Got anxiety? Join the party. I’ve got a delicious cocktail of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and it can really put a dampener on the whole “adventurous life” thing. As anyone with anxiety knows, it really gets you when you’re faced with the unknown. Hello, intrusive thoughts! “What ifs” on high rotation! Catastrophising! Meltdowns!
I love to travel. But in my early 20s, I accepted an internship at a Canadian fashion magazine – flew all the way over, got to my hotel room, and fell into a panic attack spiral. They wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t even know what was going on because I wasn’t diagnosed with anything yet. I booked a ticket home after two days – I couldn’t cope.
That experience really scarred me, and for years I couldn’t muster up the courage to travel at all. Then, I could only do it with a support person, like my sister, family or boyfriend. But over time (and with plenty of therapy), I gradually became comfortable with travelling on my own again.
Now? I love it. This year, I took off on a three-month trip that was primarily solo. I also did a month earlier this year alone in America. I try to do a solo trip, even if it’s just a weekend away, each year – it’s fantastic if you love experiencing things just for yourself.
If you find the idea of travelling alone really scary, I want to help! You, like me, can get to a place where you feel confident travelling alone. Here are some tips I wish people had told me in my early 20s.
Start With A Group Tour
There is a misconception about group tours that you’ll be stuck with a huge clump of annoying people doing really touristy things. Sure, some tours are like that. But if you choose wisely, it can be the perfect entry point into solo travel.
Technically, you’re travelling alone. But for the duration of the tour, you actually have company – plenty of it. Even if your travel group is all people you wouldn’t normally spend time with, you’ll get along with at least some of them.
I wish I’d gotten onto the group tour thing earlier in life. My first group tour was this year with G Adventures. I did their Wonders Of Egypt And The Nile tour and had the best time – their tour groups are small, with a maximum of 14 people, so you really get to know your fellow travellers. They also have a big focus on sustainability and supporting local businesses and infrastructure, so I found everyone in my group was super respectful of local customs and history. Basically, these were my type of people.
Another plus of doing a group tour – if you’re nervous about safety in a particular country. Because they are organised, you are relieved of many of the stresses unfamiliar travel can bring, like working out transport, knowing what behaviour is safe and unsafe, and local customs. For example, our guide Haidy was a local from Giza, and she was a godsend. We asked her everything, from how much bottled water should cost to how we should dress to visit specific religious sites. It calmed my anxiety to have someone I could check in with.
Move Around A Lot At First
Whenever I start a solo trip, I hit up a city with lots of activities. That way, I can overcome the unfamiliarity of a new place (and the anxiety it brings) and the sudden realisation that I’m alone by filling my days with heaps of historic sites, museums and shows. It’s also a great way to beat jet lag, which can really exacerbate anxious thoughts.
I’ll then jump from place to place, never staying anywhere for longer than a few days before factoring in anything too overwhelming. For example, on my recent trip, I wanted to spend two weeks alone on a Greek island. I first spent two weeks travelling in Europe, then headed to Hydra. By then, I was time-adjusted, used to the solitude and ready for downtime. Had I started my trip there, I probably would have felt panicky and had a shit time.
Another option is road-tripping. I love to be on the move.
I’ve done a lot of road travel alone in Australia and America, where I spent more time on the road than in locations. Waking up early and immediately having something to do prevents me from spiralling, and I also cover a lot of ground and get to see stuff I wouldn’t experience if I took other forms of transport.
Pack Comfort Items
Don’t think of it as princess behaviour; think of it as calming your nervous system. I take my own pillowcase, always. There is something about sleeping with my head on my sheets from home that is really soothing.
I also pack noise-cancelling headphones because if my nervous system is heightened at the airport, I can tune out the cacophony of noise around me and even play some meditation music to ground me. I know people who take a familiar soft toy, or their partner’s t-shirt. Whatever you need to feel a connection to home or your comfort space, make it happen. It’s not silly – it’s smart.
Research, But Not Too Much
Learning about the places you’re visiting is a way to familiarise yourself, but anyone with an anxious brain knows that “learning” can quickly become “Googling every bad thing that has ever happened”.
It’s important to research safety information about anywhere you’re visiting, like what’s legal and illegal, and any advice from the Australian government, which can be found at Smart Traveller. Going into a foreign country acting like it’s Australia 2.0 is sheer stupidity.
HOWEVER. There’s being aware and preparing accordingly, and then there’s obsessively reading about every tragedy in history. As someone with OCD, one of my compulsions is researching. I try to soothe obsessive thoughts with answers, but it’s always a temporary fix. It’s important to notice when you cross from sensible to obsessive prep.
It’s also about where you get your information from. If you’re going on a group tour, ask the company what you should know or check out their advice section before booking. Use reputable news sources. Be aware, just don’t catastrophise.
Stay In Contact Sparingly
This might be controversial, but I have found that constantly calling home or messaging both maintains homesickness and distracts me from the amazing experiences I’m having. In the past, I was glued to my phone when travelling solo. On my recent trip, I tried to stick to evening or morning check-in texts and calls every few days.
Sometimes, when we’re anxious, contact with home becomes a pacifier. But to overcome the anxiety and settle into solo travel, we have to sit with the discomfort of solitude at some point.
It’s Normal To Be Sad Sometimes
Having realistic expectations can also quell anxiety when solo travelling. You will have sad days, dull days, ones where nothing goes right. You’ll have stressful days and chaotic ones. This is all part of the beauty of travelling, but when you’re alone without a support person to share the load with, it can feel overwhelming.
Taking it easy on yourself will hugely benefit you when the less-than-fun days come. If you get overwhelmed, do something that makes you happy and feels familiar, like shopping, going to the movies or reading a book in a cafe. It’s easy to feel like every travel day needs to be the BEST EVER, but actually, you need downtime for your brain too – so having a day indoors where you just binge-watch Gossip Girl is so worthwhile and will reboot your energy for the crazier days ahead.
At the end of the day you can read this entire article, and it won’t completely rid you of solo travelling anxiety. There has to be a leap – the booking of a ticket, the locking in of a leaving date. That first step is usually the hardest. My advice? Just fucking do it. Experience all the stressy, butterflies-in-stomach, sweaty palms stuff and press the booking button anyway. Then, just little steps. Soon, you’ll find yourself staring up at a bucket-list sight and marvelling not just at how amazing it is, but how proud of yourself you are.
Melissa’s tour of Egypt was made possible by G Adventures.