It mostly happens when I’m alone. I’ll have three days by myself in Hobart or Madrid or Lima and this is how it plays out:
Before arriving at my travel destination I’ve done my research. Extensive research. I know about every museum I want to visit. Every restaurant I have to eat at. Every city sight, quirky bookshop and local market I need to see.
Call it travel FOMO. I don’t like the thought of missing out on anything. Fellow planners will sympathize.
Knowing I only have a limited amount of time in the city, I will have written a detailed itinerary – down to the coffee break at that epic-looking donut shop I found on Instagram. It’s like the New York Times’ 36 Hours of phone notes this itinerary, opening times and everything.
So, with expectations high (travel error one), and wiggle room for altered plans low (travel error two), off I go.
THAT FLUTTERY FEELING
It’s around my second or third activity – maybe cycling across the Golden Gate or viewing a famous artwork, when the other tourists have slowed me to a trickle and it’s started to rain or I see the Mona Lisa is about the size of a postcard – that I begin to feel a flutter in my stomach. A rippling undercurrent of unease. An itchy sense that something is off.
And I begin to get slightly worried. Because travel’s meant to be #perfect, right? #wanderlust and #fromwhereyou’dratherbe. But this doesn’t feel so hashtaggable. So I’m wondering: am I travelling right?
Now if that’s a question you’ve never asked yourself you might want to quit reading now (it only gets more meta) but for those nodding their head in recognition, I give you Sarah Wilson.
The writer and TV presenter of I Quit Sugar fame explains the feeling perfectly in her new book on anxiety, first, we make the beast beautiful. Some people (she calls them ‘life naturals’) can see a flower and find it beautiful. They like it. And that’s it. But not the anxious mind. The anxious mind tends to wonder if they’re liking it enough.
And here’s where my equation comes in: FOMO + overthinking = travel panic.
So then there I am at Machu Picchu and I begin to analyze the amount of fun I’m having, (because that’s a thing a few of us humans actually do). Sometimes this leads to related brain-ramblings and I wonder if I should be taking photos to remember my trip and if so, what kind? I question the intrinsic value of what I’m seeing or doing and my motives for doing it in the first place. I ask myself if I should be learning something from my experience and if so, what?
These types of thoughts trip and twirl through my brain in a tornado-like fashion and before I know it the sunset is over or the market is closed and the regret kicks in. Regret about not living in the moment, about caring too much, about over-thinking.
Cue over-thinking about over-thinking all the way back to the hotel room.
TRAVEL AS A TRIGGER
Changing plans, expectations, new people: travel is the perfect storm for an anxious mind. There’s so much that can go wrong, so many tips and tricks you ‘should’ know, so many unknowns.
It doesn’t help that social media is a virtual tourism campaign of people having the most wanderlust-inspiring trips on the planet. Travel’s meant to be the thing we millennials live for. And if you’re not having #fun then you’re clearly not doing it right, right?
I won’t pretend I invented the idea of travel panic. In her book, Sarah Wilson refers to what she calls ‘weekend panic’. It’s that restless FOMO you feel when you idealise downtime and feel like you should be drinking rosé with fashionable friends on a Friday night instead of hammering Netflix and leftover Thai.
So, take the weekend and add the world and there you have it. No wonder travel triggers such an avalanche of questions, a flood of self-doubt, a swelling of anxiety in some people.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the full-blown, panic attack-inducing anxiety that some people suffer and live with. I’m not pretending to know what that’s like. But this is the kind of anxiety that niggles at and tickles your mind just enough to make you kinda want to spend the entire day in a foreign city reading in your hotel room (I recommend Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel for some topical soul-searching) rather than face the uncertainty in your constantly-buzzing mind.
So, what’s the antidote? Is there a calm to the storm?
Fear not fellow travel panicker. Grab a Lemoncello and listen up.
IT’S ALL ABOUT EXPECTATIONS
Another Sarah Wilson gem, this time from Ruth Whippman (author of The Pursuit of Happiness and Why it's Making us Anxious), who says, ‘the expectations of how happy you should be are so high, you always feel you are falling short'.
Look, take it from a travel writer (one who’s learning to quell her tendency to travel panic): trooping around the world might seem like a glossy magazine dream but it’s actually far from perfect. Besides the airport security and stomach bugs, hardly anything you line up to see is as mind-blowing as you thought it would be. In fact, the best moments of a trip almost always come from something spontaneous, something you didn’t expect, something you can’t fit in if your FOMO’s forced you to plan everything to the nth degree.
The existential thing, too, is often born of too high expectations. If you expect everything you see and do to have some higher meaning, you’re going to do your head in trying to figure it out and miss the entire street performance in front of you.
So, try to lower your expectations if you can (in a realistic way, not a morose way). That, I think, is basically the answer. But if you’re like me (hey type A) you’re going to want something in bullet form so here we go.
MY TIPS FOR THE TRAVEL PANICKY TYPES
Don’t over-research. Wandering into the unknown is not a good idea for the anxious type but neither is knowing too much. Realizing there’s more to do than can ever be done in my 36 hours in a city gives me FOMO about missing out and picking the best activities. Sometimes it’s best not to know everything. It’s hard, I know.
Leave the camera at home. Social media means recording our travels is often more about creating a brand than capturing a memory and the anxiety this can give me about how my trip ‘should’ look often isn’t worth the Instagram likes. Without a camera, I don’t have to wonder if and how I should be shooting the moment, which leaves me free to just enjoy it.
Travel with someone who understands you. Travelling with a friend who understands your existential side is crucial. They know when to indulge your brain wanderings and have a D&M about the meta meaning of organized tours and when to laugh at your unhelpful hurricane of thoughts. Or at least leave you to read in your hotel room.