14 April 2015

How to Travel When You Have Social Anxiety ● by Jess

Dear World,

My name is Jessica and it's time to acknowledge something I like to pretend doesn't exist. It's a little thing called social anxiety, and it is something I've struggled with for a long time.

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The Grade School Years

Though I'd always been quite shy, the first time I remember being conscious of my anxiety was when I was in second grade. My teacher had asked me to call the play dough help hotline to ask about baking instructions.

I just about had a full blown panic-attack.

Why? The prospect of engaging with the disembodied voice on that telephone terrified me. By the time I walked to the office I was in tears and my whole body was trembling. It was the beginning of a long and difficult road.

I got through primary school thanks to a best friend who helped anchor me, but when my family moved when I was 12, things changed. Middle school is crap anyway, but the first couple of years were brutal.

I was that mom-jeans-wearing kid that sat by herself on the bus listening to opera on her CD walkman. Alone was my stasis. My silence was interpreted as aloofness and I got the reputation of thinking I was better than everyone else... which is actually pretty ironic, because in truth, I was scared of all of them. 

How I Coped

Somewhere around my last year of high school, I figured out a way to deal with it; It was the only coping mechanism that worked. Whenever I got into a social situation I put on a character... I envisioned the most popular, flirty person I would imagine-- the kind of girl that guys wanted to date and other girls were jealous of-- and I pretended to be her.

Somehow, if anyone rejected me, it no longer felt personal. It felt manageable. Because the truth was they weren't rejecting ME they were rejecting the persona, and THAT I could deal with.

Funny thing was, no one ever did reject me. Slowly this exuberant persona merged itself with the real me and one day I realised I felt genuine being vivacious and friendly.

Continued Struggles

Thankfully, my anxiety has gotten better, but every now and then it still jumps up and startles me. For example, in February Jon gave me a Valentine's gift certificate, so I could buy myself perfume. It took me almost a full month to go out and buy a bottle. Why? Because the prospect of having to interact with the sales person glued me to my chair.

I know that what I'm describing defies logic. I knew, in my head, that the sales person wouldn't humiliate me or reject me or whatever other deep-rooted fear lurks inside my subconscious, but that is what makes anxiety disorders so poignant... it is very, very difficult to talk yourself out of a fear that transcends reason.

How then, does someone at this far end of the introverted spectrum do so much darn travelling? Because, let's get real, if you travel, you have to actually talk to people.  Along the way, I've learned a few tips that will hopefully help others who find themselves in my same situation.

5 Ways to Battle Social Anxiety while Travelling
  • Anchor Yourself – Find something that never changes, some place you feel safe. Maybe that is curled up with your pillow and your laptop, maybe that is sipping a cup of hot chocolate while writing in your journal... figure out a safe place that you can take with you. 
  • Trifecta of Silent Spaces – For the budget conscious introvert, the three best places to go in any country are Museums, Bookstores and Cemeteries. These three places will tell you so much about the culture and give you the space to reflect uninterrupted.
  • Extroverted Travel Companion – As painful as it can be, having a social companion will push you to try and do new things you never thought you were able to. But make sure you communicate your needs to your partner. When I lived in Romania, my very social roommates were convinced I hated them because when I got home at night, I went into my safe space. Make sure they understand your needs. 
  • Non-profits – As much as one should be wary of exploitative volunteer tourism, working or visiting non-profits is such a good way to get to really understand a city and the people in it. Non-profits are usually dying to get the word about their cause and, I've found, are happy to give you the royal tour. It's a great way to meet locals relatively anxiety free (all it really takes is an email). 
  • Relax and Don't be Afraid to Seek Help – Lastly, try to relax. Not every person that comes up to you is about to initiate a Taken-type scenario. People are generally good and want to connect. Still, when anxiety gets to be too much, there is no shame in seeking therapy or medication, if need be. Anxiety shouldn't prevent you from seeing the world.


Anxiety + Wanderlust is not uncommon. Here are some other excellent posts by people who are struggling (and conquering!) their anxiety:
  • MeganoTravels - Megan shares her coping strategies after being clinically diagnosed with anxiety. She has a really great list near the end of her article.
  • Wanderful World - Lizzie write a really well-crafted piece about the physical affects of her travel anxiety and how therapy has helped. She also shares what she does to prepare for a journey.
  • Never Ending Footsteps - A really compelling story by Lauren about her battle with anxiety and an eating disorder and how ultimately travel has helped her heal. 
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