I remember the first time I ever set foot in a hostel. It was the City House Hostel in historic Old City, Philadelphia. I was 26–on the older side compared to most of the other guests–and yet I was terrified.
See, I have a weird duality going on: I love to travel, but I feel nervous walking into a Walmart by myself.
Some days are better than others, but in general it’s pretty bad. I remember dreading walking across the quad back in college and even skipping classes because I didn’t feel comfortable being out and about. Eating lunch alone in the cafeteria felt like literally everyone was staring at me and judging me, even though I knew they weren’t.
That anxiety follows me to this day, and it’s especially pronounced when I’m solo traveling in a different part of the world. It manifests itself in difficulty concentrating, heightened irritability, and a pervasive, general sense of unease.
Even so, I don’t let that from stopping me from exploring the world, and I hope it doesn’t stop you either.
Social Anxiety vs. Introversion
Disclaimer: In this post I’m talking about social anxiety, NOT introversion. As this well-written article from QuietRev.com points out, “Introversion is your way. Social anxiety gets in your way.”
In other words, if you’re introverted, you may not want to do a whole socializing in general, and that’s perfectly fine. This article is more for the people who DO want to socialize, but feel held back by their anxiety.
How to Cope with Social Anxiety While Traveling
Bring a Friend
Okay, this is the most obvious solution. If you have a friend or sibling or significant other who also loves to travel (or who would love to go with you, anyway), coordinate your schedules so that the both of you can go together.
Take Advantage of Planned Events
A lot of hostels will offer free events you can participate in. This is the perfect way to not only explore a new city, but also ease into the social nature of hostels. I’ve hiked Lynn Canyon in Vancouver through the Samesun Hostel in Vancouver and met some cool people during that outing.
Plus, I’ve found most hostelgoers to be pretty chill and extroverted, so as long as you’re along for the ride, you’ll have a good time.
Remember that first time I stepped foot in a hostel in Philadelphia? By the end of the first day I was going out to the bars with a German and three Brits. I won’t lie, I did feel a little left out at times: while they were rapid-firing their far-flung travel adventures, I was half-listening, half-scrolling through my phone.
It’s worth noting that this people may not turn out to be lifelong friends or best buds. You may very connect on Facebook and then not see each other in person for years, especially if they’re in Europe and you’re in the US. But that’s okay! You still made new friends to connect and explore with.
Hit Up MeetUps
MeetUps are an excellent way to meet new people when you’re in a new city. There are MeetUps for just about every interest, and several that are specifically “New in X” events. For example, soon after I moved to Richmond, Virginia, I joined a MeetUp for people new to the city. There are similar ones for people who are just visiting, and they really are one of the best resources for anxious travelers.
If You Feel Like You're Having a Panic Attack
Not gonna lie: panic attacks suck.
Everyone’s got their triggers, and the feeling of anxiety reaching critical levels manifests in various different ways. Most of us can relate to the acute urge to get the hell out of here as fast as humanly possible. For me, my patience evaporates, along with my focus. My mind is a blank, and not in a relaxing way. I am so overwhelmed that I am as likely to freeze up as I am to scream and throw things.
Some people hate huge crowds, or flying, or being constantly pestered by vendors. Language barriers never help. While social anxiety is an affliction, it’s perfectly normal to feel this way while traveling abroad.
Try Breathing Exercises
I learned a little trick from a therapist I once had: whenever you’re feeling like you’re about to explode, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
When you’re breathing in through your nose, take a good deep breath, like you’re trying to fill your entire body with oxygen. Hold it for a second, then exhale slowly through your mouth. I guarantee you’ll feel your shoulders relax. The cool thing is that you can do this quietly and in public without anyone noticing.
Try Not to Fight the Panic
In Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart, she often uses the phrase “leaning into the sharp points.” She uses this phrase to mean dealing with unhappy moments and memories head on, instead of running away from them. Running away from unpleasant things can often make us feel even worse. as though we’re giving more power to something to use against us.
How you choose to do this is entirely up to you.
Bring a Fidget Toy
Sometimes it helps to just have some kind of subtle gadget that you can mess with to release some nervous energy. Fidget spinners themselves may have gone down in history as one of the quickest fads to come and go, but they are an example of something to occupy your hands and redirect your anxiety.
I will usually bring a spinner ring with me. Spinner rings are a cool accessory for anybody; I myself wear this bad boy. They have a second, movable portion that circles the main body of the ring, allowing you to fiddle with it on the down-low. They also have necklaces that serve the same function.
Fidget cubes are a little more noticeable, but can be perfect for you if you just need buttons to press and switches to flip. It’s oddly therapeutic if you’ve never tried one.
Take Advantage of Your Smartphone (in Moderation!)
Some people might bemoan smartphones for ushering in an era of weakened social interactions. Be that as it may, they’re a godsend for those of us with anxiety.
Just don’t let social media and mobile games distract you from the beauty and experience of wherever you are. The apps can wait until you get back to your lodgings.
For me, music really helps me relax. I can’t go into a grocery store by myself without my earphones, and it’s no different on the road. Be sure to have music actually on your phone; Spotify may not work everywhere on the globe.
Remember That Traveling Will Not Cure Your Anxiety
I came across a great article on traveling with social anxiety on MatadorNetwork.com. The author’s closing words were especially poignant for me: “Travel didn’t fix me, as I’d hoped it would. It just taught me I didn’t need to be fixed.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The fact is, you’re going to feel anxious. More anxious even than when you’re on your home turf. There are going to be more factors that you can’t control. You may even have an episode. In all reality…it’s not the end of the world.
Here’s the way I look at it: I’m going to feel out of place in public, anyway. I might as well feel out of place somewhere cool!
I still get nervous every time I pack up to go exploring, but I do have the confidence gained from the fact that I have flown by myself to a completely foreign country and made friends there. Trust me, if I can do it, you can, too.
There’s a big world out there, and I don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t have the ability to go out and see as much of it as they can.
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