Don’t let anxiety derail your solo travel plans. I spent my entire childhood fantasizing about Norway’s fjords, Japanese gardens, southern Patagonia, but as I got older, my anxiety became progressively more debilitating. When I’m uncomfortable, my sympathetic nervous system reacts to seemingly nothing, sending me into a shaky panic. My blood feels like it’s been replaced with ice water, my heart rate rises, muscles tighten, I start hyperventilating, and in the worst cases, I faint. If you’re reading this, those sensations probably resonate with you. When these symptoms persist without intervention, they can turn into a full-blown panic attack. Panic attacks can be traumatic, especially when you’re alone in the foreign country.
Avoiding solo travel completely is not the answer. Anxiety doesn’t have to dominate your decisions. Traveling alone can be therapeutic and lead to improved coping mechanisms. When faced with the unpredictability of international solo travel, you have to face your fears and adapt to the ever-changing conditions.
I may be an expert when it comes to solo travel catastrophes, but I’m not a doctor. That being said, here’s what I learned from my mistakes.
1. Plan well, but leave wiggle room.
My biggest fear is being trapped. Not just trapped in a physical space, but trapped in a situation. Locking yourself into back-to-back plans will force you to structure your daily activities, but you have to ask yourself if the commitment will overwhelm you. Make sure there is a way out of plans if necessary. When I give myself just one goal for each day, I tend to end up engaging in more spontaneous adventures, making better use of my time, and ultimately, having a more positive experience.
2. Don’t over-plan.
Going full-pelt all day is draining physically and mentally. A rest day might help you recover. I watch Netflix, take a long shower, go for a leisurely walk, draw in a coffee shop, just do something that revives me. If you happen to visit East Asia, I highly recommend visiting a bathhouse as a rest day activity (as long as you don’t mind getting naked around strangers).
3. Back-up plans galore!
The best part about being alone abroad is getting to do whatever you want whenever you want. You’re never at the whim of someone else. If your plans fall through, have something else in mind to see or do. My backup plans generally involve eating, but this changes based on location. Sometimes you’ll be close to a beach, mountains, cities, or all three. Personally, I let the unique scenery govern your decisions.
4. Sometimes saving money isn’t worth the stress.
If walking alone in a questionable area makes you anxious, shell out money for a taxi. If you can’t stand another night in a loud hostel, upgrade to a hotel or an Airbnb. If you’re sick of eating nothing but PB&J, go eat a more luxurious meal. Keeping on a tight budget is great for extending trips, but can be excessively stressful. The additional stress of finances may be detrimental for those who already have a pretty high baseline of anxiety. I try to keep a reasonable amount of money saved for situations like the ones listed above.
5. Recognize your triggers.
My biggest trigger is loud, crowded restaurants. I can’t explain why, but that type of atmosphere sends me into instant panic. Figure out what specifically triggers your anxiety and use that knowledge to dodge situations that may cause extreme stress if you absolutely have to. Unfortunately, avoidance isn’t necessarily a healthy option. You can utilize this time to confront your stressors at your own pace if you feel comfortable. Doing so can help desensitize you. This concept is recognized in the field of psychology as exposure therapy. Exposing yourself to your fears can provide you with a sense of empowerment over your anxiety, and the temporary discomfort that is caused by the arousal of your nervous system will eventually subside after repeated exposure. Don’t overwhelm yourself by launching into a situation that scares you, build up a tolerance to the stressor. No need to suffer a traumatic experience abroad (or ever, really). I prepare myself by writing down what makes me uncomfortable or fearful, I learned about diaphragmatic breathing (described below), and I researched my fear.
6. Prepare a panic protocol.
When I feel symptoms of panic creep in, I start by inhaling to a count of 4, exhale to a count of 4, repeat, increasing incrementally until I am able to breathe slowly. Breathe deep, through your stomach, known as diaphragmatic breathing. This may sound obvious, but counting my breaths helps me tremendously. This biohack will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the fight-or-flight response of your sympathetic nervous system and allows you to relax. This is just one option, others include playing word games in your head, or using all of your five senses to ground you in your present environment, the list goes on!
7. If you take medicine, find an herbal alternative just in case.
The legality of medications changes from country to country. In my case, the prescription I took was prohibited. Thus, I carried Rescue Remedy (or a similar tincture) in my bag and frequently drank herbal tea. The following herbs may be beneficial for alleviating anxiety: holy basil, kava, lemon balm, passion flower, lavender, valerian root, and skullcap. They can be purchased in loose or tincture/oil form at most health food stores or online.
8. Talk to strangers!
This is a productive exercise for overcoming social anxiety. Plus, you might make a new friend out of it. Chances are you’ll cross paths with other solo travelers and friendly locals. Use this opportunity to face the discomfort of meeting new people. Worst case scenario, they’re unfriendly and you never ever have to encounter them again (hopefully). I’ve always had great luck with the travelers and locals I’ve spent time with, some of whom I’ve kept in contact with for many years and stayed with when overseas.
9. Use your perceptiveness to your advantage.
Be present and embrace what’s around you. Anxiety heightens the awareness of your surroundings. Use those heightened senses to have a deeper experience of the environment. Smell the smells, feel the textures, see the minute details, hear the softest noises. Your senses will ground you, hopefully reducing the fear response that you may be experiencing.
10. Sometimes you’ll feel out of place, lonely, and uncomfortable… but embrace the autonomy.
Being alone is well, lonely. Plain and simple. If you’re traveling by yourself and not getting lonely, you are incredibly lucky. Days, weeks, or months of eating alone usually gets old, but you’ll never forget that feeling of independence when you figure out how to get from point A to point B without someone to lean on. Traveling solo is truly something to be proud of, and the autonomy it provides you with is, in my opinion, unparalleled.