What it’s like to solo travel with social anxiety

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.

solo travel social anxiety backpacking

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.

solo travel social anxiety backpacking

SHOULD YOU SOLO TRAVEL WITH SOCIAL ANXIETY?

erm… ABSOLUTELY!

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!

solo travel social anxiety backpacking

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:

https://cassiethehag.com/travel-tips-for-anxious-travellers-and-solo-advice-for-introverts/

See also:

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.
solo travel social anxiety backpacking
www.cassiethehag.com (4)

39 Comments

  1. Late to the party but thank you for writing this post! I’m also currently in NZ (working holiday straggler) and struggling very hard with the social situation here at the moment as I can only find employment at big orchards or factories. I find it incredibly difficult to speak to people in large groups and it takes so much time for me to open up at all. Most times I just say hi when I pass someone in the hallway but if there are 20 people in the common area, I tend to fade into the background and pretend I’m invisible. That said, when I do connect with someone, it tends to be great. It’s so exhausting, but I’m glad I’m not alone 🙂

  2. This is such an open, vulnerable post. I also have anxiety and have had since I was a teenager. You’re right, its irritating how much of a buzzword it’s become but your body running on panic mode literally all the time is exhausting and scary and just because more people are talking about it, it shouldnt diminishthe serverity of it. When you solo travel people seem to be shocked that you have it. It takes a lot to put ourselves out of our comfort zone so we should be proud. You’ve covered some great tips here that I use frequently. Saying ‘no’ is so important. Only you know your own boundaries and having flexible plans is the best so you can get out if needed..

  3. As a MASSIVE introvert with social anxiety, I can definitely relate. When I travelled solo I normally did some hostels and some hotels so I could have a bit of personal space. OR tried to stay in private rooms in hostels so I could still meet people in the common areas.

    I also agree about the vegan/veggie restaurants. Not only do solo travellers wind up there a lot (although increasingly more people eat veggie, for sure), but often they tend to feel more communal, as well.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The travel world is definitely not made for us introverts but there are ways to make it work for us in the end 🙂

  4. What an inspirational website ! Social Anxiety can be really crippling, it can turn up at the most unexpected times and places. I found it normally reduced a lot when travelling – e.g backpacking in SouthEast Asia where there is a more relaxed vibe than in the West.

    If there is one book I would recommend, its “Quiet” by Susan Cain. Tagline is “The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”. It makes you realise we are not alone as introverts it can have plenty of advantages too ! The (social) anxiety that can go along with it is just something we need to try and accept, it passes eventually, but can be scary and annoying when it hits. Best wishes to fellow sufferers and stay positive !

    1. Hi Martin! Been recommended this book a couple of times so should get around to reading it at some point! Love hearing how everyone’s experiences are so different but we all agree it can be soo hard (I found parts of se asia particularly hard, it’s strange haha). Amazing how so many of us are doing crazy things and staying positive in spite of it! Thanks for your comment! 🙂 x

  5. Thanks for the post. I’m about to go travelling after years of putting it off and while I’ve developed ways to keep my social anxiety in check over the years I’m worried that my uptight/anxious tendencies will ruin the experience! Backpacking is meant to be about being care free and going with the flow but I find that so hard! Any tips on letting go of trying to control everything and dealing with some of the “what-if…” thoughts?

    1. Sorry I just saw this!! Just want to wish you all the best with your travels. I personally never can completely let go of my anxious thoughts, and there were times I didn’t feel carefree. I’m very easygoing but can’t help anxiety sometimes 🙂 Just know the bad patches will pass as quickly as they come and the amazing experiences will more than make up for it!!

  6. Great post! I also have social anxiety and when I used to travel solo, I wouldn’t really speak to anyone. I would travel completely alone and it was not great at times. You’re right, staying in a hostel and saying yes need to be done to help with it. I’ve definitely gotten better but as you say bad days still happen. Thanks for the motivation to work on it!

    1. Caitlin – thank you! I keep getting advice even know when I’m alone with advice and I’m like.. .I’m not just any normal solo traveller. I know when to push myself and when to not. It’s hard to explain isn’t it? I still have a lot of bad days, but definitely more good days than I used to have! 🙂 xx

  7. I love the ways you explain anxiety. I also love how you say that some days you can’t get out of the corner and other days you’re a badass. People don’t get my social anxiety because some days it’s like I’m the least anxious person. Thanks for covering this so well!

    1. Ah thanks so much Jessie!! Yes I feel the same… I’ve literally told me NO YOU DON’T HAVE ANXIETY on a day I’ve been okay (or just seemed okay). These are always people who’ve ever experienced and have no idea haha. It’s so hard to explain! xx

  8. Love this post. I am currently travelling solo with social anxiety too, I’ll be writing about it soon. I related to a lot of what you say here. Although I instinctively want to stay in a private room, staying in dorms and ‘party’ hostels has helped me to make friends and stopped me being too lonely.

    http://www.lauralovette.com

    1. Yes for sure Laura! I do think constant dorms is very exhausting for an anxious mess like me… it’s also necessary! Although sometimes I made no friends, a couple of times I met really awesome people!

  9. Such a wonderful and honest post! Social anxiety had been holding me hostage until I met my husband. He’s the exact opposite of my introverted world. Reading this, took me back to those years when I travel solo, but needed to cut my trips short because I was too afraid I couldn’t survive the whole journey.

    1. Oh wow, such a shame you cut them short! I do think having a partner who brings you out your shell can be really helpful. Still impressed that you tried solo to start with though as a lot of people wouldn’t! xx

  10. Enjoyed reading your post. Well written. I think somewhere in my heart I’m an anxious person. I didn’t have a great childhood, always felt awkward being very tall, am generally introverted and shy, but I think I’m ok now. I think it’s great you write your blog, raising awareness, making sufferers aware that you can improve and in any case life is fun, even with anxiety. Tip to the hat. 😎 Best, Stefan

    1. Thank you so much for this! It’s been amazing to see people relate to it and I’m so glad we’re able to talk about it. Honestly really appreciate your comment xx

  11. Love this post cassie. Looking forward to following you on this amazing journey! Keep up the good work, and let me know if you ever need help with anything. I’m also a travel blogger too, most of the time traveling by myself too, so I can totally relate to this article. Love it!

  12. Just got round to reading this Cassie after wanting to for a while. Such an important post which I hope reaches far and wide to those who aren’t feeling confident about travelling for social reasons. I say this because although I wouldn’t say I have social anxiety normally, I have felt it while travelling in certain situations. I feel weirdly intimidated by loud (not in a negative way – they are just having fun) groups of friendly travellers sometimes and I have also felt the ‘wow, I wish I could be that confident’ feeling too when staying in hostels and seeing other backpackers around me. Because I have Simon, my boyfriend, with me all the time I probably feel secure/ can hide behind him… but reading your blog made me realise how there are many situations that can heighten social anxiety for many but also help people too. So yeah, great post and I think your tips will really help some people… and inspire them to take steps to manage their social anxiety.

    1. Hi Zoe – thank you so much for this response. Sorry it took so long to reply to – my blogs been barely functioning while I have minimal wifiQ! I do hope it reaches someone who it can help, although I am still too scared to share on an insta story or something. I’m glad it’s not just me whp wishes they could be more of that fun, sociable kind. I gotta say, I do miss my best friend or ex-bf (who I’m friends with) for this reason – it helps so much to have a buffer, and sometimes I crumble without one. It won’t stop me though!

  13. This was a really, really great post! I don’t have social anxiety, but I am an introvert. For me, I do find it really hard trying to start conversations with people sometimes – but then other times I have no issue. I prefer to stay at hostels though as it is a great way to meet new people. I’ve met some of my (now) closest friends staying in hostels. One of my favourites was staying in a capsule hostel in Japan – privacy of ‘own’ bedroom, but in a hostel environment. I do find it tricky meeting new people, especially if they are in a group already – so I tend to befriend other solo travellers. It is great that you are getting out there and travelling and seeing the world. It’s a spectacular place!

    1. Hostels definitely help, and I also am happy to find like-minded solo travellers. (whether they are long or short term solo travellers, they are often really open to doing things together). So glad this post is relatable to others. And that being introverted isn’t holding us back! <3 xx

  14. I really connected with this post. I went backpacking to escape my anxiety. I got so exhausted of everyone thinking I was rude/snobby, I basically ran away. The great thing about solo travel is that every decision is up to you. It really taught me to trust myself and not rely on other people to make choices for me. Well done!

    1. I’m so glad it’s not just me! I also am terrrrrible at making decisions, so I get that. It’s so good to know I CAN make a decision for myself (but if I have a travel buddy I totally still let them make more choices or try and make a decision based on what I think they’d like heheh)! Thank you so much Channa.

  15. Such an important post. I love that your tips focused on taking time to be by yourself and not feeling bad about it because so many posts about social anxiety can be ‘Just put yourself out there!’ which is true in some respects, but you also need solo time to recharge and look after your mental health. I love that you also wrote about sometimes being super outgoing and other times not being able to speak. I went on a course recently with a load of outgoing actors and I would feel like such a phoney because some days I was really bubbly then others I just couldn’t talk, So it’s nice to have reassurance that other people experience this too! Fab post as always Cassie!

    1. Charlotte, you are a star. Thank you for your meaningful comment. The problem I have with most advice posts is they are ALL about putting yourself out there. It really makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you if you can’t do it. Somedays we gotta push ourselves, but we’d go crazy doing that everyday! I also used to work in theatre 🙂 I found it hard to relate to people in the industry… but completely relate to what you just said. Thank you 🙂 ps – if you ever want to dm me with a post I will always read it. I can’t keep up with the reader/twitter xx

  16. Totally loved reading this. Even though I might have social anxiety, I consider myself to be a highly introverted person. Like you, there are days when I’m the most sociable guy around, but on others I’m in my own bubble. Regarding hostels, I tend to chat with roomates, but wouldn’t touch the group activities with a 50 meter stick. Im definitely not at ease in a group of strangers. And yes, sometimes I come across as rude, but I also have a tendency do not give a fuck about what people think of me so that helps (?) Anyway, congrats for taking the leap and facing your fears head on. As with good old Bilbo Baggins, I’m sure you will be an entirely different hag when you return to the Shire 😉

    1. First of all, I’m of course won over by the LOTR reference. Thanks for that 😉

      I’m so glad that this resonated with someone without anxiety too – I think being introverted or just a bit shy while travelling makes it challenging. I found all of my travel buddies either in my dorm OR through a buddy I met in my dorm… the social areas are way too intimidating for me. I’ve really tried at times and sat there, in busy areas, talking to noone haha. Need a leaf outta your book, I want people to think I’m nice teehee. Thank you Carlos! xx

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