I think this title might surprise some people who know me. I tend to be a social butterfly and it would be a shock for some of my friends and acquaintances to learn that I have (what is sometimes crippling) social anxiety. There are certain situations that others might find quite anxiety inducing where I am completely in my element, such as traveling by plane. I LOVE airports, I thrive while in that cramped economy seat, I could spend hours watching the world go by under the wings of the plane I am riding to a new or beloved destination. I even love sitting on a bus or train, people watching, reading a book, browsing the internet learning about things to do when I arrive. That can all go array when I get to my destination.
Take for example my arrival yesterday to Seoul, South Korea. Seoul is what I consider to be my second home. After living here for 5 months in 2015, you'd think I would be comfortable wandering out pretty immediately to see the sights and smell the smells (Seoul has some very distinct, not always pleasant ones, but I LOVE it), and taste the amazing food. I arrived on Saturday night, and barely left my guesthouse until Sunday evening for dinner with a friend. Was it the jet lag? I sure blamed it on that. But it wasn't jet lag, it was the inability to bring myself to wander the streets of a city bustling with strangers and go into stores and shops and restaurants, where I know I would struggle to communicate since my Korean is limited to very few words (I know, I know...I am ashamed of my lack of ability to speak the Korean language, but that's a story for another time).
"But Beth," I hear you say, "you've traveled to Korea before, you've traveled solo before, and you've had amazing experiences!" It's true, I am very lucky that I've been able to do so much in the short 5 years since I started traveling. But what you don't hear about, what I haven't written about until now, is how every time I have been to Korea there is about one or two days where I lay in bed at my guesthouse unable to bring myself to leave.
I've always considered myself to be an introverted extrovert. At home, I need "me" days after working all week or going out with friends. But then there are the days that my brain goes into overdrive, with thoughts of how I am going to horribly embarrass myself, I'm an impostor and someone will see right through me, that people are only being nice to me because I am friends with so-and-so, that I don't fit in, and so on and so forth. Take that at-home anxiety and throw it into a foreign city. It's stifling.
So what is the Wandering Radish way to travel with anxiety?
1. Be kind to yourself. It's okay if you are not GO GO GO from the first moment you land at your travel destination. Jet lag can be rough and amplify social anxiety. If you happen to meet someone that you are comfortable with and going out, great! If you want to take your time unpacking and relaxing and letting the anxiety fade, great! The only person you have to answer to while traveling is you. And if you are traveling with friends, either they can help you feel more comfortable or they will understand if you need to sit out on the first night out on the town. Your mental health is important, and if you aren't feeling up to it, forcing yourself to go out can make anxiety worse. Or, if you KNOW you are the kind of person who needs to just get out and distract yourself, do it! Don't apologize for doing what you need to do.
2. Plan ahead...but not TOO much. Before you go to a new country, read a lot of blogs, research the area you are staying in, and plan a few specific things you want to do while you are there. Don't plan every minute of every day. If you plan everything out and go over schedule on one thing and can't do another, it can spike anxiety. For example, the first time I visited Korea, I had a list of things I wanted to do. I made sure to research if I needed to book any of them ahead of time and how far out to book them (the DMZ tour can get very full, very fast). This allowed me to have flexibility of my schedule and gave me time to relax at my guesthouse if needed. Bonus: you might just meet people at your guesthouse/hostel who want to do the same things! If you have every moment of every day planned, the flexibly to work with other's schedules goes out the window and you might miss opportunities to meet some amazing new international friends.
3. Learn a little bit of the language. This one I fail at miserably!! But the little Korean I do know has been very helpful. Not only so I know I am being polite, but it reduces my anxiety...a tiny bit. When I went to Thailand, I made sure to know the basics: hello, thank you, goodbye, can I buy this, how much is this, and the ever important where is the bathroom? Be patient with yourself and the person you are speaking with if you can't communicate fluently. My anxiety spikes so hard when I am in those awkward situations, and I find it helps to smile and laugh at yourself. The other person is struggling just as hard as you, and a smile and some laughter has actually gained me some very good service in Korea!
I hope this has been as helpful as it has been lethargic for me. I am on day 3 in Seoul and I am spending my morning sitting at a coffee shop I am familiar with, listening to music, drinking iced peach oolong tea and enjoying the air conditioning (really, REALLY enjoying the air con). In a bit I am going to wander around before it gets too crowded and hot. Later I will see a friend and we don't have any specific plans. I need a go with the flow kind of day, and by golly, that's what I am going to do.
Would love to hear from my fellow wanderers! Is there something specific you do when you are having an anxiety filled day while on the road?