Backpacking around the world can be an exciting and genuinely awesome experience, but for many it can also be extremely daunting, and for some – even though a gap year may be a dream – it can actually cause a lot of fear, worry and anxiety. Here are a few expert tips to dealing with that fear and not allowing anxiety to stop you from travelling!
I write a lot about travel safety, specifically about the practical steps to reduce risk and keep yourself safe on the road, but it is just as important to talk about the reasons behind some of that initial fear of travel and ways to overcome that.
A big part of staying safe on your gap year is putting fear and anxiety into the proper context and perspective.
In many ways it is understandable why so many people are afraid to take that leap and follow their dreams of travel, no matter how unfounded the specific fears often are, they are very real to that person and are often so reinforced by the media and societal pressure that they become deeply ingrained and almost impossible to shift.
People can listen to all the media scare stories and the doomsayers (often their friends or family) telling them they will get kidnapped and murdered the second they step off the plane, and it can get to them. It does not matter in the slightest that those fears are overblown or that the facts and statistics of travel dangers paint a completely different picture, those fears can become embedded, form part of that individuals reality and stop them from following their dreams.
Now I am a huge believer in not letting any fear stop you from doing anything, but not everyone is able to get over those worries or that initial anxiety for a whole variety of reasons. I completely understand just how physically, emotionally and psychologically debilitating fear and anxiety can be when it takes hold. That is why it is really important to acknowledge your worries and anxiety, especially if they escalate to the point where they start affecting your everyday life, and deal with them head on so that you know what you are dealing with and can get on and enjoy your trip.
It is important to distinguish here between everyday worry and anxiety, which can be a normal – and even healthy – part of everyday life, and the chronic clinical problems of anxiety, panic disorder, general anxiety disorder and many more conditions. There is a difference. These are specific mental and physical health problems and although these tips can to some extent help with dealing with those problems before travel (and indeed travel can be an excellent source of help in and of itself) they can also sometimes require further professional help on top of that.
If you do feel like your anxiety or panic about travel is deeper than what you would normally expect, if it is starting to take over your life or you are struggling to deal with it, then it is really important to remember that there is a lot of professional help and information as well as a lot of peer support out there and there is no shame in seeking that out if you feel that you need it.
So what do you do if you want to travel but are too worried? What do you do if your fear or anxiety about travel is stopping you from actually getting out there and following your dreams?
Before you travel.
Remember that fear, worry and anxiety is relatively normal.
This is in no way meant to belittle what you are going through, but it is really important to remember that you are not alone. Your anxiety and worry may be very specific to you as an individual, but there are a lot of others who are feeling the same way. This fact on its own should tell you that you are not strange for feeling like this, and that you don’t have to deal with it alone.
If you do need to talk things through with people before you go, then there are plenty of blogs, community forums and other groups where you can find like minded people with the same travel dreams, and some may even be going through something similar themselves. If you want to talk to professionals, then your GP can refer you onto specialist services, or feel free to come and have a chat with me at my online travel clinic.
Stay positive and imagine yourself actually travelling.
I am a huge, huge believer in the power of positive thinking, and having an end goal in your mind is an extremely powerful motivator. (This also works for other ambitions and life goals too). So if you dream of travelling the world but your anxiety is stopping you, just keep imagining the life you want to lead. Imagine yourself relaxing on that tropical island with an ice cold mango juice in your hand, or seeing the Pyramids of Giza for the first time, or even fearlessly trekking through the jungles of Borneo or exploring the side streets of Seville. Imagining yourself doing all of the things you want to do is an important first step in realising that you actually can.
Now imagine what your life will be like in a few years if you let your anxiety win.
Imagine where you will be in a few years if you decide to let your fears win. Stuck in the same job, the same rut, watching the same rubbish on TV. Is that what you really want?
The reason I personally travel the world is a very simple one. I am a nurse in my professional life and I have watched far too many people die young without fulfilling their dreams, and far too many people reach the end of a long life, look back and say ‘I wish I had’.
I will not allow that to happen to me.
I will not be the person who – on their deathbed – looks back and is full of regrets, wishing I had travelled more. Before I die I will make damn sure my life has been a full one, and the reaper will have to drag me kicking and screaming away from the airport.
Don’t be that person either. Don’t live with regrets, and don’t die with them either. Follow your dreams of travel now.
Remember that you aren’t the first person to go travelling.
This is a really important point. It doesn’t matter where you are planning on travelling or what your specific fears are, the fact that there are thousands of people every single year doing exactly what you want to do is proof that it can be done. It is proof that your fears can be dealt with, because you can guarantee that at least some of those travellers will have had some of the same fears as you.
Plan everything out meticulously.
Independent travel is all about the spontaneity and adventure of a care free life on the road, but that doesn’t mean planning isn’t important either, and it is even more true when dealing with anxiety.
A big part of dealing with anxiety or worry before you travel is to plan everything out. Make sure all your basic pre trip considerations have been covered, make sure your insurance and vaccinations are all up to date, plan your itinerary, research the places you want to visit thoroughly, read a ton of blog posts and guidebooks, and do it all early. Knowing before you go can really help take a lot of the uncertainty out of the equation, which is a big part of dealing with travel anxiety.
Pre book just a little.
I rarely recommend pre booking anything, but there are a few occasional exceptions to that rule and this is one of them. Book yourself a nice private hotel room for the first couple of nights and plan to get yourself a taxi to the hotel when you arrive at the airport. Do a little bit of research on the airport you are arriving at so it isn’t all overwhelming when you arrive and you know roughly which direction you need to go, where the taxi rank is and how you need to get there.
That way at least you know when you arrive in your new destination you aren’t going to be thrown in at the deep end, you can sit back, rest a little and get you bearings before you set off on your adventure. That simple fact alone will take a lot of the pressure off.
Have back up plans.
Having back up plans can be a huge weapon against anxiety, because it essentially cuts off a lot of fears and worries at the pass. Things will go wrong on any gap year, sometimes small things sometimes larger things, just as they will in everyday life, it’s just sods law. Being prepared for them is key. A big part of this of course is making sure your travel insurance is robust enough to cover everything you want to do, but a back up plan can also include having an emergency fund in a separate account that you only use in an emergency or to get a ticket back home.
Knowing that you have options if something happens will take a lot of the anxiety away.
Remember that you can always come home.
Closely related to the back up plan, it is really important to remember that if you do find things are getting too much for you or something goes wrong, you can always come home. It is not a failure in any way, shape or form. There are no set rules that say you have to travel for any length of time, so if you feel the need to come home for a bit that is entirely up to you. You may find that travel isn’t for you after all, and in that case then at least you tried it and gave yourself a little holiday in the process. You may even find that after you have been home for a little bit that you want to travel again and feel more ready for it this time. That is awesome too! You may have spent a little more money on extra tickets but so what? Your journey in travelling and dealing with your anxiety is yours alone, and you are winning!
On The Road.
Work it out.
A little bit of daily exercise, whether it is cardio, a bit of yoga or even hitting a hotel gym from time to time can do wonders for your anxiety. There is so much evidence that physical exercise can help significantly with a whole range of mental health problems, including depression, stress, anxiety and so many more, and if you feel that you are struggling when you are travelling, this is one of the quickest and easiest fixes. Fortunately getting fit and exercising when you are travelling is a lot easier than people think.
As well as good old fashioned exercise, eating well and living a generally healthy lifestyle can really help boost those endorphins, raise your general mood and really help with specific mental health problems such as anxiety.
Limit exposure to triggers and use calming techniques.
Many people with anxiety have specific triggers that are unique to them, and avoiding them whilst travelling is often not always possible, especially if being in a new envioronment is one of your triggers. The best thing to do is limit your exposure as much as possible, or at the very least ease yourself into the exposure and do it little bit by little bit. This will work in some respects as a form of exposure therapy which is very good at treating anxiety.
In the meantime, using breathing techniques to calm yourself or distraction techniques are great ways to minimise any negative effects of anxiety and stop yourself getting too stressed.
Give yourself frequent breaks and treat yourself.
Now I am a huge fan of this trip and advise every traveller to do it, not just those suffering with anxiety, because quite frankly it does everyone some good to sit back, relax and take it easy from time to time. Taking a gap year is not a race, and staying in ultra budget options all the time can be exhausting, especially if you are racing around trying to see as much as you can as quickly as you can. Every now and then just take it a little easy. Take a couple of days off, get yourself a private room, sit by the pool or on the beach with a good book or binge watch a series on Netflix if you find a spot with decent wifi. You will feel more relaxed, more refreshed, and find it a lot easier to take on the world when you step back into reality.
Know when to listen to the fear.
This is an extremely hard thing to do I completely understand that, because one of my biggest pieces of travel safety advice is to listen to your gut, listen to your instinct in order to keep yourself safe. The big problem here is when you are scared or anxious about travel itself your instincts are to stay home and lock yourself away somewhere safe. I will never tell anyone to ignore their instinct or fear, but you do have to learn to distinguish when that fear is unreasonable anxiety, and when your gut is actually telling you something isn’t quite right and you should get out of there. The good news is this does get easier over time, the bad news is you have to act against your instincts initially because you will only learn to do this by getting out there and seeing, or feeling the difference for yourself.
Whatever techniques you use for your own individual anxiety, and however you deal with it, one thing is absolutely certain, travelling the world will show you without a shadow of a doubt that you can do it. You can beat your anxiety and you can follow your travel dreams wherever they take you. You just have to take that first step.
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