The nightmare is always the same. I have ten minutes to throw clothes into a bag before I race to the airport in my pajamas, woefully under prepared for an expedition to whatever exotic destination my REM cycle has devised. Shaken and only half awake, I console myself: It was just a dream; it is not real.
But then there is my pre-travel reality: All the requisite underwear, sweaters, skirts and socks are spooning word choice? cozily in my suitcase, yet instead of feeling excited and eager for the journey, I feel queasy and unsure of myself, perhaps even nursing a nasty head cold—just the thing for an unbearable trans-Atlantic flight.
These are the symptoms of the beast I’ve come to dread — traveler’s remorse, that strange tension between wanting to go and wanting to stay. Even though I have spent hours eagerly pouring over my travel plans, when it comes time to begin my trip, I don’t want to leave home; I do not want to venture out.
Such a fear of leaving home may sound strange – especially for someone who thrives on travel – but it’s a reality for thousands of people.
Don’t get me wrong. I dearly love journeying because it wakes me up to a world of wonder. My husband calls me “The Professional Traveler,” yet for a day or two—even as much as a week—before departure, France loses her appeal. Italy…why go? The Caribbean…ghastly.
But I won’t give in to the face of fear. Just think of all I’d be missing.
Months ago, at my therapist’s office with a sofa pillow propped defensively in front of my chest, I tossed out, “You know, in the last two years I’ve gotten sick before every trip I have made alone.”
“Why do you think that is?” she asked in a voice that sounded like she knew the answer, but wouldn’t divulge it. My therapy homework was to journal about my anxiety.
So I responded with what I know: I love to travel. Why do I wander? To begin with, visiting a new place opens up the possibility of the unknown. You can read every guidebook and surf every website, but you still won’t what to expect until you’re there, until its happening. True adventure—which for me could be walking into a new village, sampling the boiled eel or climbing into a helicopter—takes a well of courage and a bushel of flexibility. Time and again, I have risen to the challenge. I have pored over maps when I’ve been lost, and asked questions in languages I barely know. I have bumped over Fiji’s back roads in a fume-belching bus, and hoisted myself back in the saddle after I broke my ankle in the remote British Colombia rainforest.
A certain level of heroism is required during travel, including the ability to endure discomforts such as threadbare sheets, cold showers and cobblestone-weary feet. And there are situations that test your mettle, like the time when I had to fend off a lewd man who interrupted my reverie in an Italian garden, or the weekend my vegetarian friend couldn’t convince the Irish B&B mistress not to serve him sausages for breakfast.
Stumbling blocks like these factor into my traveler’s trepidation. It’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario when I’m facing a cramped airplane seat, jet lag and culture shock. Each time I set out on a journey, I confront a litany of fears, from the petty (what if the mattress is lumpy?) to the monumental (what if my plane crashes?). Fear wants me to forget exploration; it wants to squelch my heroic self that sojourns out to greet the unknown.
If I let it, fear would rob me of travel’s joys: sighting a gray whale’s fluke, receiving a blessing in the Hindu temple, hiking to the top of the Mayan pyramid, having my fortune read by the old woman in Chinatown.
My therapy homework has helped me leap—or at least walk around—the hurdle of travel anxiety through one simple avenue: awareness. Fear is a natural response to unpredictable situations, and I’ve learned that it is best to listen to it. For instance, getting sick before a trip could be self-sabotage brought on by lack of attention to my body and health.
Now, before departure, I try to tune in to my internal dialog. If a certain destination makes me uneasy, I try to distinguish between run-of-the-mill nerves involved with a new challenge and true discomfort. And I’m committed to acknowledging my personal sensibility or fear: “Whitewater rafting is not for me!”
Sometimes self-awareness and acceptance of fears is enough to quell them. I’ve started visualizing before I travel—I breathe deeply, call up my fears, shake their hand, and give them a name. Then I picture myself at my destination, having fun, taking care of myself—just to let the fears see I can manage without them.
Every trip is as much a journey into my personal geography as it is to a specific city or country. By gently prodding my inner adventurer to boldly go forth, I’m mapping my capacity to take care of myself, face my fears, gracefully interact with others, challenge my limitations and expand my horizons.