I’ve had panic attacks in some of our planet’s most spectacular places. There was one time in coastal Peru where I scrambled up an empty lifeguard chair to escape a stray dog I wrongly imagined had rabies. There was another where I demanded indigenous people in the Amazon take me to a doctor because I thought I was dying from some tropical disease. Another time in Indonesia I became convinced I’d drank contaminated water. I may be an environmental journalist, I may love going to new places, meeting new people, and chasing after endangered species, but I’m a godawful traveler. When I’m abroad, I’m like a cross between Inspector Clouseau and Monk.
Having struggled with mental illness since I was a kid—anxiety, depression, and OCD—it may be surprising that I’m a globetrotter: but I love nothing more than being somewhere novel.
Most of the time writers write panegyrically about travel. We celebrate how it expands the mind and empathizes the spirit. We lovingly write about the food (it’s so good!), the people (they are so warm!), the culture (so different!), the places (beautiful!). But beneath all this, let’s be honest, travel for most of us can be really friggin’ hard and incredibly stressful. You might find yourself surrounded by strangers, unable to speak the language, and wondering if your next drink of water will contain typhoid. At least, that’s how I am. I’m terrified of water, muggers, horses, stray dogs, motorbikes, airplanes, and tigers.
So, from someone who has traveled to five continents with at times debilitating anxiety, here’s a little advice for making your next trip as chill as possible, even if you’re a worrier.
Let’s start with the elephant in the plane: coronavirus. COVID-19 has reshaped how and where we travel this year. And most importantly whether we travel or not. So, my first piece of advice? Don’t go. Seriously. If ever there was a time not to travel far from home, now is it. Not only for your own safety, but for others’. There’s a good reason that most of the world has currently closed their doors to Americans. It’s because we’ve done such a piss-poor job of containing the virus, and they don’t want our mix of irresponsibility and flippancy in their communities. If possible, wait for a vaccine.
Of course, sometimes we don’t have a choice and travel is necessary, even during a pandemic. So, if you do have to go, research and respect the expectations. Don’t be a douche and leave your mask at home. Wear it. Pack extra pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer and keep one accessible at all time. If you’re headed abroad and the country requires a quarantine period, then prepare accordingly and don’t resent your host country. Remember they are simply trying to keep their people from dying—that’s a worthy goal for a little discomfort.
One of the best ways to mitigate anxiety during travel is doing good prep work. I plan a trip meticulously now, knowing where I’ll be staying on what days. This lends for less uncertainty. You might argue it also means less adventure—and you’d be right—but for those of us with anxiety knowing how we get from point A to point B and where we’ll lie our head at night is worth the tradeoff.
Before I can get to the airport, I also make sure I have my phone loaded with funny podcasts (humor can be a great anxiety breaker) as well as long, potentially sleep-inducing meditations. I also make sure all my medications are easily accessible on the plane—sometimes I have airplane panic. I pack a couple great books. All of these are “tools,” in the parlance of my therapist, to keep anxiety at bay while flying (which I enjoy about as much as root canals) or during long layovers—or really any downtime.
I’ve listened and laughed to My Brother, My Brother and Me for hours crossing Sumatra by truck or sunk deep into the D&D play podcast Critical Role on flights so long they should come with warnings.
In addition, practice your breathing, your deep, stress-mitigating breath. You know, that whole in for seven, hold for four, out for eight. It may sound trivial, but it can really help lessen the cortisol rushing through your system when you’re anxious. I often do it before I get on a plane, car, motorbike, or camel, so I start the most daunting parts of a trip, you know, fully oxygenated.
Another way to mitigate anxiety? Splurge a little. Sometimes you just gotta shed some scrilla to stay in a more comfortable hotel or pay for a less awful way to get from one end to another. Don’t drive in a foreign country, if that’s something that will make you panic or, you know, accidentally run over a donkey. Instead, pay someone to drive you who knows the area. Bonus: you’re funding the local tourist economy.
And stay somewhere at least passably nice. I love swimming, so whenever I can I try and get a place with a pool—and am willing to shell out for the privilege, because I know, even if I have a shitty day, I can end it in the water.
Finally, I always bring with me a little token, just something physical I can put in my pocket and take out whenever I want to remember home or remind myself to take a breath. If you’re a religious person, a cross, prayer beads, a star of David, a crescent moon, or a laughing Buddha might be just the thing. For myself, I bring a little toy animal. Sometimes a tiger, sometimes a pangolin, sometimes a little whale. I don’t, of course, believe my plastic animal holds any power, but it simply reminds me why I’m here doing this, in spite of panics and malaria. I’ve been carrying animals in my pocket for over a decade—and it’s surprisingly helpful.
None of this will save you wholly from anxious moments. Sometimes, despite my best efforts and best preparations, anxiety gets the best of me. I’ve had a number of truly awful days while traveling, but remind myself, repeatedly, even in the middle of it, that this too shall pass. That when I’m home again (I haven’t actually died yet, despite the various ways I’ve seen it play out in my head) the crappy moments of the trip will feel less crappy and more ridiculous, and they will recede in the background as the beautiful moments rise to the fore. Even with the most meticulous preparations, never expect that a trip will just be “easy” or “perfect.” Such expectations not only set you up for inevitable disappointment and frustration, but panic when things go awry.
For most of us, unlike those “great” travelers whose books we read, traveling is a tough and anxious experience. But it’s still worth it. All my hardest trips, from the cathedral-like jungles of Peru to the turtle-filled coastline of Suriname, have also been my most eye-opening.
Despite how hard traveling is for me, I can’t wait until I can do it again. But when I do, I’ll do it as wisely as possible. Breathe in and bon voyage.
Jeremy Hance is an environmental journalist with a national reach and the author of the new book Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac . For three years, he wrote a popular blog for The Guardian with over two million views. He is also a columnist for Mongabay, one of the most highly respected environmental news sites in the world. He has been interviewed on NPR’s Living on Earth and Sea Change Radio, among others.