When I go on vacation, I post filtered selfies and pictures of landmarks just like most millennials who travel and use social media. Here’s the thing, though: I’m often lying about having a great time. I have general anxiety disorder and have always struggled with any routine changes — when I was 9 years old, I hid under a table at summer camp in the hopes that I wouldn’t have to go on a field trip, which became a legendary story in my family. Things aren’t that bad anymore, but going out of town takes a huge toll on my mental health. I have travel anxiety, and I’m finally trying to overcome it by doing the very thing that scares me and traveling alone.
Board-certified psychiatrist Steven Levine, M.D., founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies, says travel anxiety is pretty common. "Travel brings with it an inherent degree of uncertainty and unpredictability," he tells Bustle. "This is part of the allure for some who experience it as an adventure. For others, the break in daily routine and potential for novelty elicits anxiety. If you can’t picture it, you can’t plan ahead for it, and that can trigger the body's 'danger' signals." The pattern is pretty predictable for me: A few days before I'm supposed to travel, I think about whether I should cancel. The night before, I cry as I think about all the things that could go wrong. As I drive to the airport, I feel nauseous and scared. My hands shake and my chest hurts. This particular trip — a business trip to California, by myself — was no exception.
I’m not open about the extent of how travel anxiety affects me, mainly because it feels like an embarrassingly privileged thing in the first place. In order to have anxiety about traveling far from home, you have to have the means to leave town — which makes travel anxiety sound like the ultimate first world problem. Bemoaning that I have the ability to see the world but skip trips because it’s hard sounds oblivious, which is why I rarely broach the topic. But as I prepared for California, the too-familiar symptoms hit me.
Levine says dealing with the anxiety is all about maintaining your routines if you deal with fear of the unknown. Try to wake up and go to bed around the same time and eat on the same schedule, he says. "Gather information to help you picture the new situation: talk to people who’ve been there, read online reviews, find pictures online, and, if possible, consider taking a test run," he tells Bustle.
Once I actually get to my destination, I'm able to function normally, but I count down until I get to go home. One of my biggest regrets is skipping out on a study abroad trip to England in college because the thought of leaving the country made me panic. But even though travel is relatively unpleasant for me, I'm doing my best to face the uncomfortable thoughts head-on. I read stories about people who travel the world and try to picture myself in their shoes. I talk to my therapist about my feelings before I leave.
Levine says to bring objects that remind you of home if you're anxious, like a stuffed animal or a blanket. Making an effort to meet other travelers can also help, he says. "There’s nothing scarier than the unspoken fears rattling around in our heads," he tells Bustle.
I had a great time in California, even though I was nearly overcome by nervousness as I got ready for the trip. It taught me that it's possible to beat travel anxiety and that embracing the unknown can actually be a good thing. I'm sure I'll still get anxious before trips, but there's an excitement that wasn't there before. It's not easy for me to change my routine, but it always proves worth it.