Anxiety Abroad: Learning to Cope While Travelling Solo

by Lexie Hinde, Journalism student at Ryerson University

It was easier than I was anticipating.

Pulling up in the dim parking garage and watching my dad lift my jam-packed backpack out of the trunk, I felt the familiar twinge of anxiety bubble up in my stomach. It was a feeling that I had been shoving down all day, refusing to give in to my nervous mind that had been screaming doubts at me for the last week.

My mother put her arm around me as we walked into the building that would be my final stop before the world opened up to me: Departures.

Toronto Pearson International Airport: a catalyst for adventure, and a place that had given me so much excitement in the past. But today, its broad white walls and large open spaces felt cold and clinical. Every number counting down to my gate felt menacing and heavy. Every step I took was one step closer to adventure and freedom, and to everything I had spent months of happy anticipation planning; but it never really felt real until that moment. Even then, I half-expected to climb back in the car with my parents on their way back home.

But that wasn’t the case. Instead, I braved the security lines with my belongings and made my way to the nearest comfort-food shop: Tim Horton’s. Settled in to a plush chair at the gate with my chamomile tea in one hand and a (heavily glazed) chocolate Timbit in the other, I contemplated the next two-and-a-half weeks of my life. Those weeks would be spent in four different European countries.

Solo travel was a first for me and I was nervous. The problem with my nervousness, though, is that it can quickly turn into panic. As someone who has anxiety, the prospect of travelling on my own on a different continent is something that could be completely terrifying.

But, as someone who has always had a bad case of wanderlust, this was not an opportunity I would ever dream of turning down. And after those few weeks were over, I learned a lot about myself, and how to manage my anxiety while alone in a foreign country.

THE LESS YOU PACK, THE LESS YOU WORRY

Baggage carousels suck. Packing light is the only way to avoid the long waits and monotonous groan of that metal conveyor belt. If you can stuff all your things in a carry-on sized backpack or suitcase, you can avoid navigating confusing airports more than you have to. Always having my backpack with me was helpful in avoiding those long waits — and guess what? You don’t have to worry about the airline losing your stuff.

I spent weeks before my trip packing and re-packing my backpack, and it really paid off. Not only did I realize how little I really needed to bring with me, but once the time came to pack up at the end of every hostel stay, it was a breeze putting all my things away. Once you know how everything should fit, the easier it is to be confident you aren’t leaving anything important behind.

TAKE IT EASY

Sometimes — oftentimes — living with anxiety can be overwhelming. Even the smallest things can cause stress to coil itself around your muscles and try to exhaust you with doubt and worry. It can be hard to stop it from happening, but taking a step back and just breathing can sometimes keep it at bay for just a little while.

This is one of the most important things I learned during my travels: don’t overdo it. It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype of a certain place once you’re in a hostel listening to everyone else’s plans for the day. But just remember what you came to see. For me, getting away meant relaxing and enjoying myself. The beautiful thing about solo travel is that you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. You don’t have to compromise, nor do you have to give up any freedom. So don’t.

For every city I went to, I only had one or two things that I really wanted to see. The rest of the time I spent just exploring where I was. When you’re not trying to jam too many sites into a tight schedule, you get to really take the city in without all the hustle and bustle of long-lined tourist traps. Don’t feel bad about skipping that museum that you have to get up at the crack of dawn to wait in line for if you’re not really interested. There’s a whole lot less stress suffocating you when you’re not worrying about closing times and losing your spot in line when you really need to use the bathroom.

There is something so freeing and relaxing in wandering without a destination in mind. So grab your camera and get lost. Walk until your stomach growls and then stop for some local cuisine. When your schedule is open, so is your mind.

Lose yourself in another city. Montmartre, Paris

DON’T MAKE EXCUSES

I am the queen of excuses. That, I’ve discovered, has been a byproduct of my anxiety. Every time I feel brave and want to try something new, the doubt bubbles up and I come up with silly reasons to convince myself that I can’t do it. It’s too much work; I’ll probably fail; what if I have a panic attack? — the list goes on…

When I was in Amsterdam, early on in my trip, I had only one site in mind that I had actually planned to see: the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens. I only had one full day in the Netherlands, and that’s how I was looking forward to spending it. But when that day came, it was miserable. Dark, threatening-looking clouds had rolled in, drenching my excitement with rain.

I ended up wasting the entire morning sitting in a café having that familiar inner battle with myself; the one where I try to talk myself out of going because the day isn’t perfect and sunny. How I didn’t want to walk around in the rain, and that I may as well just pack it in for the day.

But then it occurred to me: if I don’t go today (the only opportunity I had) would I regret it later? The answer was yes. Unequivocally, yes. I didn’t know when the next opportunity to travel there would ever come.

So I left that café, bought an umbrella, and didn’t look back.

The Keukenhof gardens, bursting with colour.

By the time I reached Keukenhof in South Holland, the rain had cleared and the sun was out. It was at that point that I realized some chances need to be taken, and for the rest of my travels I never once considered passing up on doing something because it may not be easy. And you know what? By the time I returned home to Toronto, I didn’t have any regrets.

NOT EVERYONE IS OUT TO GET YOU

By nature, I am an extremely cautious person. As a rule, I don’t walk anywhere by myself after dark, I avoid questionable situations, and stay away from abandoned alleyways. Being a 23-year-old female, these are all things I’ve gotten used to doing. Call it excessive, but I’ve always lived by the mantra “better safe than sorry.”

So, naturally this is something I assumed would carry over to my travels as well. I was visiting countries that I had never been to before, so I figured the stranger danger would be amplified.

I was wrong.

Standing on a street corner in Amsterdam sporting a confused look and a frayed map that may as well have been in braille, my frustrations bubbled up to the surface. I was lost. That was when a man on a bike stopped and asked me if I needed directions. Later on, a girl on the subway talked me through the stops, making jokes and asking me where I’m from. That’s when it really sunk in: most people just want to help you, not hurt you.

The kindness I was shown in Amsterdam continued throughout all the countries I visited. Every single person I asked for help went above and beyond to make sure I knew where I was going and how to get there. And it was because of this kindness that I was able to experience the best night of my travels.

Heidelberg, Germany by day.

Heidelberg, Germany many not be big, but it is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. It was there at the hostel I was staying in that I met a guy from Switzerland working at the reception desk. We spent some time talking, and he offered to take me up to Heidelberg Castle when his shift was over later that night.

Normally, it would have been a “thanks but no thanks” situation, but instead I pushed my anxiety aside long enough to let my gut have a say in the decision-making process, and my gut was saying that I could trust him. He took me to the castle where we could see the entire city lit up below, like we were giants gazing at millions of fireflies at our feet. We stood on the old bridge over the Neckar River, explored the long cobbled streets and visited local cafes until after midnight. At no point did I ever feel scared or nervous.

Heidelberg may be beautiful during the day, but the way it’s lit up at night gives it a magical feel. That’s something I would have never known if I had been too afraid to really live.

Fear can be a potent thing, but sometimes you have to listen to your gut. Anxiety has the power to make you miss out on something great if you let it. So don’t.

IT’S OK REACH OUT

Travelling on your own can get lonely sometimes, especially if you don’t have anything to distract you with.

Staying in hostels is great for making new friends and having fun, but not so great when it comes to privacy. So it was for my last destination that I decided to treat myself to that privacy by booking a place through Airbnb.

While I cherished not having to lock up my belongings every time I left, it was the first time that I really felt isolated and alone. So it was there, sitting on my temporary bed on a cool Paris evening, that my anxiety crept back in. I felt the familiar sick feeling building up in my stomach and the cold sweat forming on my body. For the first time during my trip, I had a panic attack.

As if having a panic attack wasn’t bad enough, the fact that I had to catch an early train to Normandy the next morning made it worse. I was afraid, as I always am, that it wouldn’t get better by then (the mid-panic-attack brain isn’t the most rational). So, grateful that I had sprung for a travel-pack, I got out my cell phone and dialed home. I wasn’t homesick (in fact I very much didn’t want to leave Europe any time soon), I just needed some reassurance.

Sometimes you just need to talk to someone familiar to calm you down. It’s ok to admit that you need help; it doesn’t make you weak or pathetic to talk to your parents or text a friend. By the time I hung up that phone I felt strong again.

Don’t let anxiety stop you from really living.

Solo travel can be an incredibly liberating experience. The idea of it certainly felt daunting at first, but being my own guide was the most fulfilling adventure I have ever accomplished. I’ve learned that you can’t let living with anxiety stop you from really living. Once you’re brave enough to take that first step, the rest will fall into place.

Sure, my travels weren’t perfect, but they felt pretty damn close and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.