solo travel & social anxiety

(Last Updated On: February 14, 2021)

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*the memes are for comic relief – take no offense*

I looked in the mirror for what felt like the thousandth time.  Whispering “fuck” to myself, I inspected the tear in my dress. Then laid back down on the bed at my AirBnb.

 It was a mild February night in Vienna. It was also the last night of my first solo trip, and I had a ticket to the opera.

A row of buildings on the river in Vienna.  It is nighttime, the sky is purplish blue.  The buildings are glowing orange with the glow of street lights.  The lights are reflected on the surface of the river.
Vienna at night

I packed what I thought would be the perfect dress to wear – one that’d been hanging in my closet just yearning to be worn for years.  I’d managed to fit it in my carry-on, but hadn’t tried it on before it was tucked away.  

I stood back up and inspected the tear, situated right on the neckline, one more time. There’s no way it would go unnoticed.

The only other clothes I had with me were essentially black leggings and sweaters. People had told me about tourists going to Wien Staatsoper in shorts and sneakers, but I’d also heard about dedicated opera fans being offended by the lack of respect for the tradition of a night at the opera, which I could understand.  

I couldn’t decide whether I should go or not. ‘I can’t go in the ripped dress.’ ‘Can I get away with the clothes I have?’ ‘Sure, I’m a tourist, I’ll be fine.’ ‘ No, no no, I can’t. Who wears yoga pants to the opera?’ ‘ But I’m in Vienna…’ I sat down on the edge of the bed again. This back-and-forth went on for a while.

the struggle is real

This is not an uncommon scenario for me.  Social anxiety can manifest in different ways, depending on the person.  Indecision. An overall sense of inadequacy and self-consciousness. The fear of being judged, or awkward, or humiliated.  Or, just not knowing how to act sometimes. I can’t speak for everyone that experiences social anxiety, but for me – I’m aware that these thoughts are irrational, but I have them anyway. A few years ago, the thought of combining solo travel and social anxiety even in the same sentence seemed absurd. Actually going through with it? Hah. I would never be able to.

Cartoon of a man wiping sweat from his forehead with anxiety over pressing a button.

Regardless of how it manifests, for people who experience social anxiety, the stress of being in social situations is deep, persistent, and worst – limiting.  Whatever form of self-preservation I use to manage my anxiety, it prevents me from doing something.  It could be going out with friends if I know there will be people there that I haven’t met.  Or maybe meeting up with someone who is an acquaintance as opposed to a close friend. Sometimes it’s bailing on plans or commitments.

Text that reads 'A large group of people is called a 'no thanks''

As I was preparing to leave for my first solo trip, I definitely feared the social aspect more than I had any concerns regarding my physical safety.  After all, what could be worse than solo travel with social anxiety?

But off I went, alone, ready for my first solo adventure.  I’m glad I did, and I will again. Along with the history and culture of the places I’d visited, I learned quite a bit about myself – my habits, my limits, my tendencies.  

I also learned to accept that things aren’t usually as bad as I make them out to be.

quote that reads "I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." - Mark Twain

This is what I learned about social anxiety on my first-ever solo trip.

solo travel doesn’t give a shit about your comfort zone

Regardless of where you’re going, solo travel pushes you to your edge and then some.  Especially in a far-off land – one that lacks familiarity and a common language.

From the moment you step off the plane, you begin to find yourself in uncomfortable situations.  

Figuring out where you’re going when you don’t speak the language, attempting to get your bearings in a new place.  Your brain has to make sense of all this new stimuli. When you’re in an uncomfortable situation, your brain is forced to process that information and (hopefully) find a solution.  This ultimately establishes new connections in the brain.

communication will be easier than you think

A lot of people with social anxiety have issues with communication.  Public speaking, small talk, confrontation, interpreting or overanalyzing text messages. I get super-awkward meeting new people.  So much so, that for this trip I opted to stay in AirBnbs as opposed to hostels. I know, I know.

Meme screenshot that says 'I noticed u used "haha" instead of "hahah" so i'm just wondering why u fucking hate me'

It can be scary walking into a place you’ve never been and not knowing what to expect, or how you’ll be received.  The unknown is intrinsically linked to fear, and this is no exception.

Text that reads " Anytime I have to have a normal conversation with someone" and beneath it is a cartoon picture of an almost scary looking bear with text blurbs that read 'It's going to get weird. I'm going to make this weird.'

There can also be anxiety surrounding any language barriers you may encounter.  Ordering food, asking for directions, making purchases, etc. can all feel overwhelming in a new or unknown language.  Despite my best efforts, I still had to speak to strangers who I couldn’t understand. But it was fine.

I tried to think of it this way – a scenario in which I’m in my home country (USA) and someone who doesn’t speak English tries to communicate with me in broken English.  And I don’t judge them, I don’t laugh at them. I just appreciate the effort.

Meme with text that reads 'Concentrating so hard on the appropriate eye-contact-to-looking-away ratio that you have no idea what's being said to you' with a painted version of Steve Carrell looking to the side

You will find a way to communicate.  You’ll probably get a few laughs out of it as well.  After all is said and done, you’ll feel more comfortable speaking with people, even strangers.

you will have to summon your courage

When you’re traveling solo, you’re forced to do things you’d never do at home.  And you realize that it’s not so bad. At home, it’s easy to not do something. You have greater freedom at home. You have the option of staying home.

Meme that reads 'Some people don't understand that sitting in your own house alone in peace, eating snacks and minding your business is fucking priceless.

It’s different with travel.  Especially solo travel. With solo travel, you’re faced with challenge after challenge, and you can’t ignore or avoid them. And there’s no one with you to help.  

To meet these challenges, you’re forced to call upon your courage. And as with anything, the more this happens, the more natural it becomes.

enhancement of self-compassion

There are a few different ways solo travel can enhance compassion.  For one, there is a connection that exists between solo travelers. The few I did meet, I automatically felt comfortable with.  It gave me warm and pleasant memories of meeting new people to be held subconsciously in my brain.

I heard a quote somewhere, and I can’t think of where (Grey’s Anatomy? – don’t judge me).  It says something along the lines of ‘If we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that, too.’  And that’s how it felt, in a good way.

Meme with a picture of a mean-looking Elizabeth Taylor and text that reads 'When you want to be friends with people but they think you're mean because you have a resting bitch face and social anxiety'

Second, being immersed in a different culture cultivates (or enhances) a feeling of oneness vs. separateness.  The realization that we are all the same automatically boosts compassion.

Then at last, that compassion that you feel towards others begins to project back to you.  You begin to feel compassion toward yourself instead of judgement.

Instead of a critical internal dialog, you find yourself using words that are more accepting.  Being compassionate toward yourself lessens any self-deprecating thoughts.

By cultivating compassion, your brain begins to re-carve the neural pathways that habitual thinking has created over time.  The more you express compassion, the more natural it feels – you begin to break habits. Besides, being critical of yourself and compassionate toward others at the same time doesn’t really work. (And vice versa)

Meme that reads:

Person: you seem chill
Me: I am
My anxiety:  picture of a frightened hamster in a cage, cornered by the camera

need a confidence boost?

Social anxiety keeps my mind racing and criticizing and over-analyzing most social situations to the point where I wind up questioning myself.  But solo travel definitely gave my confidence a boost.

Being forced out of your comfort zone, into situations that might be challenging, uncomfortable, or downright frightening, is a great way to build confidence.  Similar to a yoga practice, you become more comfortable being uncomfortable. And when that happens, your practice progresses further.

By the end of my first solo trip, I realized I’d become more confident in who I am because who I am had been tested. I’d inadvertently chosen to be away for Valentine’s Day. While I’m pretty indifferent when it comes to the holiday, the anxiety that came with going to restaurants nearly tripled. But, I made it out alive. Solo travel and social anxiety isn’t as awful as it sounds.

By being forced to abandon my habitual means of self-preservation (and still being OK) I developed a stronger sense of self.  And I appreciated myself more for trying something that I knew would incite anxiety.

Meme that says 'Pressing your forehead can help alleviate anxiety and stress in social situations' with a photo of a plastic baby who's head is caved in

mindfulness

If you ever find yourself overwhelmed or panic-y, use the breath and practice mindfulness to stay grounded and centered.

Sit in a chair with both feet on the ground and your palms face down on your lap. Just focus on the breath coming in and out of the tips of your nostrils.  Follow the inhale, take a pause. Follow the exhale, pause.

Become aware of your thoughts without analyzing or reacting to them.  Mindfulness makes those thoughts just white noise in the background.

When we experience social anxiety we tend to internalize and focus on ourselves in the present moment.  Sometimes we just need a reminder to take interest in what’s happening outside of our busy brains.


Ultimately, I did go to the opera.  And it was pretty awesome.

Photo from the Vienna State Opera of a couple talking to each other very close with their heads bowed toward one another.  She is in a red dress and they are standing next to the balcony.

No, solo travel will not cure your social anxiety. But it will give you a new perspective and profound insight into yourself and your behavior patterns. Not to mention some helpful anxiety-management skills to bring back home with you.

Do you have any anxiety tips or tricks to share? If so, leave ’em in the comments below!


(and yes, in case you were wondering, writing/posting this is giving me anxiety)

Meme with a background photo of one of the Aran Islands in Ireland - grass blowing in the wind, ocean, land and stone walls behind that.  The text at the top reads 'themigrantyogi.com' and the text below reads 'Shoutout to all the shy, introverted, empathetic, socially awkward souls who are pushing past their comfort zones to share their gifts with the world. - Maryam Hasnaa'

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