5 travel tips for people with anxiety disorders

I am one of the 18% of American adults who suffer from anxiety disorders. If you want to get technical, generalized anxiety disorder is an official clinical diagnosis. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from achieving my lifelong dream of backpacking across New Zealand.

Of course, traveling can be stressful for everyone at times. But for people with anxiety, this can be much more difficult. When you have anxiety issues, even the best times can be tainted by low-level fears lurking in the background, and difficult moments can feel emotionally paralyzing. This can make activities that are sometimes stressful in their own right more difficult to complete.

The “travel lifestyle” is so glorified by social media that many of its difficulties—and the strategies we can use to cope with them—are often glossed over. But just because traveling can be more difficult for people with anxiety, it doesn’t mean we should not travel. Here are five of my personal strategies for dealing with anxiety on the road, some of which I've learned on my own adventures and some of which I've discussed with my therapist beforehand. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or just starting out, the following tips can help every anxious traveler.

1. Forget “should”

I’ve written about this before, but this philosophy applies best when you’re exploring another country. Everyone and their brother will tell you all the things you "must" do in a particular place. Just do what I do: smile, nod, and ignore them. Unless you want to take their advice - in which case just do it! But remember: Whether it's a travel guide, a random dorm roommate you just met, or an old friend who visited the same place a year ago, you don't have to follow anyone else's advice. Everyone's definition of a good time is different; you can create memories your own way.

As long as you act within the bounds of moral (and economic) reasonableness, you have the right to do whatever you need to do in the moment to keep yourself healthy and happy. Sometimes that means actually climbing that epic mountain, or visiting that beautiful beach, or going to that trendy museum. But sometimes that just means sitting in a coffee shop with my laptop all day long, which is what I’m doing right now. If you don't want to do something, don't let anyone tell you you're missing out. FOMO—like all other fear-based motivators—will almost never ultimately push you in the right direction. This got me thinking...

2. Don’t make big decisions when you’re tired, stressed, anxious or in a bad mood

Those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Index will know what I mean when I say I'm a die-hard "F." For the uninitiated, “F” stands for “feeling” – which means I tend to use emotion and intuition to make decisions. I'm actually very proud of it. All the times I ignored my head and followed my heart (or gut) turned out to be the best decisions I've ever made.

However, it's important to recognize the difference between your intuition and your fleeting emotional state. If you find yourself panicking in a foreign country—and I’ve experienced it many times over the past few months—the first step is to do what I call a “personal health checklist.” Ask yourself: Am I getting enough sleep? Do hormonal changes in my body affect my mood? Am I eating well? Oh my gosh, have I showered lately? Many times, when my anxiety is at its worst, I find that the answer to one or more of these questions is no. It makes sense: If your body isn't well-rested, well-fed, and well-cared for, your mind won't be calm, clear, and low-anxiety. So before you make any big decisions, the first step is to replenish your PWI's inventory, and don't try to make plans beyond that; don't take any other action until you actually feel better .

If you are desperate to do something radical, first ask yourself: Am I doing this because I want or need it, or am I doing it out of fear ? I can't promise you much in life, but I can promise you this: Fear is a very, very bad decision-maker. This is a fact. Fear is the root of anxiety. You can take the fear out of the control room by taking care of yourself physically and emotionally and forcing yourself to put off making decisions until you have a shower, a hot meal, and a good meal (see Inside Out Team", something, something). Night's sleep.

3. Save an “anxiety” slush fund

Well, let me assure you again: If your anxiety reaches the point where it completely overwhelms you in your daily life, you will almost certainly experience the same phenomenon at least once on any kind of long-term trip. For those of us who deal with anxiety, it’s hard enough to make one “transition” at a time. If you're like me, anything from a new job, to a new apartment, to the end of a relationship can trigger feelings of panic and fear. When you're on a long-distance travel adventure, it can feel like you're in a constant state of transition. Changing temporary jobs, living situations, friendships – there’s a lot to juggle at the same time.

When you're planning a long trip, it doesn't hurt to assume that at some point you're going to have a complete meltdown and/or have a panic attack. So as you plan your travel finances and set aside emergency funds and buffers, make sure you also set aside an appropriate amount of money that you can use if you feel overwhelmed—money that you can use to go and do it for yourself Something soothing. Get a massage. Go to the movies. Or maybe splurge on — gasp — an actual hotel room. There is room service! Wow (insert 100 emojis here)!

Whatever you find calms and restores you, set aside money to do it, and don't touch it until the anxiety dial has entered the danger zone. Believe me. You'll thank me later.

4. Write yourself a letter to read when the going gets tough

Speaking of anxiety dials, one thing that always helps me lower my anxiety levels is reading a letter I wrote to myself before I left home. Titled "Read When You Start Going Mad and Want to Give Up and Go Home," it reminded me of my goals and why I do this. It also reminds me that my home, my family, and my friends will basically be there when I return; and as I wrote above, I have the right to do whatever I need to do to feel happy and safe . It reminds me to replenish my aforementioned personal health inventory before doing anything else.

You might not think that writing all of this down is more effective than just thinking about it, but it is. And, in a meta way, it helped me realize that I was still the same person then as I am now, which helped me feel distantly connected to my previous surroundings.

I recommend that you write this letter before you leave, when you are in a relatively calm and sober emotional state. If you are likely to lose a scrap of paper (which I did), keep it on your phone. When you feel anxious, force yourself to read it, even if you think it won't help at all. I won't promise you that it will - some people are less affected by the written word than others - but since you're still here reading this, I'm guessing it will have a positive effect on you.

5. Remember, you can’t always control a situation, but you can control your reaction to it

Not to say something obvious, but it's worth noting that life is largely outside of our control. Travel or not, if you're a human on this planet, you've found yourself in a random bad situation before, and you're going to find yourself in a random bad situation again. This is my final promise to you: Bad things happen. This is inevitable. When you're on the road, sometimes the worst things happen. Sometimes you're exhausted and can't find a place to sleep. Sometimes your stuff gets lost or stolen. Sometimes you just feel stuck - especially when you're not traveling alone and can't carve your own path. Too much time together can erode even the strongest friendships, and nothing can truly disrupt your day like interpersonal friction with someone you can't escape.

No matter what triggers my anxiety, I try to remember this: Personal growth is about reaction. I cannot undo what has been done, but I can choose to react in a constructive rather than destructive way. I can choose to approach any situation—no matter how scary, painful, or anxiety-provoking—with humor, compassion, positivity, perspective, and grace, both for others and for myself. After two months of seemingly extreme ups and downs, I truly believe that very few things in life are all “good” or all “bad” – it’s just how we choose to frame them.

Perhaps the personal growth we seek—especially in those moments of radical disconnection, when we are completely lost, anxious, and overwhelmed—is not in learning how to avoid life’s lows entirely, but in learning how to respond with our Give them your “best” self in return. At the very least, you'll be grateful that you're greater than those (or anyone) trying to bring you down. Whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder or not, this is a major accomplishment.

Image: Jessica Hendel; Jiffy (5)