Travel anxiety. We’ve all been there — three days out from an international trip and unintentionally adding flop sweat to our packing checklist as we overreact about how many socks we’ll need in Croatia. That familiar feeling of internalized panic as we sit at home, waiting painfully for the big day, and silently wondering “why am I doing this to myself? This is supposed to be a vacation. Why am I so damn stressed about it?”
Any time I plan a trip, I can always predict (usually accurately) that I’ll think about canceling it 10 times before I actually board the flight. It’s not necessarily because I’m broke (though I sure as hell am not rich), and it’s not because I didn’t get approved for the right amount of vacation days from work.
But rather, my mild to moderate pre-trip freakout happens sometime between 1 month and 1 week before the flight, and it’s because of one simple (but not so simple) reason: fear.
- What if I get lost?
- What if I can’t speak the language?
- And what if I get sold into sex slavery by a Cambodian cartel and then get multi-purposed as a drug mule and rot in a Thai Prison after I’m caught with drugs in my butt?
All of these fears (though absolutely legitimate) are common misconceptions about travel. We all worry about what’ll happen to us in unfamiliar and nuanced environments, but some of us worry more than others. The pre-travel jitters are a big deal, and can occasionally be so daunting that they can lead to a full-on trip cancellation; that’s no good.
What I’d like you to know is that your travel anxiety is rooted in logic. It’s not crazy, and you’re not crazy for thinking it. People do get mugged in foreign countries. It happens, and it’s not unreasonable to worry about it. But will it happen to you?
What I’d like you to gain from this is an understanding of and a healthier idea of your travel anxiety. It doesn’t have to dictate your behaviors. I’m going to show you some concrete and simple ways to calm yourself down when you’re close to pulling the plug on your trip.
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What are the Pre-Trip Jitters?
Let’s start by clarifying what I mean when I say the pre-trip jitters. In short, the pre-trip jitters are all the travel anxiety and worry you have when you’re fake smiling about your trip while telling others about it. The big “what if’s” of the mind that can be so devastatingly triggering that you genuinely wonder if you should nix the whole thing and stay home.
You’ve booked your flight, you’ve booked your hostels, and now all there is to do is wait…and wait painfully. Simply put, the pre-trip jitters are the anxieties of anticipation – the torturous wait for the big day.
In my experience, the jitters all boil down to fear, and more specifically, fear of three things in particular: unknown, catastrophe & isolation.
When it comes to travel anxiety, the fear of the unknown is totally built into the code. On one hand, the unknown is why we travel: to see new, different and unique cultures, cuisines, ecosystems and toilet options. However, travel also comes pre-programmed with a huge laundry list of problems that can come up:
- What if I don’t know the social norms?
- What if their street signs aren’t in English?
- And what if every animal in the country is venomous & in my hostel right this very second?
Our brains are insanely talented at filling in the blanks when we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re getting into, and because travel comes pre-packaged with unknowns, they often get creative with the many, many scenarios that can go wrong.
In keeping with that theme of creativity, our brains have an enormous tendency to catastrophize- to make everything seem like doom & gloom. Instead of getting lost for an hour and finding our way back home, our brains tell us that we get lost, get kidnapped and left to die on the side of the road.
This, in its most basic evolutionary form, is just our brains trying to warn us of potential dangers so we can avoid them. But when anxiety ramps up, particularly right before we’re about to do something big (like go on a trip), our brains blow up the intensity of these scenarios.
- Instead of getting food poisoning and being in bed for 2 days, we have malaria and are almost certain to die.
- Instead of meeting & bonding with other travelers, we’re going to hike & do everything sad and alone.
- And instead of going for a walk through the city center, we’re going to get mugged and left with nothing.
The catastrophes that we come up with, though they feel every bit as likely and real as we think, are just illusions; ways that our weirdly creative brains try to anticipate problems and warn us of them ahead of time.
Maybe if we spent less creative energy on international death scenarios and more on, say painting or writing, we could all be the new Picasso or Mark Twain. Yet here we are, coming up with colorful and vivid ways we can die in Europe.
This one is hands down the biggest problem for solo travelers but applies to group travelers as well. Because you’ll be dropped in a new country with new norms and new cellular data plans, you feel as though you’ll be completely isolated from the world and relationships you know.
Rather than being able to call your mom at the first sight of danger, all of a sudden, you’ll be cut off from the support system you’re used to having back home. You won’t have access to:
- Cellular Data
- Your friends & family
- The usual lifelines you know, like 911 and health services
This sparks tremendous fear in me, because I’m wholly dependent on my relationships for support, and when I went on my first solo trip, I was absolutely convinced that I’d be cut off from the rest of the world. This is the biggest fear I had, and it almost had me canceling my trip entirely.
At this point, you (understandably) might be thinking:
“Screw all this stuff! Why do I pay any attention to this damn travel anxiety if it does nothing but make me crazy?!”
Well, slow your roll, because getting frustrated with your brain won’t do anything to help. The truth is, your travel anxiety, much like an annoyingly intrusive great-aunt, is actually very well-intentioned.
Why Does My Brain Hate Me?
Contrary to how you may feel about your travel anxiety, your brain is actually doing it’s best to help you. As I said, travel anxiety is borne out of real, logical and justified concerns:
- People do get hurt on trips
- Yes people do get lost
- People do run into sketchy situations
When you’re anxious, your brain is analyzing these scenarios and running with them. It’s trying to present you with every possible danger you may come across while you’re away. It’s a primitive and evolutionary stress response; your lizard brain trying to warn you of what can happen if you don’t plan well enough.
The problems only start to arise when you get gridlock from these stressors; when you’re presented with so many paralyzing fears that you can’t push past them and do what you want. It’s a huge flaw in the stress response. It’s much more powerful for people like me with intense travel anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
However, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that your brain isn’t working against you. It’s not self-sabotaging and it’s not trying to prevent you from going on your trip; like your overbearing mother, it’s just trying to remind you that it knows someone who got sick on vacation.
So What do We Do?
So we now know what the pre-trip jitters are, and we now know that they’re not trying to ruin our lives. Great! But does help us when we’re drenched in panic sweat 2 days before our flight? No way. So what can we do? How can we tame these travel anxiety beasts and push through them to get on the plane?
The key to managing the pre-travel jitters is fighting fire with fire. Fight your inner catastrophe with outer logic. When your brain tells you that you’re certain to break your leg on a hike and be left in the middle of the jungle, ask yourself, “how likely is that to actually happen?
Would people actually just leave you to die there, or would they seek help and get you home?” Challenging your anxieties is insanely helpful in reframing your fears in a way that puts them in a much more realistic and less apocalyptic light. Simply put, when your brain blows something out of proportion, use reality & logic to put it back into proportion. Here are a few important recognitions to help you do that:
1 – You Are Traveling in the 21st Century
Traveling now is not how it used to be. You do not have to be isolated from your loved ones while you’re away, and do not have to be cut off from internet and WiFi, even in countries that seem under-developed. You don’t need to know the local language fluently and you don’t have to have an entire mental map of the city you’re going to.
Speaking from experience, I can guarantee that some of the concerns you have simply won’t apply just because you’re traveling during a time when the world is developing and highly connected.
- You WILL have internet & WiFi in most hostels, airports, restaurants & cafes
- You WILL have access to effective medicine
- There WILL be English speakers everywhere
- Most countries WILL be far more developed than you think they’ll be
2 – You Decide what You do with Your Trip
One thing that most people (myself included) often forget about is that this trip is your trip; that is to say, it’s your vacation, and you can do whatever the hell you want with it. You are not bound to any social or moral obligation to stay, and you can leave at any point if you feel you must. I know it sounds like you may be giving yourself an easy way out, and that’s kind of exactly what you’re doing.
Taking the pressure off yourself in this sense can be incredibly freeing, especially when you’re nervous before the flight. Chances are that when you’re there and enjoying what the country has to offer, you won’t ever wind up using this lifeline, but it’s always nice to have in your back pocket when things seem overbearing. No one is forcing you to stay, so don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
3 – Your Trip is Temporary
Much like the previous one, this is a great reminder to have on hand when things seem catastrophic or overwhelming. You will be back home — in this exact spot — within a few weeks.
The sense of routine and comfort that you’re temporarily losing will be back and will be restored, so don’t feel as if this is the last time you’ll be relaxing at home.
I personally always book my return flight ahead of time for this reason; for those moments when things seem intense and foreign, so I can remind myself “well hey, I have this date set to return to my comfort zone.
I might as well enjoy this step outside of it until then.” And always remember that your trip is meant to be a break from the hum-drum of your daily life.
Embrace the chance to escape from it while remembering that you will be returning to normalcy at one point.
4 – Your Travel Anxiety is Here to Stay
I know this doesn’t sound like a plus. However, there’s something wildly freeing about accepting what you can’t control rather than fighting it. Just like an angry spouse who won’t tell you what’s wrong, your anxiety dwells and lingers in the back of your mind throughout your trip, and that’s okay.
We all live with anxiety, and by now we know that it’s a necessary and well-intentioned part of our mental health. Don’t spend your whole trip fighting and struggling to overpower it. Let it simmer on the backburner, playing quietly in the background rather than trumpeting the hell out of the forefront. It’s a hell of a lot easier than spending your energy trying to tamp it down.
I, for one, am nervous constantly on all of my trips; it doesn’t just go away when I’m geographically in a different part of the world. But I’ve learned not to mind it. My travel anxiety helps me empathize with others and bond with them over shared worries.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chatted over a hostel beer with a stranger about fears of getting mugged or lost. We all worry. Even the most carefree of us still have fears and concerns about what could happen. It’s natural and it’s okay. But for the love of God; please don’t let it stop you from exploring the incredible countries the world has to offer.
Gilad is a traveler in his twenties and is the author of Anxious & Abroad, a travel guide that aims to show nervous travelers and first-timers that travel isn’t just for the carefree nomadic types but can be fun and worthwhile for any kind of person; neurotic, meticulous, anxious or otherwise.
He’s traveled to almost 20 countries in the past three years, all of which with anxiety and OCD.
His site is full of tips, recommendations, advice and step-by-step guides he’s compiled from his travels so that he can help people plan a trip from the beginning all the way up until you get on the plane.
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