What makes us nervous when we travel? Why do we choose to break out of our comfort zones? Where do our travel anxieties come from?
According to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, travelling is just a little bit more stressful than breaking the law. For a couple of my friends, the sheer idea of being abroad for any significant length of time is enough to make them break a sweat, and in some cases causes so much anxiety that it prevents them from travelling at all. The thought of not being able to communicate fluently, of having to eat unfamiliar foods, of having to make do without phone signal and mobile data … Any one of those situations is a deal-breaker for them.
Of course, keen travellers still worry about the same things, to some extent. We look up basic phrases in the new language, or we learn a lingua franca to help us talk to the locals, or we screenshot a hundred different maps and guides on our phones while we’re still within the hostel wifi zone. But despite these numerous contingency plans, there is a fundamental difference to be noticed: while travelphobes are crippled by these anxieties, the seasoned traveller is encouraged by them.
Fear becomes a challenge — just another hurdle to be cleared on the path to personal fulfilment. The idea of getting lost in some far-flung country, of travelling without a return ticket, of not hearing your native language for the next few months is enough to kick-start the flow of adrenaline in our bodies. We’ll make do with the bare bones of a plan, but no plan is so much better. We thrive on the uncertainty; we live for the thrill of the unknown; we leave with the sole guarantee of having no guarantees at all once we arrive at our destination. But just reading those last four sentences might make my travel-phobic friends pass out.
So why is it that two people can have such polarised reactions to the same stimulus? How do those who love to travel find stress-relieving experiences where others find stress-inducing ones? If travelling is a fear then how can we overcome it? It’s obvious that our attitudes to travelling must have evolved from some point on the nature-nurture scale, an eternally controversial topic among psychologists. But if we find ourselves lacking, is it possible to teach ourselves how to embrace the spirit of adventure? There are a million questions on this topic and very few concrete answers; in a way, a very accurate representation of travelling. It all depends on the task at hand, your individual character and to a certain extent, on luck.
When I first thought about what it would be like to only have 25 days of paid leave every year, my stomach began to twist itself into painful knots. No spontaneous trips to Belgium to satisfy a craving for hot, sugary waffles. No endless summers spending more time outside the country than in it. No more calling in sick to your part-time job or skipping lectures to snag the best airline fares. When it comes to travel, you have to choose: a way of life, or just a hobby that you indulge a handful of times per year?
When I saw the description of the internship online, I thought I was hallucinating. Work abroad for five weeks? In three different cities? And get paid for it? It was a no-brainer. I applied within the hour and didn’t sleep all night, sure that the entire student population of England had done exactly the same thing. After all, who wouldn’t want an opportunity like that? I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than discovering a new career and a new place at the same time. It seemed almost to good to be true and I was sure I had no chance, that my application could only drown in a vast ocean of similarly enthusiastic CVs and cover letters.
When I was eventually given the internship, I slept with one eye open for the entire five weeks, determined to do whatever it took to secure myself a job where travel was not only offered but encouraged. I lost myself in the stories of my coworkers and the different places their work had taken them to. I lived for the day when I could call that lifestyle my own. And I was absolutely dumbfounded to discover that during the application process, on the personality questionnaire where I had automatically ticked the box next to “willing to travel for work”, so many of my friends applying to similar companies had crossed it out. When I asked them why, their answers ranged from wanting to be close to family to feeling reluctant to adjust to a different way of life.
I couldn’t understand it then and I can’t understand it now, but in every waking moment when I’m not travelling myself (and at times, when I am), I’ll spend my time trying to pass on my wanderlust, hoping to share the incomparable gift of travel with as many people as I possibly can. I realise now that as worried as some of my friends are about travelling, I am even more scared — by the thought of being confined to one place forever. My anxiety stems from the possibility that I might not have a way to challenge my anxieties. It’s a total contradiction, and it’s one that I’ve found in so many friends I’ve met around the world. But as anxieties go, it’s probably not the worst one to have …