Travelling with Anxiety – How to Cope

girl with orange suitcase sitting on a bench

I just spent an eye-watering £158 on a first class return train ticket for London.

I could’ve bought a standard class ticket for £80, but I didn’t. It’s money I can ill afford having just quit my day job so I can give full-time writing a whirl (yes, that just happened!). Yet there was never any question of me going for the cheaper ticket. Not just because I’ve become alarmingly accustomed to a little luxury on my travels. The real reason is this…

I have anxiety.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety affects more of us than we perhaps realise. For some this might be isolated episodes relating to single events, whilst for others it can impact life on a daily basis. There are several different forms of anxiety, including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and phobias, where fear and worry about the potential for something to occur is often way out of proportion to the actual reality of this happening.

My particular quirk is agoraphobia.

It’s a type of anxiety disorder that makes people try to avoid situations where they’ll feel trapped, with no means of escape. Such as being in enclosed spaces, standing in a line and being in a crowded place.

Or using public transport.

The thought of ending up on a train, sandwiched between the window and a stranger for four hours brings me out in a cold sweat. I’d rather just cancel the trip than contend with that. Yet after years of travelling alone by train down to London, I know that in each first class carriage there’s a lonely, single seat with no-one alongside to pin me in, and no-one opposite either. It’s no. 14 and it’s my little haven. Albeit a rather expensive one.

Seats in a first class train carriage

View from my ‘favourite’ seat on the train

Travelling with Anxiety

Travelling with anxiety affects people differently. Some will worry that they’ll get lost or end up with food poisoning, whilst others stress about whether they left their hair straighteners on back home. For me, it’s all about the worry of being in a situation from which I can’t easily remove myself without causing a scene, or being embarrassed. Utterly ridiculous really, since my fears very rarely become reality, but that’s the thing with anxiety. It’s isn’t rational.

My agoraphobia doesn’t stop me doing things, and I refuse to let it interfere too much with my life, or my travelling. It just means I have to consider potential situations in rather more detail than most people, but that’s okay. Having the internet to do prior research makes it really quite easy.

How to Cope Travelling with Anxiety

I’ve hesitated over writing about my experiences with anxiety, because, well it’s so darn personal. But over the years I’ve come to realise just how much it affects, and even controls my life, particularly when travelling, and that I might not be the only one out there dealing with this. So I’m sharing some coping strategies here in the hope that they might help others trying to negotiate the emotional roller coaster of travelling with anxiety.

Plan Ahead

Anxiety often comes hand in hand with the unknown, so planning ahead, and making sure you’re as in control of the situation as you can be, helps enormously. This can be everything from planning your route from the moment you arrive at the airport terminal, to researching images of museum interiors so you know what to expect when you get there. If you go armed with prior knowledge, maybe with the help of several travel planning apps, even if the experience is something completely new to you, it’ll make you feel less anxious and able to deal with the situation better.

Agoraphobia is one of the reasons I research our holidays so meticulously, leaving little room for spontaneity and making sure I feel in complete control of our plans. This often involves pouring over images of restaurants online. I’m not looking at photos of food, instead I’m considering seating and table layouts. If a venue looks like diners will be jammed in and I could get stuck in a corner with the prospect of having to ask people to move if I need to leave, there’s no way I’ll even consider going there. I’ll book a table if I can, or if not we’ll arrive early whilst there’s still a choice of places to sit. If I’m attending a meeting or conference, I’ll always try and arrive before everyone else so I can bag a seat by the door, and when we treat ourselves to the theatre I’ll spend ages looking at seating plans, trying to figure out where the exits are so we can book seats accordingly. The thought of having to ask people to stand to allow me to leave if I need to fills me with dread.

Woman standing in a box at the theatre

Last time I went to the theatre in London I booked a box so I wouldn’t feel trapped

Treat Yourself to a bit of Luxury

If things aren’t going quite as well as you planned, and feel like they’re spiralling out of your control, forget about sightseeing, go and check into a high end hotel, and take some time for yourself. Binge watch movies, read that book you’ve been meaning to look at for ages, relax in the spa and order room service like there’s no tomorrow. Having days like this go a long way to making you feel like your normal self, and once again ready to take on the world. Just make sure you get back on track before too long, otherwise you’ll never want to leave that hotel room!

The master suite at the White Tower of Taymouth Castle, luxury Scotland self catering retreat

A little luxury goes a long way

Consider Therapy

Mental health awareness is increasing every day, which makes people more comfortable and confident about asking for help. Discussing your worries and concerns with a stranger is often easier than talking about it with those close to you, and a therapist or counsellor will be able to give advice and offer some coping strategies that you might not have thought about before. There used to be quite a bit of stigma attached to seeing a therapist, but those days are long gone and now it’s pretty common for people to regularly see someone to help them live their lives in the best way they can. If you’ve been suffering from anxiety, or any other mental issue, then consider finding a counsellor in your area to see if you can talk through what is worrying you about certain situations. It really could make the world of difference.

If you’ve experienced anxiety or any other mental health condition, and want to help others on their own paths to coping, then you might want to consider a career in therapy. With the ever-increasing demand for support, you’ll be ideally placed to use your own experience to help other travellers, and continue keeping mental health in the spotlight.

Keep your Independence as Much as Possible

Back to the old public transport thing here, but travelling around a country is such a big part of most holidays that it really should be factored into your planning. I find that hiring a car helps enormously. It gives us complete control of our journey, and means we can go at our own pace, stop whenever we want and don’t have to share the experience with strangers.

Of course it’s not always possible to self-drive, and it can end up being equally stressful driving on unfamiliar roads with chaotic traffic, or dealing with breakdowns when you don’t speak the local language. On those occasions we often hire a car and driver so we retain a level of independence, or pre-book seats on trains, sometimes picking less popular routes at odd times of the day in the hope that the carriage won’t be crowded.  As for buses, the last time we used one was in Guatemala 14 years ago. It broke down in the dead of night in the remote jungle, the bus driver ran off into the dark never to be seen again, and our fellow local male passengers abandoned with us on the side of the road were discussing how much they’d pay for me in a brothel, not realising I could understand Spanish. Never again.

Taking the train from El Jadida to Casablanca in first class

An entire carriage to ourselves between Casablanca and El Jadida in Morocco

There’s no escaping sitting next to strangers on planes, unless like me you base a holiday around a flight schedule with an aircraft that miraculously has a single row of just two seats together. TAP Air Portugal from Lisbon to Sao Tome, I’m looking at you! Usually on most flights Hubbie is a superstar and sits in the middle seat, leaving me the aisle. The horror of being sandwiched in next to someone I don’t know only just outweighs the guilt. I owe the poor boy, big time!

Some travellers like to consider an emotional support animal to make them feel more settled when using public transport. Often this is a pet which offers a sense of stability and normality to the situation, and it’s actually quite easy to get an ESA letter issued by a mental health professional. Pets can make great travelling companions and will help take your mind off the stresses of flying, or taking trains and buses.

Form a Routine but don’t be afraid to change the scenery

This one is about control again, and having a routine to follow each day whilst you’re away will bring some feeling of familiarity and normality into your trip. It could be something as simple as eating lunch in the same place everyday, taking the same walking route into town, or going for a run each morning before breakfast.

Conversely, if you feel things are getting to much for you in one particular place, consider moving somewhere new, even if it’s not on your scheduled itinerary. Removing yourself from a location or situation is one of the best ways of dealing with anxiety, if you don’t feel you can tackle the current situation head on. It might feel like running away, and certainly facing your fears can go a long way to conquering your worries, but sometimes you just need to get out. The important thing is to remind yourself that you haven’t failed, and that this particular experience just wasn’t for you.

Woman standing facing the ocean surrounded by tropical green vegetation and palm trees

Change the scenery if you have to

Do a Health Check Before Leaving

One of the greatest fears people have before they travel is the thought of getting ill whilst they’re away in a foreign country, where they don’t know how the health system works, or where the nearest doctor might be. The trick here is to make sure you’re in tip top condition before you leave, which helps you feel mentally on form. Try and improve your fitness levels before heading off on holiday, and if you’ve had any health niggles that have been in the back of your mind for some while, go and get them checked out by a health professional. I was experiencing mild chest pains in the week before we flew out to Brazil, and was so stressed about the thought of something terrible happening whilst I was on the other side of the world, I went to my doctor and demanded an electrocardiogram, just to make sure my heart was okay. The results were fine, and it turned out I’d just strained some muscles as I’d recently started swimming regularly. I felt rather foolish, but it meant I got on that plane without the added health worry, and was able to enjoy the trip.

If you feel more comfortable away from face-to-face situations, you might want to consider private services like having an online blood test, or arranging an online medical appointment with a professional. Knowing you have a clean bill of health before you go away makes all the difference and alleviates some of the worry about the potential for things going wrong. It’s also a good idea to research hospitals and pharmacies in the area you’ll be visiting, so you’re prepared if necessary. There’s nothing worse than battling with directions in an emergency.

Pretend

Sometimes I’m able to trick  myself into feeling more comfortable in a situation by pretending that I don’t have a problem. I tell myself it’s just my mind playing games and that I’m perfectly happy being wedged in on the far side of a dining table, or right in the middle of the row at the cinema. I also remind myself how often I do actually need to leave the public space I’m in, and in reality that’s almost never. If I’ve survived all those previous experiences, I sure as hell can get through this one without worrying about my inner drama queen. This is actually one of my most effective techniques to cope whilst travelling with anxiety.

Talk about it

Anxiety sufferers often keep their condition to themselves, me included. Just saying it out loud makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m giving myself a label and jumping on the mental health band wagon because it’s becoming such a popular discussion point right now. Growing up, mental health was rarely discussed, I guess it’s a generation thing. It was always a bit of a taboo subject, something that was whispered about behind closed doors, which can make it difficult to open up about these experiences even later in life. But when you do, you’ll realise that you’re not the only one! Talking really does help you to cope when travelling with anxiety, and as they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. It’ll also make your travelling companions aware, and hopefully more understanding of the difficulties you are encountering.

Is travel really about getting out of your comfort zone?

My final thought is that people like to say that travel is all about getting out of your comfort zone, having new experiences and pushing yourself further than you perhaps would at home. Yet I don’t necessarily agree. For many, an annual holiday is the result of long hours of work, saving those pennies so you can afford to travel, and using those precious days of leave that you know won’t come around again for another 12 months. So do you really want to spend that time feeling uncomfortable? I certainly don’t, and there’s no shame in that. Do what you want to do, and don’t feel pressured by others to take on things that you know you will worry about. Just be yourself, and you’ll enjoy the trip a whole lot more!

Do you suffer from anxiety when you travel? I’d love you to share your experiences with us in the comments.

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2 Comments

  • spanky says:

    Thanks Heather for sharing this post. I know we all have issues but I don’t recall reading a post about travel anxiety outside of fear of flying. I personally hate feeling trapped and this often happens when I feel strangers get too close to “my space”. I absolutely hate it when I’m on a bus,train or even on a plane where there are empty seats and the person next to me refuses to move over or worse decides to take the seat right next to me (this happens ALL the time).

    Frank is my buffer but if I’m travelling alone, I have often gotten up and moved leaving the person shooting angry looks at me. But how to you explain to a total stranger that you have to change seats since you feel they are suffocating you? I would grin and bear it in my 30s and 40s but not anymore :). Spending any amount of travel time feeling miserable or uncomfortable is not worth it at all. Paying a little extra (or a lot) is worth every penny.

    • Heather Cole says:

      Ah, I’m in good company then 🙂 It’s really nice to know that it’s not just me that feels like this, because sometimes I wonder if I’m just a total nutcase and everyone else is fine. And why do people always leave empty seats and sit right THERE…such a strange thing to do, and always makes me suspicious. But then I battle with not wanting to offend them by moving, ha ha, own worst enemy. I’m with you all the way on paying extra for comfort, and space! Glad you have your buffer most of the time 🙂

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