TRAVEL

Traveling with Anxiety

Trigger warning: this post talks about my experiences with anxiety, including dermatillomania and bulimia, and could potentially be triggering.

When I started this website, I imagined it as a travel blog. It started because my friends and family were constantly asking me how I traveled so much and so cheaply– so I figured I’d write the answers in one place. I have since written about a wide range of topics, but my experiences traveling inform my writing regardless of what it’s about.

For the first time since starting this blog, I’m going fully nomadic for a little while. I’m not a stranger to the lifestyle– I did it for three years– but it’s still a change. And unsurprisingly, as with any uncertain transition, my anxiety is making itself known.

I have always struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know what it was. As a kid, I didn’t know how to name it– I just thought something must have been wrong with me. The other explanation I had was that everyone was struggling, and nobody was talking about it. I didn’t actually seek help for this stuff until I was in college.

In high school, I developed an eating disorder. It was something I thought I could control even when everything else felt crazy. With the eating disorder came a skin picking habit– I would stand in front of the mirror and scrutinize my face, trying to pick and pop at just about anything. I justified it as normal teenager stuff, but it wasn’t.

I remember being frozen in my dorm room, dreading my next class– not because I didn’t like the class, but because I had to physically get myself there. And I’d go, but what should have been easy just wasn’t. I’d walk through campus and feel like everyone was staring at me. I’d sit down in the studio or lecture hall, ears ringing, heart pounding, exhausted.

This is nowhere near all of it, but it should give you an idea.

So I started seeing a therapist. I heard a lot of new words– official names for what I struggled with. And the more I learned about what I was experiencing, the more I wanted to learn. The more I wanted to work on it. And I promised myself I would not let my anxiety get in the way of my life.

It’s one thing in theory, and another in practice. My first opportunity at solo travel came when a colleague of one of my professors invited me to come intern at a marine lab in Portugal. I was thrilled, and immediately started putting a plan in place. This was going to be my first time abroad– and I was going to do it by myself. I pictured my life there, what it would look like, what my friends would be like, all the cool outfits I would wear and all the European trips I’d be able to take.

A few months later, I flew to Porto. And when the novelty of everything wore off, I felt like I had made a horrible mistake. My anxiety was big. For the first few days, I didn’t even leave my apartment.

With routine, things improved. When I was busy, my brain didn’t have the space for anxiety. But it took a few months in Portugal for things to feel normal, and I learned it the hard way. Nobody told me I’d feel scared and nervous all the time. Nobody told me how intimidating it would be. Nobody talks about the harder part of travel.

I kept pushing. I figured I was already in Europe, so I was going to go see it regardless of if my anxiety wanted to tag along. So I traveled, and so did my anxiety. We went to Barcelona for a weekend. We went to Amsterdam. We went to Paris, but didn’t even go to the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t eat dinner that night, and instead retreated to my hostel dorm bed and tried to wait out the wave and the tightness in my chest.

My anxiety is very physical. My heart feels like it’s being squeezed. It’s a dull ache and it’s very, very real.

But I decided a long time ago that my anxiety is not in charge of my life– I am. Here are the tools I use, often daily, to manage my anxiety in my adventurous life, especially while traveling.

PLAN AHEAD & PREPARE

My outdoorsy folks will recognize this as the first principle of Leave No Trace. It applies here in a big way. Travel involves many unknowns, and anxiety does not like unknowns. So plan for it as much as you can. When you’re thinking about your trip, if you feel stressed about a certain aspect, plan for it. If I suspect I’m going to be stressed about a particular thing, I probably will be. So book your accommodation for the first few days at least. Look at maps, create a list of things you want to do or see, and make a plan for how you’re going to get around. Equip yourself with information. Unknowns are inevitable, but when you’ve done the research, your anxiety has less to hold on to.

FIND ROUTINE

Anxiety can make decision-making very difficult. But when part of your day is already planned, you have less decisions to make. Routine doesn’t mean you have to be boring– it just means streamlining part of your day so that it is generally consistent. When traveling, finding routine can be complicated due to place, time zone, food, and tons of other circumstances. So what is in your control? Getting up at the same time every day, journaling before bed every night, exercising, meditating– anything that is independent of place. Start small with the goal of eventually having a basic structure to your day.

HAVE A SUPPORT SYSTEM

Online or offline, know who you can count on if you experience anxiety on the road. Support systems don’t typically land in your lap, so you have to plan for this. Tell people who care about you what you might struggle with while traveling. Think about what would make you feel supported, then tell them how they can be there for you. Reach out when you need help– text or call someone, use a Facebook group, or even writing a letter to someone can help if you don’t have access to power or wifi.

DEVELOP HEALTHY COPING MECHANISMS

You will not always have immediate access to your support system, so it is important to develop skills and tools you can use when anxiety hits. Intentional breathing exercises, journaling prompts, podcasts, calming music, yoga– whatever sounds good to you, get into a habit with it at home so that it’s a natural go-to when you are on the road.

SPLURGE WHEN YOU NEED TO

Have a fund you can dig in to when you just need some self-care. Knowing you’ve got some cash set aside for mental health days is reassuring– it’s comforting to know you can go get yourself a room if you need some space. And if you’re ready to call it, you can use the money to get home sooner than you were planning on. Having the financial cushion here will take some of the edge off.

BE GOOD TO YOUR BODY

Everyone is different, so I will speak for myself here, but I am always more anxious when I am drinking. This sucks (I am a huge fan of craft beer), but I can’t deny it. Hangovers for me are always accompanied by some kind of anxiety or feeling of absolute dread. And although nights out can be fun, they aren’t always worth it. If this is you too, my advice is to limit your drinking, and to drink a lot of water regardless. I also notice that caffeine tends to make me more anxious– and unfortunately, I really love coffee. Overall, notice what your body needs and what it doesn’t. Notice what makes you feel good and what definitely doesn’t. And act accordingly.

GET OUT AND DO SOMETHING

When you get stuck in a worry loop, anxiety wants you to curl up in a ball and not do anything ever again. Thing is, nobody is going to wake you up from your anxiety “nap” (aka laying in bed looking at the ceiling)– so you have to force yourself to do something, even if it’s as simple as walking down the street or sitting in a cafe. Most of the time, getting started on one thing will lead to something else.

DON’T GIVE ENERGY TO WORRY OR STRESS

Many anxious people are very self-aware. You probably fall into that category if you’re reading this. So when you notice yourself worrying, recognize that the worry isn’t really all that useful if it isn’t translated into action. Realize that worry doesn’t usually change outcome. Only worry about what is in your control, and take action on those things.

KNOW YOU CAN ALWAYS CHANGE YOUR MIND

This is your trip and your life. No one decision you make is set in stone. You can always change your mind, so give yourself this freedom and remind yourself of it often. If the plan sucks, change the plan. You can always cut things short or go home.


Anxiety can run your life if you let it. It’s not your fault that you have anxiety, but it is your responsibility to deal with it. I still struggle with my anxiety and all of the manifestations of it, and I know that it’s never going to go away, but that it can be managed.

I am happy to share all of this with you because I want you to know that living an adventurous life with anxiety is possible. I know it’s easier said than done. And it’s not a one-time thing either– this is recurring stuff. Things are allowed to suck. Things are allowed to be really difficult. Know that you have more control than you think you do.

You Might Also Like

16 Comments

  • Reply
    Sydney
    June 2, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    I really appreciate you writing this. I too struggle with anxiety every single day. It is so comforting to know that someone who travels the world doing all kinds of cool stuff, can also struggle with anxiety. The advice is so helpful.

    my favorite part, “It’s not your fault that you have anxiety, but it is your responsibility to deal with it.”
    I’m so lucky to have my husband, mom and sister whom I can count on to help talk things out, but ultimately its my responsibility to conquer the fear.

    Thank you for this, and happy traveling to you!!

    Sydney- Boone, NC

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      June 8, 2017 at 7:36 am

      Thanks Sydney! It’s something so many people struggle with. Wishing you all the best!

  • Reply
    Rachel Magree
    June 2, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    I don’t routinely comment on anything, but this post was particularly uplifting as both a fellow friend (for better or worse) of anxiety and a fellow lover of adventure. Wonderful reflection and thank you for sharing!

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      June 8, 2017 at 7:36 am

      Thank you Rachel, happy to hear it was helpful!

  • Reply
    Kate Bossany
    June 2, 2017 at 9:20 pm

    Great article on how to cope with anxiety on the road. I especially liked your idea on having an emergency fund for mental health days. That’s definitely something I’m going to try.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      June 8, 2017 at 7:37 am

      Thanks Kate. The emergency fund is definitely something I end up using!

  • Reply
    Michael
    June 2, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    I don’t know where your courage comes from, I suspect from a heart big, true and real. That you share feelings and how you handle them most likely helps more than you know.

  • Reply
    Kuleigh
    June 3, 2017 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Erin! I’ve always struggled with my anxiety. As a child it manifested itself as picking my skin (made worse by my keratosis pilaris). In college it was traumatizing to even travel a few hours in the car. I’ve learned to keep my head clear and enjoy the journey as an adult. I’m sure managing my travel anxiety will always be a work on progress.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      June 8, 2017 at 7:42 am

      Thanks for sharing, Kuleigh! It has always shifted for me as well. Glad you are enjoying the journey :)

  • Reply
    Nicole
    June 5, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    Love the article. People often glamorize the nomadic lifestyle when at times it can be be overwhelming and lonely, especially when dealing with anxiety, which goes hand in hand with the traveler’s lifestyle. Beautifully written.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      June 8, 2017 at 7:43 am

      Thanks Nicole! Appreciate the love and totally agree that the less glamorous parts aren’t usually brought up.

  • Reply
    Tory
    June 9, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Thanks for writing this. I have been feeling a lot more anxiety while traveling, especially solo, and it’s great to know so many others experience it too!

  • Reply
    Betsy Dionne
    June 12, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    I also suffer from anxiety. Over the years I have learned how to cope but when I was younger I missed out on a lot of opportunities because I was to scared to leave the house. Being outside in nature has always been my saving grace, if I can get out on the trail I can usually quell the negative thoughts in my head. Thank you for being real and sharing your experience. It really means a lot that you share the gritty stuff along with the good.

  • Reply
    Clare
    June 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Your point about “everyone feels this stuff and just doesn’t talk about it” is something I remember thinking in high school too! The sense like no one was really talking about their feelings but MUST be freaking out… right? Anxiety is such an amorphous friend. She can just set up camp anywhere in any worry. I named mine Irene. Props to you for dealing with this every day, props to all readers who recognize this story (like I do).

  • Reply
    Nancy Walker
    June 18, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Hello. I don’t suffer from anxiety. Certainly not like you describe. I suppose we are all anxious at times. I opened your blog post mainly because I am a little anxious to travel much solo. I just wanted to say, as I read about your experience all I could think was how completely brave you are. Seriously. As I always say, “we all have something”…. to deal with I mean. Many let it rule their lives. Successful people do not. Hooray for you!!! Never forget that you may have anxiety, but more than that, you have extreme courage!

  • Leave a Reply