My Recent Experience with Travel Anxiety

On Monday night I returned from a weeklong visit to Italy, and I feel like I’m still recovering. I shared a lot about the trip on social media, and I’ll do a full recap here next week, but first I’ve got some reflections on darker side of travel for me. Most of the photos and videos I posted on Instagram reflected the fun and adventurous aspects of the voyage, but a few mentioned the travel anxiety I was facing. Because I received many messages from followers who could relate and were grateful for my transparency, I thought I’d delve a little deeper into the challenges that accompanied this trip, in the hopes that my personal experience helps those in similar situations to feel less alone.

You see, I’ve struggled with homesickness since I was a kid. Whenever I’d go to sleepovers at friends’ houses, my mom would invariably be called to pick me up in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stop crying. Leaving the nest to attend university was a brutal transition for me, so much so that I left Stanford during my sophomore year and did two semesters at the University of Toronto so I could live with my parents. In my adult years, homesickness has manifested itself as a chaotic feeling of falling, of spiraling towards an impending doom, whenever I’m away too long from the home I’ve worked hard to build for myself. It’s unsettling, to say the least!

After years of therapy I know the reasons behind these feelings. Much of my anxiety stems from a fear of the unknown, which I instinctively attempt to diffuse by controlling my surroundings—something that’s much easier to do when you’re at home than when you’re on the road. By this point in my life, I’ve largely stopped expecting the homesickness to disappear and instead have focused on building an emotional toolkit to help me manage it. The good news is that when I’m grounded, I’m able to maximize my enjoyment of travel and minimize its discomforts. When I’ve spent the days prior to a trip practicing my yoga and mindfulness exercises, fitting in adequate downtime and getting plenty of sleep, and sticking with my fitness and nutrition habits, then I absolutely love to hop a plane and immerse myself in foreign lands!

Unfortunately, however, the period before I boarded last week’s flight to Europe was fraught with stressors both internal and external. The past winter’s flu season ravaged my health, and a March jam-packed with projects sapped any remaining energy. I hunkered in survival mode for much of April. The quality of my sleep deteriorated. My interest in personal and work commitments declined. I canceled plans, missed deadlines, ignored emails. And the worse I felt, the less I accomplished, the more I judged myself for not being able to snap out of it. I implemented some dietary changes mid-month with the goal of giving my physical health and mental outlook a boost, but they’d barely begun to take hold when the offer of a trip to Venice arrived in my inbox.

The opportunity was a golden one, something my younger self would hardly believe I’d landed: Come to the Venice Food & Wine Festival and shoot on behalf of illy coffee. Of course I said yes. How could I not?! But as soon as I accepted, the low-grade anxiety I’d been battling all spring jumped into high gear. Are my photographic skills worthy of the assignment? Is my equipment adequate? It’s a 9-hour time difference from LA to Venice. How will my body handle the change? I’m already having trouble sleeping, will I get any shuteye on that overnight flight? And what about food? I’m in the middle of a strict 30-day detox! Will I erase all my hard work with that first bite of pizza? Needless to say, the mild insomnia of March and April was nothing compared to the first week of May as I prepared for my trip to Italy.

And then, all the catastrophes I predicted came to pass. Of course they did. Because where we direct our thoughts, our actions follow. I took too many Tylenol PM on the flight to Europe, woke up groggy, and left my wallet on the plane. When I arrived in Venice, I lay awake each night, tossing and turning until 2am, only to have horrid nightmares when I finally did fall asleep. During the daytimes, I self-medicated with sugar and carbs, ground my digestion to a halt, and spent the whole trip wearing stretchy pants because I was so stopped-up. I dragged myself through each activity. I hated every photo I took. I didn’t use a single tool in my kit: didn’t do yoga, didn’t exercise, didn’t meditate. And in true Nervous Nelly spirit, I berated myself for feeling anything but grateful for an all-expenses paid trip to Venice. I nearly crawled out of my skin on the 12-hour flight back to LA, so desperate was I to return home.

Naturally, a few days’ distance has given me some perspective. My body is recovering, settling into its preferred routine of simple foods and regular exercise. My sleep patterns are adjusting, especially since I’ve been diligent about completing my breathing exercises before bedtime. My photos from Italy are just fine—and a few magic shots are even better than fine. Importantly, I’m able to recognize that in Venice I met some really lovely people, supported a cultural initiative meant to inform and inspire, and absorbed a part of the world I’d not visited before. It matters less, perhaps, that I didn’t appreciate those things in the moment, so long as I’m able to appreciate them at all.

For anyone who faces travel anxiety as I do, something my friend Sarah told me as I awaited my return flight from Venice has stuck with me: “One bad trip doesn’t define you.” It’s true. Venice may have been a challenge—a particularly unpleasant one—but that doesn’t mean that my next voyage has to be so tough. The experience doesn’t make me a failed traveler. Bigger than that, it doesn’t make me a failed human. It makes me someone who gleaned some valuable learnings about what happens when I abandon my hard-earned self-care strategies and give in to the nagging, naysaying monster in my mind. It makes me someone who has a ton of compassion for people who also suffer from travel anxiety. And most of all, it makes me someone who will approach her next trip with a little more intention and a little more wisdom…not to mention fewer in-flight Tylenol PM and several extra bags of Smooth Move tea.

P.S. Stick around for the GOOD parts of my trip in a full report next week, including more photos like the “just fine” one above!