Let’s get straight to the point: I’m a solo backpacker and I have anxiety. Yes, that’s the title, a little predictable huh?
First off, anxiety is not just a millennial buzzword; it’s something I’ve dealt with since I was very little and I suspect many people can relate to it. Yet despite it being used more regularly in conversation, it doesn’t diminish how hard it can be to deal with or indeed how taboo it can feel to talk about at times.
I have good days and bad days. Some days I desperately want to be in with the group but can’t make it out the corner. Other days, you’ll barely believe I’m shy at all. Those days I feel like a badass! Because it might come naturally to some but it is a massive achievement for me to be chatting along like everyone else. Very occasionally it does come naturally, but often I’m just hiding the effort it takes me in a bid to appear normal.
SOLO TRAVELLERS HAVE TO SOCIALISE.
IT GETS PRETTY TRICKY IF YOU HAVE SOCIAL ANXIETY…
Here’s the deal. When I say I can’t talk to people sometimes, I mean it. My friend once likened anxiety to that moment when you lean back too far on your chair, just before you catch yourself. It’s that GULP moment… But all of the time. And sometimes that lump in your throat is too much to bear, so you have to pull yourself back into a safe space. Like your bunk.
I say this because I receive all kinds of well-meant advice when I talk about being introverted – usually along the lines of ‘just get out there and talk!’ but, even though it’s obviously in my head (duh, that’s why it’s called mental health), if you feel like your chairs going to fall over, you pull yourself back up right? You don’t just let yourself fall down. And yes, talking to people is not going to crack my head open, but the fear is genuine.
There is no shame in anyone with anxiety choosing to stay in a safe space when they need to. No one can push themselves every day.
And believe me when I say I do push myself all the time! I’ve talked on Instagram about how astounded I am with the progress I’ve made. I briefly met an old friend a month into travelling and he said the transformation I’ve made since he met me 3 years ago was almost like meeting a different person. Yet anxiety reminds you of your walls, and not of your progressions.
Despite positive steps in the past few years, since travelling there have been many evenings where I was – very literally and poignantly – alone in a crowded room, unable to speak.
MY EXPERIENCE IN VIETNAM
THE EPITOME OF BEING ALONE IN A CROWDED ROOM
This phrase – alone in a crowded room – was particularly relevant in Vietnam. In the backpacker crowded areas of Thailand, Laos and Malaysia I had been lucky enough to make travel buddies who I travelled with 1-2 weeks at a time. In Korea, Japan and Singapore I was almost entirely alone so I never really felt socially anxious because there weren’t many people around.
But in Vietnam, I really was in the midst of the social backpacking scene with no one to fall back on.
Backpacking can offer a conveyor belt of introductions and brief friendships and, no matter how lovely the people you meet are if it takes you a long time to trust and relax with people… Well, you might go weeks without being able to relax or have fun. You’re always being affronted by the challenge of saying Hello. And even if you’re doing seemingly fun things or hanging out in a common area, the pang of anxiety is very much present. The process of constant helloing in Vietnam was at times incredibly exhausting…
Back home, where I can relax with friends, the way I socialise is so different from how I socialise when travelling! With a close friend, I’m goofy and weird on the one hand, and on the other can spend hours deep in conversation. Both my personality and conversations seem more tedious on the road. It’s like my past self has gone missing. And I miss being able to chill out and have fun!
As important as it is to want to make people smile, it’s a really hard job if you can’t smile yourself. In the end, I cut my time short in Vietnam. I loved the country, but if I could give anyone travelling solo with anxiety with advice, it would be to be flexible. Being able to leave an environment that wasn’t working (even though I liked the country) felt like a weight off my shoulders.
SHOULD YOU SOLO TRAVEL WITH SOCIAL ANXIETY?
There are so many positives to pushing yourself and you’re going to realise you are capable of things you never dreamed of. You WILL feel strong. If you’re a solo backpacker with anxiety, you’re already fecking strong, and brave, and possibly a little bit crazy. And I think you’re awesome for that. Most of all I know that my travelling buddies would too!
IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANXIETY
AND STILL DON’T GET IT:
Please know that when I talk about anxiety or finding socialising difficult, I’m not being negative. It’s just necessary for me to be honest about who I am and what I experience when travelling.
It seems relevant to note as there is a tendency towards believing that anxiety has something to do with a negative outlook. Erm, no, in many cases mental health issues stem from somewhere much deeper, and we don’t feel like telling a stranger about it. This belief that anxiety is to do with a bad outlook can lead to unwanted advice when really what is needed is support and patience. So please, please bear that in mind. If you’re not sure you understand but want to help, offer an ear or just let someone know you’re there.
I test myself all the time solo travelling and so often I surprise myself with what I can do. It can be a huge accomplishment for anxious people to do things that come naturally to you and your encouragement can make a huge difference.
A huge, huge thank you to all the people who’ve supported me in this way!
IF YOU DO HAVE ANXIETY
YOU’RE GONNA BRAVE THIS WHOLE TRAVEL THING AND KICK ARSE!
HERE ARE SOME TIPS TO HELP…
Yes, yes you can travel! Do it! Know you might be anxious at times but if you can be anxious at home you can be anxious while travelling. It will suck haha. It will also be worth it.
UPDATE – A YEAR AFTER WRITING THIS POST I WROTE AN UPDATED ADVICE:
My Complete Mental Healthy Guide for Travellers
Below I have still kept my original advice for prosperity, but please click the link above for clearer and better-informed advice.
There are many things that have helped me…
- being sure to take time to me, whether that’s taking an afternoon to read a book or heading to a nice café. I find a great playlist and a walk or hike is a great solo activity. Maybe set up some playlists on Spotify (I have loads for hiking or long journeys or sleep or if I feel panicky) or get some books ready on a kindle… or get a diary or some good travel-friendly running shoes. Whatever works for you!
- saying NO when I need to (yes, really, hiding in my room really is sometimes the best choice to ensure I don’t lose all traces of confidence by trying to speak to others on evenings I know it’s too much)
- But also saying YES! When I think I’ll be okay. Do say yes when people ask you to come to dinner with them or do activities with them!
- Admit your anxiety. Best of all, I’m always honest quite quickly about being an anxious person when I meet kind new people which helps. (Okay, I usually downgrade the word to ‘shy’ or ‘introverted’.) Backpackers are usually pretty sensitive to others so I feel I can relax a little more in knowing they won’t think I’m rude if I act a bit off when we’re in a big group, go out to crowded places or if I need to spend some time alone.
Note: Writing this I realise that my biggest worry while travelling with anxiety is coming across as rude. I see those lovely friendly bubbly types and really wish I could blend in like they do sometimes. Any other anxious types feel like that sometimes?
- Do stay in hostels. I’m a 27 y/o insomniac and was dreading it, but I dread to think how lonely I’d be staying anyway else. A lot of hostels offer group activities so check them out, but personally, I’m way more likely to meet someone in the dorm where it’s a bit quieter. Splurge on a private room if you need to, but in my experience other than general noise, other traveller’s can tell if you need quiet time and will never bother you.
- And don’t worry about dining alone when you don’t want company – loads of traveller’s do it. Being veggie was an advantage here because in my experience veggie/vegan cafes attract more solo diners because people have to seek them out to suit their foodie needs.
- Do leave an environment if it’s not working for you – flexible travel plans allowed me to leave an entire country when I knew I couldn’t shake anxiety there. Listen to your gut. Don’t give up too easily, of course, but know you’re not a failure when you have to shake things up a little.
- Do use Twitter or Instagram to follow other travellers!! The community is so, so supportive. I’ve posted before asking for advice on a specific city or comfort during a night of insomnia and the response has amazed me. Happy to introduce you to some of the gang if you’re not sure where to start (or if I’m lucky some of them will comment below). These guys are the best support network I could have hoped for while travelling – they know what you’re going through and, being far from home themselves, are more than happy to have a chat. I don’t know where I’d be without them so please utilise this amazing community.
- And tell your best mates from home that you struggle with anxiety too, so they can also support you. If you’re having a panic attack in your dorm, don’t make it some kind of dark secret while everyone else thinks you’re having the best time ever.