What Traveling With Strangers Taught Me About My Social Anxiety

Elizabeth Enochs for Bustle

Social anxiety is a fairly common anxiety disorder. About 15 million people in the U.S. struggle with social anxiety disorder (SAD), and many of those people deal with other anxiety disorders as well. Unlike many anxiety disorders, which disproportionately affect women, SAD affects men and women equally. Still, despite the fact that we’re seeing more mental health coverage than ever these days, social anxiety continues to be misunderstood and stigmatized by many — including those of us who actually have it. On top of that, in a study published in the Journal of Abnormal psychology last year, researchers found that fear of the unknown can compound many anxiety disorders. Since traveling to new places with all new people presents a plethora of unknowable situations, it's not surprising that going somewhere foreign makes even the most enthusiastic travelers deal with lots of anxiety. There are so many misconceptions around what it’s like to have a social anxiety disorder, and many of those are exacerbated when you're in an environment of mostly strangers. But when I took a sailing trip in Ibiza with Topdeck Travel, a travel company that specializes in group trips for millennials, I learned a lot about how my social anxiety works when I'm traveling alone — and how to manage it for my future solo travels.

It's Important To Talk About Anxiety

On the first day of sailing, my fellow topdeckers asked me what kind of stories I might write about our trip. I appreciated their curiosity, but I instantly felt the familiar dread I always feel when I'm about to discuss my anxiety. To be fair, I don't think anyone has ever directly made fun of me for being a person who deals with social anxiety — but mental health stigma is still very real, and I can tell you that dealing with it is exhausting.

Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about on the boat. When I somewhat reluctantly told my sail-mates that I would be writing about social anxiety, they couldn't have been more polite or supportive with their responses. It was such a relief for me, because one of the most difficult things about coping with social anxiety is worrying about how you'll be perceived for admitting to it.

Looking back, I'm so glad my fellow travelers asked me about my anxiety. Each of those short conversations helped me feel a little less pressure to be talkative or act extroverted when I wasn't in the mood—and that made my whole trip more relaxing. Now that I know what it's like to vacation with strangers, I think it makes perfect sense to spend a little bit of day one telling each other what socializing is typically like for you, and how you prefer to interact with other people.

It's OK To Be "The Quiet One" If I Needed To

I feel like there must be times when my social anxiety (and just general anxiety) leads me to act painfully awkward or unintentionally rude, but I also know that I usually feel like a giant weirdo no matter what I do or say. On top of that, though I truly enjoy meaningful conversations with loved ones and strangers alike, sometimes I literally don't have the mental energy to socialize with other humans.

I was somewhat concerned about being at sea with strangers for three full days. I was excited about meeting people, but I also knew going that long without proper alone time would be challenging for me. Luckily, by the end of day two I realized something that made the rest of my trip even smoother: It's OK to be the "quiet one."

Every group has at least one quiet person, and sometimes, I need to be that person. The fact is, pushing myself to be talkative when I'm feeling overstimulated, exhausted, or anxious only works to feed the anxiety I'm working so hard to control. After traveling with only strangers, I think I've finally realized that it's acceptable (and even healthy) to give yourself permission not to speak up sometimes. I feel like the average person doesn't mind being around quiet people. I realized I don't have to compel myself to be chatty just because I'm in a social setting.

It's OK To Feel Like A Weirdo Most Of The Time

It's pretty normal for me to feel like a giant weirdo, especially around new people. I know my social anxiety is partially to blame for this, but my mostly-introverted nature, the fact that I was homeschooled, and plain old insecurity each play a role as well. Fitting in isn't a feeling I'm super familiar with.

This used to discourage me so much that I would sometimes avoid socializing altogether, but I'm finally beginning to understand that it's really not that big of a deal. Even better, taking a trip by myself and having to meet new people forced me to confront these feelings in a new way. Near the beginning of the trip, I started thinking about all the times I've felt out of place. While this might sound like the least fun game ever, it was actually super helpful for me. Remembering how weird I've always felt in groups of new people helped me realize that I've probably been taking my feelings too seriously all these years. So on day two of sailing, I decided be OK with feeling like a weirdo instead of trying to "fix" or avoid it. I wish it hadn't taken 27 years of my life to reach this point, but I'm stoked about it nonetheless.

You Don't Have To Feel Like You "Fit In" To Enjoy Yourself

Reasonably, my history of feeling like a giant dork around groups of strangers had me wondering if I'd feel out of place with my fellow topdeckers — and to be honest, I did. It's not that my sailing buddies weren't kind and welcoming. They were all lovely and I'm glad to have met them, but it's just a fact that social anxiety is isolating by nature.

Luckily, though, feeling like I didn't "fit in" with my crew didn't keep me from enjoying myself. (I mean, I was in Spain after all.) In fact, I think this trip might have been the first time I've actively chosen to feel like a weirdo but have fun anyway. It's a skill that I'll probably be honing for some time, but I'm grateful to have finally discovered it.

No Matter Where I Am, Animals Always Ease My Anxiety

Aside from the jellyfish that stung me on my first day at sea, every animal I met in Ibiza helped me feel a little less anxious. Since the mental health benefits of interacting with animals is part of the reason I became vegetarian last October, this didn't come as a huge surprise to me. I'm so grateful for the role that animals play in easing my anxiety: from the fish that crowded our swim spots to the Ibiza kitty featured above, every single time I saw an animal on our trip, I felt at peace. The older I get, the more I realize just how much I rely on animals for emotional support — and my recent solo trip reaffirmed that.

These is just my experience, and I've learned enough about anxiety to know that everybody's experience is unique. For some people, traveling alone when they have social anxiety would be the last thing on their to-do list, and that's perfectly OK. Making sure to manage your anxiety — through therapy, medication, or self-care — is the most important aspect of living with anxiety — solo, surrounded by strangers, or in the company of friends.