards until you’ve reached your face or scalp, releasing each muscle one by one until your entire body is relaxed. I’ll spend anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes going through these motions before bed or on a break at work. After completing this meditation, I feel calmer and in control of my anxiety. I’ll even do this in a hostel if I have to. Tune out the noise and just examine how your body feels.
3. Engage in self-care activities.
Take a steamy bubble bath, throw a fancy bath bomb in, light some candles, read a book you’ve been putting off. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Well that’s not always available to you on the road, especially if you’re staying in a hostel. Thankfully, that’s only one sort of “self care.” Others include exercising, stretching, treating yourself and getting enough sleep — try combining all of the above by treating yourself to one night at a nice hotel, where you can get some real shuteye and a nice bubble bath.
Personally, drawing is my preferred self-care ritual. Putting a pen to paper allows me to visualize my thoughts and take time to do something for myself. I find this action meditative. Drawing helps to me to disconnect from my phone, my stresses at work, and everything else that creeps into my daily life and concentrate on what’s in front of me. When I travel, I bring a pocket-sized sketchbook and a pen so that I am able to draw my surroundings at any moment.
4. Eat nutritious, healthy foods.
Cooking for yourself also ties into self-care. You don’t always have to eat regimented, perfectly portioned meals, but you should nourish your body and indulge when you can.
When I’m going through a tough bout of anxiety on the road, I usually try to find accommodation with a kitchen. I stick to easy meals such as soups, smoothies, and grains. You can get all of the vitamins, protein, and whole grains you need without dirtying tons of dishes or putting in too much effort. While abroad, find food options that suit your dietary needs and make you feel healthy. Don’t just stuff yourself with eclairs in France; eat fresh, hearty meals that are still representative of the country you’re in.
5. Find your purpose.
This one sounds so cheesy. Finding my “purpose” was a recent development. After rescuing my dog, I caught the service bug. Doing good made me feel better. I came to the conclusion that I never want to work another job that didn’t have a positive contribution to society. I applied to work in refugee resettlement programming and started my new position just over a month ago.
This type of work gives me a sense of fulfillment. I no longer feel like I’m slaving away so someone else can make more money. Although my job can take an emotional toll, I am proud of where I work and constantly inspired by the refugee communities. You may have interests that don’t involve working with others, but there are plenty of compassionate ways to use your time and skills, even when you’re traveling. A day spent giving back to the local community can be a restorative experience, and there are endless options for service projects. Meaningful work should reduce your anxious thoughts or at least make you happy to go to get out of bed in the morning.
6. Embrace the outdoors.
Rock climbing is my primary vice. Without this passion, I would be an anxious mess. This pastime gets me moving out in nature. Being surrounded by mountains guides me into a contented mindset that I can’t achieve otherwise. Nature can’t replace doctors and medication, but it can lead to a healthier lifestyle.
Pick an outdoor activity: kayaking, trail running, mountain biking, swimming, climbing, hiking, backpacking, skiing, whatever suits your fancy and is cost accessible. Going to an area without phone service can also be a big plus for de-stressing. I use climbing as a reason to go abroad. There are loads of world-class international climbing areas such as Magic Wood in Switzerland or the Rocklands in South Africa. Having a hobby that takes you to these small towns and scenic places will change the way you travel, and keep you from stressing about ticking things off a to-do list.
7. Travel even if it’s difficult.
Don’t let anxiety prevent you from traveling. Going abroad can desensitize you to your anxiety and enrich your life through confronting fears and coping with them. Even just taking a solo weekend trip to a neighboring state or national park helps me center myself when I’m overwhelmed with other aspects of life. Having something to look forward to motivates me to be more productive in my daily life. Even if you’re confronted with anxiety attacks abroad, you can use the tools above to help manage it, and feel empowered for traveling in spite of these difficulties.