Traveling this holiday season? You’re in good company: In 2011, an estimated 91.9 million Americans traveled 50 miles or more from home during the holiday season, according to the AAA.
For most individuals, traveling offers an exhilarating opportunity to break out of the mundane rhythms of everyday life and explore new sights, sounds and tastes. But for individuals who suffer from severe anxiety disorders, the mere thought of traveling may provoke intense fear, dread and even panic.
“Travel constantly exposes you to new and different things, and comes with a range of unknowns and what-ifs—a potentially endless array of scenarios that can pose a threat to someone trying to keep their nerves under control by way of controlling their environment,” says Rita Anya Nara, author of the book The Anxious Traveler.
Rita knows firsthand how devastating it can be to live with an anxiety disorder. For years, Rita was paralyzed by severe anxiety that inhibited her from doing the things she loved. She struggled with numerous forms of anxiety disorders, including seasonal affective disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. One day, tired of passively sitting and watching life go by, Rita overcame her dread of the unfamiliar and hopped on a plane. To date, she has ventured to 38 countries and has largely conquered her debilitating anxiety symptoms.
Below, Rita shares her “top 10” strategies for conquering anxiety and exploring foreign lands with ease.
- Start small. “Start out with small journeys in relatively nearby areas and regions, and by going for a short time with someone you trust and/or love.”
- Come clean. “Be honest with yourself – and your doctor – about your phobias and disorder(s).”
- Don’t switch it up. “Don’t abandon medications, make rash lifestyle changes, or take an all-or-nothing approach to feeling better.”
- Physically prepare. “Recognize and learn how to manage the various physical impacts of traveling that are often a significant (but inadequately addressed) mental hurdle to going abroad. Talk to your doctor about jet lag, travel fatigue, acclimatization, altitude sickness, your sensitivity to environmental factors such as air or water quality, and other similar issues before you leave.“
- Focus on you. “Don’t overwhelm yourself worrying about culture shock, etiquette and local customs, and language barriers. Once you stop paying so much attention to yourself, it’s far easier to assimilate than you’d think. Remember, you are a guest in another country; focus on being a good guest, and you will bring out the best in people around the world.”
- Scope out hotels. Understand your many lodging and transportation options. Some will undoubtedly be more comfortable and natural to you than others. Choose wisely and put your psychological health before factors such as cost and convenience.
- Do your homework. “Learn as much as you can about the place you’re traveling to! It won’t “spoil the surprise” of your destination—on the contrary, it will help you anticipate and eliminate unwelcome surprises such as lack of services in some areas, where crime typically takes place, and where to avoid hazards and accidents.”
- Shape up. “Get yourself in good physical shape. It will improve your confidence and your psychological resilience (more than you’d expect!), reduce the likelihood of getting run down and ill while abroad, and enable you to respond quickly to an unexpected challenge or change in plans.”
- Plan ahead. Ask your doctor to research a physician or psychiatrist at the place you’re visiting, just in case you need to find care or medications abroad.
- Enjoy yourself. “We’re privileged in this day and age to have the time and means to take trips thousands of miles away, and keep going back. Make the most of it, and have an attitude of both learning from your travel snafus, and celebrating your most successful and incredible days of touring. “
Most of all, Rita advises anxious travelers to surmount their fears sooner than later. “Don’t wait to ‘feel better’ to start traveling or doing something else you love; it won’t happen,” Rita says. “You work through your fears by confronting them one by one in the real world.”
No matter whether your anxiety symptoms are severe or mild, it’s all about freeing your mind—and yourself—from physical and mental limitations so that you can live the richest, most fulfilling life possible. “There’s no greater feeling than turning off that scared voice in the back of your mind, and getting back in touch with everything—and everyone—around you,” Rita says.