Dealing With Anxiety as a Solo Traveler
Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Until pretty recently, I assumed my thought patterns were normal. I assumed everyone dwelled on every tiny way a trip could go wrong, stressed out about which bus seat to take, had recurring missed-the-flight dreams, etc.
But now I know that I have an anxious brain and it works overtime. It's been kind of a relief to understand that, because now I can be more intentional about handling it, instead of:
just wishing it would go away
feeling silly or overdramatic for feeling anxious
telling myself to just "quit worrying" (spoiler: doesn't work 🙃 and just produces guilt)
There are a lot of unknowns and a lot of newness when it comes to travel, especially solo travel. Sh*t happens, things can change on a dime, and there are some things you couldn't possibly have prepared for and just have to take as they come. That means it's pretty normal to feel anxious at times even if you don't usually. And if you DO usually—well, you might feel it a little more intensely at times when traveling solo. Here's a couple ways it manifests for me when traveling alone, as shared this week in my Instagram post:
🧳 Checking my bag for my passport compulsively, and having my heart drop when I don’t immediately find it (it’s always there). 🧴 Worrying about that travel-sized face wash that didn’t fit in my regulation plastic bag of carry-on toiletries. I slipped it into my backpack, separate from the others. What if I’m found out? What if they seize my extra 100mls of liquid and ban me from air travel forever for this trickery?! ✈️ Sitting on the floor at my crowded gate early instead of comfortably elsewhere in the airport. You never know when the plane will randomly decide to leave an hour earlier and I’ll miss it because I wasn’t there to hear the announcement (lol. never happens). 🗑 Feeling low-key stressed about getting rid of my empty complimentary-drink cup or snack wrappers until the attendant comes to collect the trash. I’m always worried I’ll miss it, and then WHAT will I do with this trash?! Dealing with it would throw off my entire disembarkation procedure! 🚻 Taking at least 10mns to plan in my head how I’ll phrase my request to my seat-mates to kindly move so I can get out to use the restroom. (Mostly a joke. I’ve only used an ✈️ bathroom like 2x in my life bc anxiety. Walking up there feels like being on stage, and I’m never sure the door is locked).
And that's all before I arrive at my destination!
So I thought I'd share some of the strategies I use to help quell my anxiety when I'm on the road as a solo traveler. Two disclaimers first: 1) I'm not a health professional, so definitely find one of those for official mental-health advice, and 2) As I said, I've only recently come to terms with my anxiety, so I'm still learning. But here's what I've got!
Creature comforts 🐻
I've traveled long-term more than once: seven months here, four months there. I'm used to being away from home and living in spaces that aren't mine. BUT. I've found that bringing pieces of home can help me feel more at ease in a place. It depends on the trip/climate/accommodations, but a few things I like to bring or buy as "creature comforts" when traveling solo are:
A night light. lol. But at home, street lights outside keep my room from being totally dark, so that's what I'm used to. If I stay in an Airbnb or am housesitting, I always bring one to mimic my home-sleep environment. Makes for a more restful, less anxious sleep.
Chai. It's hard to feel stressed when drinking a hot cup of chai IMO. If I can find it where I'm going, I'll buy some and keep it on hand.
Rain sounds. That's what I fall asleep to at home, so I make sure to have an offline playlist of them + headphones whenever I travel.
A good purse/backpack. Whatever I'm carrying around all day while exploring, I want it to feel secure so I'm not freaking out about my stuff being stolen every 5 seconds. I like to use s-biner clips to keep my stuff closed up. And a padlock for hostel stays, too, for the same reason.
Perfume/lotion/shampoo. Something that smells familiar can be really calming. A little roll-on/solid perfume or a travel-size version of your normal shampoo etc. can be a nice chill element when you're in a new place alone and feeling frazzled.
CBD. I know this isn't feasible or available to everyone. And again, not a doctor here—but I find about 40mg of pure CBD (tablet, gummy, water) can really help me have a more singular, focused mind instead of thinking about 1,000 "what-ifs" that make me anxious.
TV. When I took my first big solo trip in 2014, I downloaded a couple of offline episodes of Friends on my phone (pre-Netflix). They're light and they're familiar to me, so they helped me feel calm if I was ever anxious, homesick, too tired to fall asleep, etc.
Also, I don't have noise-canceling headphones, but I have regular headphones I can turn up reaaaally loud. Either can be helpful in places where the noise (or lack thereof, like a too-quiet place to sleep) is making you anxious.
So just think about what makes you feel comfortable at home, and bring/find that. What creature comforts do you look forward to getting home to after a long day at work? Pick those.
*I also like to wear layers when traveling (the airports/bus/boat etc. parts), because I tend to get overheated or flushed if I start feeling panicky. Feeling trapped in a single warm layer doesn't help that feeling go away any quicker.
Go somewhere else in your head 💭
I've been known to get mild-to-medium panic attacks now and again, including while traveling solo. I don't know what they're like for other people, but for me, they're usually not caused by a specific problem, and they tend to pass if I can distract my mind.
Like the other day on the 35-minute train from downtown Portland to the airport. I was plenty early, I knew exactly where to go. There were no stressors. But I started to feel a little hyped up, a little freaked out. So I tried to think of something mundane and detailed to focus on.
Might sound weird, but I pictured the last apartment I lived in, and I mentally went through each room and tried to remember where every outlet was. Maybe even what I had plugged into each when I lived there.
Or other times I might picture my childhood neighborhood, and mentally go through the route I used to take to get to school.
Or I'll think of a destination I've been to, and try to picture the hostel I stayed in there ( I've stayed in a lot, so that's sometimes a good challenge). The dorm, the lobby, the neighborhood even. Any details I can remember.
Or you could try a repeated mantra, or counting...whatever works for ya. And of course, don't forget to breathe deeply through your nose and out through your mouth during this. If I let myself start shallow-breathing, I just get more worked up. I love this animation to help me regulate my breathing.
Alone time 🤫
Novel advice for solo travelers, huh? Maybe this is just an introvert thing, but I can get anxious if I haven't had enough alone time lately, or even enough alone space—even if I haven't spoken to another human all day. (You should've seen me in Beijing. I took a lot of showers in the hostel bc it was the only place I felt I could be NOT part of a crowd!)
^The chorus of this song: I need to be alone or I'm gonna lose my sh*t. #relatable
So if you've spent all day(s) with some fellow travelers, even if they're fun, some alone time might be in order if you start feeling anxious/irritable. Or if you've been in crowded places (airports, tourist attractions) all day, find a park bench, library, or quiet bookstore to take half an hour to yourself. Of course, the best option is usually to go back to your room, if it's either private or there's no one in there at that time. Then I like to shower, take my time getting ready, have a snack, watch some TV, etc. Do your rituals, alone, to give yourself space to decompress.
Idle busyness 🧩
Anybody else tap/shake their foot/leg when anxious? I definitely do, which tells me that I might need a physical outlet for my anxiety. So it's nice to have something to do with your hands at least, especially if you're on a train or plane or somewhere you can't just go for a run or a swim to get the nervous energy out.
For the longest time, I had this keychain from Japan on my purse, kinda rubbery and with ridges and smooth parts, and I'd just play with it idly when feeling a little anxious. You could also use a necklace, a fidget spinner (can you even still buy those?), braid your hair or some pieces of string...I've even used one of those flash drives you can slide to reveal or hide the actual USB plug-in part, just sliding that switch back and forth. (I just try to avoid anything that makes noise though, like clicking a pen, bc then I feel anxious that people are annoyed by me).
This one goes without saying for me personally, because being over-prepared and extra-organized is how I've always traveled/lived. I naturally think about every possible eventuality and try to prepare for/expect them all. It's exhausting sometimes, yes, but it's my one mode (and it does mean that missing flights, getting lost, etc. happens to me less often).
So, preparation/organization. If it's not your natural mode, start leaning into it a little bit. Before you get on a plane to a new city, have your plan for ground transport already ready. Know where to find the train or how to hail a cab and about how much it will be, how to get into your Airbnb or what the front of your hostel looks like, have screenshots or a piece of paper with the address, etc. You can get a lot of calm from just being prepared. And when things don't go to plan, do your best to keep it in perspective. Every change of plan is deal-withable; you've just got to work through it (though it can be easier said than done, I know).
Being prepared and knowing more of what to expect from a trip can help you feel less anxious. That's why I created an online course to teach women everything they need to know about solo travel. There will always still be room for the unexpected and the spontaneous, but my course helps you prepare as much as humanly possible, so you can enjoy solo travel confidently and with less anxiety.👇
Strangers don't care 🤷🏻♀️
Don't take this the wrong way. I've encountered some very kind strangers as a solo traveler :) I mean this in the sense of: Nobody is thinking about you as much as you're thinking about you. The other day I sat down at a cafe in Portland with my laptop to work, got all situated and unpacked, and realized I was on 10% battery and hadn't sat at a table with a plug. I stayed there, stalling, for a good few minutes before getting up and moving, because I had a tiny anxiety that people would see me and think I was odd/scatterbrained for doing this.
I hadn't actually articulated that thought till now—of course it's silly, but my anxious brain told me to think about it! The lesson for myself there, and for you any time as a solo traveler, is to remember that strangers don't care about what you're doing as long (as it's not directly harming or inconveniencing them). And even if someone did look at you weird or have an opinion about what you're doing/wearing/eating/whatever, you're in a new place and you'll neeever see them again. It's easier said than done, but we just have to let those thoughts go.
Anything to add?
These are a few things I've noticed help me with anxiety that pops up when I'm traveling solo—I know there are a bajillion more. It's a big game of experimentation and seeing what works for you. I'd LOVE to hear your input! Ideally I'd like to add your tips to this list (with a shout-out!) so this post can become a great resource for anxious solo travelers. Comment below or DM me on Instagram @shegoessolotravel!