Travelling Solo Helped Ease My Social Anxiety
I have always had a fairly high degree of social anxiety. In my late teens and very early 20’s I was under the care of a youth charity here in the UK named Barnado’s. It was extremely helpful in ironically grouping other young people in my area who also struggled so that we realised we weren’t alone.
The struggle was real for me in particular because I have always loved travelling and experiencing different cultures, but until I was 18 I had only ever done that with my family.
In the last few years though I have taken to travelling solo as a way of giving social anxiety the middle finger, and I’ve done so on 3 occasions.
Trip #1 Australia
The first time I decided to travel solo was the result of falling in love with someone on the other side of the planet, Australia to be more specific. I was 18 at the time. I know, young love can be pretty crazy.
While I knew that I wanted to be with this person, I also knew that it involved a lot of interacting with strangers for 3 months. Quite daunting but I was determined to go through with it anyway.
I did, in fact, survive. Even without health insurance (sorry mum — by the way, I do not advocate travelling without health insurance, I was very lucky and naive).
What is more interesting though, I didn’t seem to struggle as much as I thought I would living with and befriending people I’d never met before, in a country over 10,500 miles away.
I think that because Australia is an English-speaking country, not having a language barrier helped a long way in that. It could also be the case that because I was living in a very small town people were always drawn to my accent, which stood out like a sore thumb. It was a way to break the ice in the vast majority of conversations. Don’t get me wrong, I still think people thought I was a bit awkward, but at least I didn’t freeze up and excuse myself away from them.
Trip #2 Brighton
The second time I travelled solo was technically domestic, I stayed in Brighton, England. I was there to meet some friends who I’d also met online from Switzerland when I was 20.
Surprisingly, this trip was a little more challenging even though it was only a couple hundred miles away from home. Due to being a bit cash-strapped, I decided to stay in an 18-bed hostel room and lockers weren’t available. My Swiss friends were also not as confident speaking English as they had hoped, which resulted in some awkward silences occasionally.
As the trip progressed we did get used to the language barrier and spent more time in the city doing more adventurous things. During times we weren’t together I found other things to do, like guitar shopping or getting yet another tattoo.
This trip made me realise that while it was becoming easier to find things to do by myself or with people whose native language wasn’t English, I still had a way to go in improving my communication and being aware of my body language when trying to interact with people who didn’t speak my language.
Trip #3 Berlin
The last time I travelled alone, I once again met up with my Swiss friends. This was in Berlin during the summer of 2018. Though I did have another motive for going there.
I was determined to make at least one new friend or speak to as many different kinds of people as possible. This was directly related to my goal of improving the symptoms of my social anxiety by again confronting it upfront, but this time in a non-English-speaking country.
The pressure was on.
Within hours of my arrival though, I was approached by a friendly Dane who invited me to a pub crawl — an event in which you have a few drinks in one place… and then another… and then another ad infinitum (or until you go home rather drunk).
I did have reservations at first.
“Who is this man asking me if I want to go out in a foreign city drinking with him?”
Then I remembered, that was pretty much the reason I was there. So I agreed to go, along with a Brazilian man who had lots of interesting stories to tell. We drank the night away and the walls in my mind came crumbling down, appropriately so.
I also spent a great deal of time talking with many other people from all over the world in the hostel I was staying in (which was much nicer than the one I had in Brighton). On the last night of this trip, many of us who had been hanging out occasionally got together with some guitars and had an impromptu jam session in the lantern-lit courtyard. That’s still one of my most favourite trip memories that I have. Though it’s only thanks to my determination to interact with the people around me that prompted this beautiful event.
The gist of it
Revisiting these memories does remind me that it does take a lot of conscious effort to move out of your comfort zone. For me, that meant deliberately travelling alone to interact with new people or face having a boring time away and never experiencing the joy or wisdom that other cultures can offer. For you, it might need to be less drastic, such as calling a friend on the phone once in a while or saying hi to that person you always seem to cross paths with on the way to work.
In all, making goals towards improving social anxiety is far more likely to enhance your life than by not doing anything at all.
Mine included meeting my long-distance girlfriend in person as well as my online friends from Switzerland and to speak to as many different kinds of people as possible no matter how nervous or panicky I felt.
Make no mistake, being outside of the comfort zone and directly confronting social anxiety is pretty damn scary and I still struggle with it sometimes, but it’s so satisfying when you don’t let it get in the way of sharing life with others.