5 Ways Your Anxiety can be a Travel Asset
*guest post written by Gilad (Anxious and Abroad)
Oftentimes in today’s busy world we think of anxiety as an obstacle - a nagging voice we wish we didn't have, reminding us of problems we wish we didn’t have. A school paper, a work deadline, a confrontation with a friend, an upcoming doctor’s appointment. We sit focused, wondering what we can do - how can we prepare for these stressors? What’s better? To do hours of prep work or to distract ourselves so we don’t think about it? It’s infuriating!
Anxiety over the years has warped into a concept that’s been wholly negative. We’ve put it in a box and labeled it our nemesis; our easy-to-blame preventor of happiness. But at its core, anxiety isn’t a negative emotion. It kicks us in the pants, it knocks us into place, it lights a fire under our butts and makes us get things done. Without anxiety and without worry, we’d never find the motivation to do anything. And I’d even make the case that anxiety can be positive if we can only find a way to cultivate a healthy relationship with it. Nowhere else has this been more apparent than in my travels.
My anxiety at home is usually negative. It tells me I’m doing the wrong thing, going in the wrong direction, and acting irresponsibly when the reality couldn’t be farther from the case. When I travel, however, my anxiety is one of my greatest allies. Let me show you why.
1. Anxiety Makes You More Careful
First we have to start with an important distinction. Anxiety, in its most basic form, isn’t working against you... it’s not trying to, anyway. Your anxiety’s goal is to predict harm and protect you from it. Occasionally, yes, it overreacts and sends you into panic mode when no danger is in sight, but it’s basically just trying to act as your overprotective and overbearing mother. It wants to keep you safe, and will warn you of overblown and unproven dangers to get the message across.
When traveling, this can actually be an enormous asset. We’ve all heard horror stories of travelers getting swept up in sketchy and dangerous situations, and we’ve all heard horror stories of backpackers getting lost on hikes. While the reality is that it likely won’t ever happen to you, your anxiety makes you think it’s inevitable, and therefore forces you to be on higher alert and more prepared in case things don’t go as planned.
Now I’m not suggesting that you buy into your anxiety 100% of the time while you’re away, but I do think that your heightened awareness can prove really beneficial when it comes to being street smart in another country. Being on the defensive comes in handy when dealing with scammers, bad crowds and overall sketchy situations. When your guard is raised, you’re less susceptible to getting taken advantage of or messed with, and overall more in tune with how to stay safe in an unfamiliar environment.
2. Anxiety Helps You Plan
Anxiety can be tricky in that it convinces you that you can change the outcome of a situation by properly preparing for it. While most of the time, this usually isn’t the case, this preemptive part of your anxiety can prove really useful on a trip. It naturally wants to get ahead of foreseeable problems, and therefore, it wants to plan.
What if I get bitten by diseased mosquitoes?
What if I run out of clothes?
What if I get food poisoning?
What if I get lost?
Getting proper vaccines, packing the right items, and downloading useful travel apps (like these) are all positive and useful pre-trip behaviors borne out of anxiety. The “what if’s” that prompt them probably won’t ever happen, but planning for them can be a good tool to properly stock up when you’re headed into an unknown and foreign environment.
3. Anxiety Helps You Orient Yourself
Because anxiety is always so focused on what can go wrong, it likes to focus on what you can do to help things go right. This proves especially effective in new cities and environments, because your anxiety wants you to get a lay of the land as soon as possible. Anxious people like me rarely walk around without a destination or a sense of orientation or geography. If you know where you’re going and where your home base is, you’re much less likely to get lost or look confused and susceptible. Cultivating a mental map of your surroundings makes you feel much safer, and actually does make you far safer in actuality.
4. Anxiety Helps You Make Friends
One noteworthy byproduct of anxiety is empathy. When you worry so much about what’s going on around you, it’s inevitable that you start to worry for other people as well. We in general are quite attuned to our emotions & can therefore recognize them more easily in others. For example when relaxing at a hostel, we may think:
Is that guy sitting alone in the dorm lonely?
Does he want to chat but (like me) is too shy?
Would he be happier if he joined our group?
Recognizing other people’s emotions like this makes it easier to identify with what they’re feeling, and therefore gives you an opening for breaking the ice. You can relate because:
No one wants to be lonely
Anyone would be scared in a foreign country alone
Everyone wants to start a conversation but is occasionally too shy
Knowing these feelings and acting on them makes you come off as more genuine and relatable to other people, especially shy people who may have trouble otherwise connecting with others. Social anxiety, it turns out, can be a great common ground for people and can ultimately create a comfortable space for you to interact with other travelers.
5. Anxiety Helps You Be A Leader
I’m sure most people with anxiety, like me, have been called control freaks before. Whereas this quality usually carries a negative connotation, on trips it can actually be a positive. Think of it this way:
Many people in your hostel, like you, are anxious in a new and foreign environment. But you prepped, you researched, and you know the lay of the land because your anxiety prompted you to do so. All of a sudden, rather than being a control freak, you’re the guy or girl at the hostel with all the info, all the know-how, and all the street smarts. People seek this sort of comfort and protection, especially when they’re in environments that are unfamiliar.
In short, people like to be around people who know (or at least look like they know) what they’re doing. Your prep work can make you an asset, and could easily prompt other travelers to gravitate toward you as a result.
Anxiety is no fun; there’s no way around it. But it’s important to remember that at its very core, anxiety is designed to help you. If you can develop a healthy relationship with it, rather than seeing it as a constant stressor, you can begin to view your anxiety as a part of your life that’s necessary and occasionally helpful. I’ve been anxious on every one of my trips, and personally haven’t felt that it ruined or impacted them in any way. In fact, I’ve found that most people feel exactly the same way that I do, and are more than happy to talk about it on a long hike or over a hostel beer.
About The Author
Gilad is a traveller in his twenties and is the author of Anxious & Abroad, a travel site that aims to show nervous travellers 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 travelled 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. You can check out his site and follow his social media below: