How to cope when travel causes anxiety (because no, it's not just you!)

June 13, 2023

For whatever reason, I’m feeling uneasy on this trip. I double and triple check everything as I finish packaging. Upon take-off, my palms feel sweaty (even though, as someone who flies many times in a typical year, I’m usually a pretty chill flier). As my trip gets going, I’m noticing a hesitation in myself. A new tendency to hang back and linger in my accommodation instead of getting out there to explore. When I do, darkness falls and I’m hyper-alert checking over my shoulder and working up a sweat as a speed walk along the winding cobblestone streets of one of Quito’s bohemian neighbourhoods. I need to get myself to a better lit area with more foot traffic. When I do, I’m nervous that shops will close before I can get a bite to eat.

“So much for being a so-called city girl.” I think to myself. I lived in Toronto for eight years between 2010 and early 2018 but now, in a similar-sized city, I’m feeling dwarfed by the skyscrapers, overwhelmed by the sheer size, and hyper-aware of crime. (Which, in fairness, has been increasing.) This has nothing to do with being in Ecuador—I’ve lived here since 2018, am used to the culture, and feel at home here. This is something else and I recognize it having had this experience before. Travel anxiety. I’m away from home (not by a long shot) and I’m on edge.

The thing with travel is that oftentimes, we have a lot riding on it. There are only so many days of the year when we get to switch on the out-of-office responder. There are only so many plane tickets we can buy and only so many places that we can afford to visit based on both time and affordability requirements. We want things to go perfectly (or at the very least, smoothly) so that our choice of destination is justified. This isn’t about impressing others, it’s about feeling confident—and happy with—a personal investment.

The thing with travel is that oftentimes, we have a lot riding on it.

This is when that expectation-versus-reality kicks in. (You know the one.) Maybe you thought each day would be filled with sampling new, local cuisine, bumping into the neighbours and getting invited to local events, soaking up the sun on the terrace of an authentic restaurant, or getting outside in a different landscape.

I’ve felt this feeling before and I think travel anxiety is a common experience… although it’s sure to put a damper on any trip and so I’m pretty sure it’s one we’d rather push aside or not acknowledge. I mean, who is updating friends from home about a looming anxious sensation when we could be humble bragging about morning coffees in the plaza, learning about local art, or dancing salsa with locals?

While that might all be the case, it can be hard to admit that these things also come with anxiety about getting lost, navigating a new space, or getting familiar with local culture and safety precautions. Even if we’re not all talking about it, posting about it, or admitting it, travel anxiety is pretty damn common. I mean, you’re out of your element in literally every way so… doesn’t that make sense? If this is something you tend to experience, here are five things you can do about it so that self-care can become a part of your travels:

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Take a step back.

Sometimes you just have to meet yourself where you’re at instead of white-knuckling your way through your trip to try to meet all of your personal expectations. So if the travel anxiety is really coming in strong, take a step back and ask yourself why that might be. In order to create the “perfect trip,” sometimes we can accidentally start playing the box–checking game. If travel anxiety is popping up, it could be that you’re overstimulated from having too much going on in a short period of time and in a foreign place. Pause for a moment and ask yourself what needs to happen in order for you to be better able to enjoy the rest of your travels. Maybe that means editing the itinerary or slowing down.

Assess what your anxiety is trying to tell you.

On my mini solo trip to Quito, I was nervous about a lot. Standard turbulence on the flight over. Potentially getting robbed at a tourist hot spot. Drinking unsafe water by accident. Even wondering if I was using Uber correctly (it doesn’t exist where I live)! If you notice yourself feeling on-edge or just nervous about super minor things while away on an adventure, tune in and ask yourself why that might be.

Something that’s often the case for those road tripping or hostel hopping is that basic needs can get lost in all the newness and excitement. An overwhelmingly anxious feeling might be an indicator that sleep, hydration, nutrition, and relaxation requirements aren’t being met. In my case, it was certainly all of the above. As it turns out, your body still has its basic needs… even when on vacation. Duh.

Set aside time to recharge.

As someone who loves travel, social time with friends, and outdoor adventure, I’ve learned first-hand what burnout looks like. (Many times actually.) Now, I’ve come to understand that full-day adventures in the mountains can’t happen on Sunday unless Saturday evenings are spent with a book and tea. Alone. If I’m hostelling, I might book a private room, opt for chill evenings using the hostel’s outdoor or common space, or take advantage of quiet days to get a bit of work done or cook something healthy. Then, things like ziplining, pub crawls, or cycling to the next town are all fair game.

Last summer, I hit up Toronto for a week in August. By the time I made it to the big city, I had already spent a night on the Ecuadorian coast, a jam-packed 24 hours in Chicago, I had camped in a provincial park, stayed in my hometown, and hiked for a week in the boonies in the mountains of B.C. I didn’t have much gas left in the tank anymore. When that travel anxiety started to creep in, I called for a day of takeout, chats with my best friend, and lemonade from her balcony while admiring the city skyline. Sometimes you just gotta keep it simple!

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Select an activity that will calm your senses.

Nerves about travel plans and logistics can ruin a trip if not taken care of. One way to bring yourself into a different state is to regulate your nervous system by soothing one or all of your senses. What scents, sights, tastes, sounds, or physical sensations might make things feel a little easier while you’re on the road? If you’re on an all-Canadian adventure, consider spending a day by the ocean, at some hot springs, or near a rushing river in the woods, for example.

In the spring of 2016, I went to Medellin, Colombia on a trip that would eventually inspire my relocation to South America. There was a lot to appreciate (waterfalls, dance parties, all the fruit!) but there was also a lot that made me uneasy (the language which I didn’t speak yet, uniformed officers, bus rides along mountain ledges). Let’s just say that between visiting a Caribbean island, checking out Fernando Botero’s sculpture art, and drinking aguardiente in el centro bars, there was a lot of pool lounging, gentle music and jogging through the nearby park.

Go into your comfort zone.

I know that so much of the conversation about travel is about trying new experiences, seeing the world, and getting out of your comfort zone. If travel anxiety is present though (or if mental health is generally not thriving during a trip), I’m going to suggest the opposite. Go back into your comfort zone. At least until you feel well, happy, at-ease, or capable again. There’s nothing wrong with letting go of your plans for a day or two and just sticking with what feels familiar—and doing so without guilt. That might mean hitting up Subway for a sandwich even though you generally prefer to eat local cuisine while exploring a new place. Or, it could mean taking a day to watch old episodes of Kim’s Convenience (the ultimate Canadian TV show, IMO).

In my case, I had told myself I was in Quito recently to do Big City Things. As in, the things I don’t have access or exposure to on a daily basis. Check out the major breweries. Find a new fancy restaurant for dinner. Go to the indie bookshops. Try all the street food. But as my anxiety started to build, I noticed myself glancing up at the volcano that stood tall over Quito. “Screw it,” I thought to myself. The next morning, off I went up to the top of that volcano. There, I ate a croissant in a patch of wildflowers, wandered along sections of the trail, felt Andean breezes on my cheeks, pet horses, and watched the wind tousle tall grasses. So much for Big City Things, but at least I felt better.

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