You can pack as lightly as you’d like, but some baggage, like shyness and anxiety, can be difficult to leave behind.
I enjoyed a childhood full of travel with my family, from visiting a string of lighthouses down the Oregon coast to classic cars on the fifth floor of the Imperial Palace in Vegas. In all that time, it never once occurred to me to be shy. Instead, this nerve-wracking surprise first hit me as an adult, when I started traveling solo. I’ve visited parts of Europe alone, and these experiences have helped me pick apart one of my greatest personal hurdles. I started looking seriously at this issue during a recent trip to England. If seeing the world fills you with both excitement and dread, I hope you’ll find the following advice and observations helpful.
Identify your stressors
You’d think that it would be easier to blend in as a single human being, but I quickly found that taking the lead—not even having a follower—was very distressing for me. However, it helps to pinpoint the exact scenarios that cause you uneasiness. Reflect on a past trip or take a step back to observe your feelings during future travel. What makes you nervous? What causes you to hesitate?
I realized that I didn’t feel comfortable entering buildings if I couldn’t clearly assess the situation through a window first. I also hated being watched, much like a lone patron might be in a small shop (or as anyone might be in public, in general). My first day in Sheffield, the tinted windows of multiple restaurants and pubs kept me from going inside, and it wasn’t long before I was hungry, lightheaded, and kicking myself. I still wish I’d tried a bone marrow pie at the Museum Pub! Eventually, I took refuge between the shelves of a convenience store.
You can do a fair amount of prep work prior to your trip, reading venue reviews and watching fellow travelers’ vlogs to get a sense of what you might be jumping into. Google Maps can also be useful if you’d like to take a virtual stroll before you take the physical one. Research can help you predict potential issues.
If you’re still not sure what exactly you’re scared of, just take a deep breath and get out there. You’ll be fine, and when you find the thing that makes you anxious, you can pause to assess it, then decide how to sidestep or approach.
Break it down
It could be that the sheer size or scope of your dream journey is anxiety-provoking. You can start with a simpler trip, or divide your destination into more easily-fathomable segments. The old towns of Tallinn and Riga are fantastic for wandering because they’re so compact. You can simply roam and adjust to your new backdrop—you’ll know if you’ve reached the outer limits when you hit an old city wall or the cobbled streets give way to pavement.
If your heavily-annotated map looks overwhelming, just tell yourself that you’ll leave the safety of your room long enough for a walk. A simple, zero-pressure walk can be relaxing, and you can let it evolve into a mini-adventure if you feel ready once you’re out there. Until then, just walk the hallway… the parking lot… the street… you’ll get somewhere.
Don’t be afraid to start with the touristy things
These days, it seems that many travel blogs encourage their readers to shun the popular attractions in favor of a walk down Locals’ Lane. Seems you can’t truly call yourself cultured if all you saw in Paris was the Eiffel Tower—anyone can look up photos of it online. But the fact is that once upon a time, someone decided that a landmark was special, and everyone agreed. These “tourist attractions” attract for a reason. Furthermore, residents in those areas know to expect clueless (and anxious) newcomers.
Before you venture out into lesser-known areas, you might feel more comfortable starting with these popular ones. They’re full of tourists making silly tourist mistakes, all far more likely to draw attention than anything that you might be doing. It can be easiest to adjust to a new location when there are welcome signs everywhere, tourism offices, and tables full of brochures to guide you along. You can monitor social norms while appreciating clearly-labeled amenities. If someone is unkind to you, you can rest assured that it’s nothing personal. The memory of your existence will surely fade away alongside those of awkward travelers past.
There will be plenty of cozy nooks and benches for you to find, plenty of places to rest if needed. Once you’ve started to relax in the comfort of a well-known landscape, you can start to wander down less conventional paths. But only if you want to.
Celebrate the small victories
After breathing in the vibrant aura of Sheffield’s Peace Gardens, I was happier than I care to admit when I spotted Costa Coffee. (Yes, somehow I’d managed to wander a sizeable portion of town without finding a familiar café.) I was equally pleased to locate a Marks & Spencer shop. These brands aren’t exclusive to a single region, but it’s okay to be relieved by familiarity when you’ve already thrown yourself into a situation brimming with unknowns. I had my first cherry Bakewell tart, egg custard pie, and Cornish pasty courtesy of familiar vendors. Oh, and that convenience store? There I found pickled onion-flavored snacks and volcanic mineral water.
I had a similar experience in Milan when all of the Italian signs and overly-attentive restaurant employees made my head spin. I never had cotoletta or ossobuco, but I knew how to walk into gelato shops and point to the most interesting-looking flavors. (And I knew that I wasn’t the first person to ever do that!)
Be pleased with anything that gives you the boost that helps you peek around the next corner. There’s no need to berate yourself if you’re still alive.
It’s okay to be a bit “anti-social”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your bustling (or simply confusing) surroundings, it’s okay to retreat. Those nooks and benches that I mentioned are a great start. You can even relax in a quieter corner of a train station, at the bus stop, in a café restroom.
Or, on a rainy day, grab your sturdiest umbrella and go stand alone in a beautiful place. Shy people are often introverts, and we need time alone to clear our minds and re-calibrate.
Now, it’s said that humans are social creatures—fair enough. But that doesn’t mean that you should feel pressured to meet people during your travels, or interact with anyone unless necessary. Opting against a conversation with a xylophonist on a Latvian street corner or even a fellow hostel-dweller isn’t a failure, and please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Every person you meet is indeed a potential treasure trove, but if these meetings leave you too frazzled or drained to enjoy the place you’ve paid to see, they can wait until another day.
If you really feel unable to “switch off” at the end of the day with strangers around, many hostels offer one- or two-person rooms that you can have all to yourself. If you do decide to exercise your social muscle, you can start by asking your hostel receptionist or a barista about their favorite local attractions. People love talking about their favorite things, which puts less focus on you directly.
Ask for help
For some of us, strangers are intimidating even when they’ve been employed for the sole purpose of helping us out. While you can extensively research train routes and fares, you might still reach a point when approaching somebody would ultimately be less distressing than ending up on the wrong side of a country. In these cases, call upon your customer service experience if you have any. You can probably remember a handful of interactions well, but do you regularly dwell on them? Probably not. Even if you’ve never worked in this field, believe me when I say that reasonable customers are the best, and often the most forgettable, regardless of their nervousness. Just be a decent human being when approaching anyone, and they should be happy to assist. By the end of the day, they’ll probably have spoken with someone else who’s completely erased you from their memory.
Please don’t worry about asking a silly question. If employees notice a pattern in the questions that they receive, they may need to rethink the clarity of their signs or services.
Depending on the specifics of your distress, you might find it easier to ask a local or fellow traveler for help instead. Go for it! Look for someone checking out a map, or someone who doesn’t appear to be in a hurry. I promise that you won’t be the first or last to do this—I’ve been approached in Tallinn, Nottingham, Milan, three very different corners of Europe. And I’ve done a bit of approaching, too.
I hope mindfulness hasn’t become a cliché yet.
Mindfulness is about observing something and sitting with the reality rather than immediately deciding how it should be. You notice your thoughts and feelings (physical and emotional) as they really are, which helps you detangle and peel away assumptions, premature conclusions, and unnecessary panic. There are certainly times when you know your best option is to combat a distressing situation, but all things in life need a little balance.
Instead of fleeing once shyness strikes, try pausing just to see how it feels, how it develops, whether it dissipates on its own. This might seem like a scary prospect, but in most cases, the world doesn’t explode.
Two of the loveliest places that I saw in England were the Sheffield Cathedral and Doncaster Minster. When you enter these or many other churches, you’ll be greeted by volunteers who’ll give you a leaflet and a quick briefing. If you’re the only visitor on the premises at that moment, it can feel as though they’re watching you wander the massive, silent stone building. You might feel a bit self conscious about taking photos (if it’s allowed) or merely being there.
This is the time to pause and absorb your personal experience in addition to the surrounding scenery. Volunteers and employees are there to make sure that you have a pleasant visit, and to look after a place that’s meaningful to them. They’re not there to torment you; most people that you meet in life hope that you’ll be at ease.
We live in a world cluttered with distraction and noise, where we can easily jump from one overstimulating thing to another every time we get disoriented. It’s exciting, but it also allows us to escape our discomfort time and time again. Enveloped by stone walls older than memory, it was easier to knowledge my anxiety and allow it to dissolve at its own rate. The more time you spend with an uncomfortable emotion, really feeling it, the easier it is to release it. If I’d had time to stay at each location for longer, I might eventually have been able to approach the volunteers with a question or two. Regardless, my eventual sense of peace in both situations felt like achievements.
You might find yourself fluctuating between anxiety and bravery during your travels, but this isn’t a bad thing. The more you explore the world, the more you’ll also end up exploring yourself. Sooner or later, you and I are sure to find that we’re a little calmer when our next adventure calls.