Published on December 20th, 2017 | by Millie Lester
Travelling with anxiety (and learning to leave it behind)
Read time: a bit over 5 minutes
I’ve walked into exam halls with next to no preparation before. I’ve failed a driving test four times, had my phone stolen from a table in McDonalds and had a Kath & Kim DVD stuck in my laptop disc drive for six days, so I know what stress is. Anxiety, though? That’s a whole other wild and unbridled beast that rose up and clocked me in the noggin the minute I stepped on my first international flight.
People always tell you that it’s normal to get anxious when you travel. You’ll sweat bullets on the way to the airport imagining your passport on the kitchen bench, you’ll quadruple check your booking confirmation before you check in at a hostel and you’ll quickly plug ‘pot-au-feu’ into Google translate to make sure you’re ordering a French beef and vegetable stew and not deep-fried cat. Anxiety though, that’s something that follows you everywhere. It’s an all-consuming feeling that the worst-case scenario is waiting around every corner, and no amount of reassurance from friends or glances at the itinerary are going to change it.
Travel anxiety is a little voice in your head that wakes you up in the morning and tells you you’ve booked your Paris wine tour in the wrong year. It’s what reminds you six hours into an international flight that there’s no reason planes should be able to stay in the sky on their own like that. It’s the constant reminder that your family and friends are sitting snug on their couches thousands of kilometres away, watching TV without you. And it’s the voice waiting for you in your bunk when you get back to your hostel, whispering in your ear that you left your bag unlocked and that the friendly Croatian girl in the bed below is now reading through all the messages on your phone.
It’s no secret that travelling can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life, but it’s also this kind of pressure that can feed your anxiety.
I’d never been overseas before, but last year I packed my bags for a six month trip around Europe with my girlfriend, a seasoned traveller who was suffering from a serious case of wanderlust. We’d spent almost a year planning our holiday, crawling through #travelinspo on Instagram, combing through blogs filled with tips and tricks, and interrogating friends about their own travels, until the two of us had mashed together the ‘perfect itinerary’. But in my head I was flipping out.
What if I hated travelling? What if I got to the other side of the world and missed my family? What if my body didn’t react well to the different foods? What if my hostel didn’t have wifi on the night of the Grey’s Anatomy season 13 finale (laugh all you want; this was a genuine concern)?
But it wasn’t me I should have been worried about.
Eventually April swung around and all of a sudden we’d touched down in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. Bar a stark realisation mid-flight that I was ten hours from having my feet on solid ground again, I’d kept my anxiety in check. Unfortunately, aside from my two per cent fluency on Duolingo, neither my girlfriend or I spoke French. I could tell you what colour my cat was or how many sisters my mum had, but neither of us could communicate anything remotely useful. So, it took a long time to track down our shuttle bus, and even then the driver spent most of the trip watching the Spider-Man movie on his iPad, which wasn’t stressful at all (!).
As strange as it sounds, it wasn’t cultural differences or homesickness that triggered my girlfriend’s anxiety, it was, in fact, fuelled by her constant fear that I wasn’t having the time of my life. She’d put herself under an enormous amount of pressure and had somehow designated herself the bearer of all travel-related stress because she was so determined that I have the holiday of a lifetime. When buses were late or shops were closed or any other très petit hurdles popped up along the way, she felt the disappointment twice as hard, because she was so anxious that it was affecting my experience.
It eventually snowballed to the point where she just expected bad things to happen. She expected our shuttle to Orly Airport not to show, she expected us to be on a flight to the wrong country, she expected the line at the Louvre to be too long, and when the bus was late or the line was long, she’d become overwhelmed with concern that it had ruined my trip.
We talked a lot about her worry while we travelled. I tried to explain that I was having an absolute ball, because it was all a new experience to me. But she still felt the pressure of creating the trip of my dreams and, in hindsight, I didn’t realise how much pressure I was putting on her to be the ‘seasoned traveller’. I’d woken up each morning asking excitedly what we were doing next and in her mind she’d been hearing, ‘What are we doing today, babe? It better be good or you’re dumped’. Maybe not that dramatic, but you know, still mega stressful.
Looking back, I don’t think either of us realised she was suffering from travel anxiety. I understand now that it takes different forms for different people and I should have known she was more than just worried, especially when all that anxiety evaporated the moment we arrived home.
Surprisingly, we’re already planning our next trip overseas and we’ve talked a bunch about how we can make the trip less stressful, because every meltdown over transport or money or accommodation is now a learning experience for the both of us (as corny as that sounds). We’ve decided on our next trip to incorporate pre-organised tours into our holiday, to remove the burden of responsibility from either of us. What we realised is that a lot of the things that worried us most last time, like last-minute hostel bookings, flight transfers and landmark visits, can all be managed by a tour company, which can help take all the stress out of travelling and give us more time to enjoy ourselves.
Fortunately, neither of us have been deterred from travel by anxiety. Instead we’re more committed than ever to leaving it behind when we jet off on another adventure.
See the world on a small group adventure with Geckos.