I was going on a vacation alone for the first time, and it made me nervous. I purposely parked the car further away from the airport entrance, hidden from the passengers who were hastening towards the gateway. Secluded, I could let myself go here. The deep breaths, initially drawn to calm myself became more intense as the idea of all those people judging me and the uncertainty of new environments sank in. I was glad I was wearing jeans because the coarser cloth rubbed harder against my palms, as I moved my hands uneasily on my thighs over and over again.
My doctor said that hyperventilation causes facial muscles to go taut because of an oxygen-carbon dioxide imbalance in the blood. It turns out that some level of carbon dioxide is healthy for you. Remembering that, I began to curb my breathing, slowly taking back control, telling myself that I only need to walk in there, keeping my eyes fixed on my luggage at all times and dealing with my fears one step at a time. With my nerves in somewhat better shape, I opened the door of the car, I walked into the airport, and I had the best vacation any solo traveller could ever have, even though I suffer from social anxiety.
One out of every ten Britons develops debilitating social anxiety at some point in their lives. Currently, 13% of the adult population is diagnosed with some form of social anxiety in the United Kingdom. In the United States, these numbers are even higher, with 18% of the total population victim to some level of social anxiety during their lifetimes. Numbers do not do justice to this mental disorder since social anxiety is sometimes called the “illness of the missed opportunities”. Social anxiety continues to rob the lives and livelihoods from its patients, and in such a mental state, most affectees like to “stay home and watch footy” rather than go outside, make friends or party.
Taking that Leap
Travelling with social anxiety could be intimidating at first, but if you take the plunge, the results are rewarding and liberating. Indeed, you would be putting yourself out there, but everyone needs a vacation for relaxation and a refreshing change in the environment. Your liberating vacation waits on the other side of your canyon of fears; all you have to do is to be brave enough to take the first step across the bridge. Regrettably, it does not comes to us so naturally, mixing with people and striking up a conversation without hesitation and sharing personal space for an extended length of time, but we can make an effort – it’s just a minor bump in the road. Know that your social anxiety is a part of you. We should travel for the sake of travel, to learn and to gain more friends, share experiences. During your vacation, you will find your confidence and realise your self-reliance and resourcefulness. You would rediscover another part of yourself, not to curtail your shyness but as an extension of your perfect personality. All of that begins with the first step.
Travel to Overcome Your Fears
One of my many fears was that I would be so incapacitated with my social anxiety on my vacation to Greece that I might remain in my room, in a fetal position, with a bucket of ice cream in one hand and a TV remote in the other. So, the moment I was on the plane, I was in my ‘social juggernaut’ mode, posing to be comfortable and talkative when, in reality, I was not. To my surprise, I made more friends (the keepers) when I was just myself. It happened before I could transform into ‘Optimus Prime’ when I was walking from my hotel room to a bar close by, I found these lads who were asking for directions at the intersection, and they looked pretty lost – which reminded me of me. For some reason, their list of questions did not intimidate me, and in the end, they asked me to join them for a drink. We just clicked and spent the rest of the days pulling each other out of our shells. I learnt then that I do not need to be a juggernaut, or overcompensate for my anxiety because it tires me and makes the trip one of those tough army drills. My resolve is to enjoy my vacation and take my time adjusting and selecting new friends. I also allocate some time after every couple of days only to be with myself, to ease into my vacation.
The Hero Lies in You
Mariah Carrey takes the prize in motivating the socially anxious with her Hero song – and she is right about you being the hero. Finding that hero inside you is perhaps the single greatest feat of discovery by a solo traveller with social anxiety. Travelling is challenging even if you go along with friends, but it is twice as hard when you are alone. It would be disorientating at first – the new language, the inability to recognise facial patterns due to cultural differences and a somewhat removed sense of direction but after two to three days you make your mental map around things and social scenarios. You would be surprised to discover yourself enjoying adventure and hearing your own laughter. The immigration officer might ask you a few questions to clear up a few things, or the hotel room would not be up to standards, so you might have to interact with the management, but somehow you would bear through it. I realised that every problem was an opportunity in disguise or was a learning experience on my holidays while exploring the world and myself.
Enjoy Liberty and Confidence
After the vacation is over, for at least the next couple of months, you would be able to converse regularly with the people around you. The change in the level of confidence would be so drastic that some people would eventually come up to you and ask you about your psychotherapist. The new you, however, would not stick by. Travelling is not a cure for social anxiety, but it does set you free for a while. The idea is not to eradicate your anxiety but to develop your coping mechanism enough to make snap social interactions less taxing on your mental health. Being quiet and shy is not a bad thing. Travelling the world gives you the achievement, the ability to proudly look at yourself in the mirror and say well done, you did it all!
Social anxiety can withdraw you from being your complete self, but you do not need to fight it and put yourself in overwhelming situations to prove a point. A vacation should remain a time to relax and unwind, however, if your mental health does not allow you to travel, do it to challenge yourself and create new frontiers like mountaineers do when climbing Everest. Designate a couple of days for you to be alone and recuperate during and after the vacation for a fantastic holiday with social anxiety.