How I learned to travel alone despite my struggles with anxiety
I haven’t always had major anxiety. In fact, it’s a (relatively) new development in my life. After surviving a severe reaction to medication, I was left riddled with panic attacks, anxiety, and borderline agoraphobia for years to come. It’s something I’ve accepted as my new normal, and I’ve had to relearn how to function as a semi-healthy adult. Anxiety changes things in your life. It nearly destroyed my relationship, successfully ended friendships, and left me feeling like a shell of my former self. Instead of being the adventurous and outgoing ENFJ that I knew myself to be, I was terrified to even step outside my front door.
I used to love traveling solo. I’ve been on countless trips by myself over the years, and I even moved abroad with nothing but two suitcases and a heck of a lot of courage. People would ask me if I was scared and I’d laugh it off. Adventure was a huge part of my personal identity, and — as a result — I became a champion of solo travel. We’ve all heard about how wonderful the experience can be. And it’s something I firmly believe everyone should try in their 20s (or later) if able, because traveling solo can teach you a lot about yourself.
Personally, I learned how to be self-sufficient and independent after years as the quiet, bookish kid who rarely spoke up in school. I became fearless and passionate in the pursuit of whatever the hell I wanted. I explored Istanbul by myself, spent two days on a ferry in the Adriatic Sea from Greece to Italy, and fell in love with Venice all on my own.
But anxiety stole that feeling from me.
Instead of being the girl who would try almost anything once, I became the girl who could barely go outside. My worst panic attack lasted almost a full day, and my anxiety impacted everything — my relationships, my career, my health. I spent years trying every remedy I could think of — medication, therapy, yoga, diet changes, mindfulness — because I was desperate to return to the person I once was. Eventually, I found a weird mix of things that sort of worked, but I still felt like a mere shadow of the adventurous girl I once was.
I still wanted to travel even though it scared the shit out of me. I still wanted to be bold, adventurous, and exciting because I felt like I needed to be those things. I wanted to be fearless in the face of my anxiety. I wanted to tell it, “Ha! You don’t own me.”
Because it should never own me. I spent years letting anxiety define my identity before I realized that I could still be that adventurous girl…with a little more caution. It didn’t have to be a bad thing (in fact, it was probably a good thing considering that, while traveling abroad, I got into an unmarked vehicle with strangers once. Okay, twice.)
Instead of wishing it would go away, I learned that I needed to accept my anxiety as part of me.
It took a lot of practice and a heck of a lot of stress. As my agoraphobic tendencies reared their ugly head, it took coaching, hand holding, and time. I would spend four hours preparing myself to leave the house to get groceries only to sit in my car for 45 minutes, sobbing, because I was too afraid to leave. But I did it. Eventually.
And, eventually, I was able to go on my first solo trip again so I could attend a conference in Toronto.
It terrified me. I spent a lot of time going back and forth on whether or not I should even go on the trip, but I was determined. While the trip didn’t go exactly as planned (I maybe chickened out and flew home a full day early), I still learned a few valuable lessons on how to travel alone with anxiety. Plus, those lessons have helped me better manage anxiety in my daily life as well. Perhaps they can help you, too, if you’re dealing with similar issues.
I need to do my research.
If I’m brutally honest, I’m a Hermione Granger-type character. I’m a know-it-all, I find solace in books and research, and I like being in control. Traveling solo with anxiety, I knew I needed to give in to this tendency — at least to a certain extent. Nothing ever goes as planned, but if I wanted to convince myself to get on an airplane (aka, a rattling death trap in my mind), then I needed to know that everything was taken care of.
I’m not just talking about lodging. I spent time poring over Google Maps so I was familiar with the area between my hotel and the conference. I took screenshots of information on my phone in case I didn’t have cell service, and I kept a charger with me pretty much 24/7. Even more? I read every single review of my Airbnb, and I picked a female host who had hosted other single female travelers — even though it wasn’t the cheapest or the nicest accommodation available.
I looked up transportation, restaurants, things to do, and even contacted other conference attendees about potentially meeting up during off-hours. I don’t like having an itinerary while traveling, but I needed to give myself options. I needed to feel prepared.
I made friends whenever I could.
I was lucky enough to be attending a conference that had a social media presence. I followed people on Twitter who said they’d be attending months before the event, and struck up tentative social media friendships. Making friends when you have anxiety can be incredibly hard, but doing this before my trip made it easier. I knew I wouldn’t have to talk to people if I didn’t want to, but I also wouldn’t have to feel incredibly alone in a brand new city.
If you can’t make friends, try to put yourself in situations where you can be friendly(ish) without extra effort. Staying in an Airbnb is a great way to do this with minimal effort: my host chatted with me and gave me recommendations on things to do in the city. This made me relax a bit; I knew I had a real person I could connect with if I felt incredibly unsafe — but it was also nice knowing that spending time with this person was optional. In fact, I spent most of my time outside the Airbnb, knowing that another person was aware of my existence helped me conquer the anxiety I felt as someone who was totally alone in a new city.
I didn’t pressure myself.
Look, traveling solo is hard enough even when you don’t have anxiety. If you’re not ready to step outside your comfort zone for your entire trip, then don’t do it. Focus on doing what makes you happy above all else. I spent one night in my Airbnb reading while eating red velvet cake from the grocery store across the street. Was it super glamorous or adventurous? No. Did it help me keep my sanity in check? Hell yes.
There’s joy in the unknown and going off the beaten path. You should definitely try new things — but it’s important to know your limits.
But I learned how to challenge myself.
Know your limits, yes, but test them whenever possible. If I only did things that made me feel safe, I would literally never leave my house. I like to set bribes for myself when it comes to my anxiety. “If I do [blank], then I can go home and get in bed.”
I spent one night bar hopping in Toronto with a bunch of people I’d never met, and I honestly had the best time imaginable. It was way outside of my comfort zone, but I told myself that I needed to try it. So I did, and guess what? I left early, went back to my Airbnb, and cuddled up with my book. I found balance in pushing past my limits and ended up enjoying myself more than I would normally would have. However, that doesn’t mean I ignored my anxiety completely.
I’ve learned the art of compromise.
In the end, I don’t know if I’ll ever be the girl I once was, but that’s okay too. I’ve learned to accept myself — and my anxiety — because it’s easier to work with it than against it. I’ve learned that I don’t have to let my anxiety stop me from enjoying life. It takes effort and, okay, a lot of crying. But it’s totally worth it, especially because traveling solo actually helped me conquer my anxiety in the long run.
Because that’s the thing about anxiety. It might not get easier with time, but I get better at dealing with it.