As a kid, I wanted to be more like my older siblings. I wouldn’t say they are the bravest people that I’ve met, even if, back then, it did feel like they were my magical protectors and nothing (living or otherwise) could destroy them. Somehow, even as kids, they knew how to not let fear cripple them. And that was something — I lacked.

I was a timid child and preferred to live in a world of my own making. Being the youngest, I wasn’t the first to explore or experiment. I rarely got into trouble. I’d let fear win on most occasions. Mum would (still does) let me take my time and just let me be me. On the other hand, dad was worried: how would I survive the ‘world’? He thought I was (still does) too sensitive to face whatever’s out ‘there’.

Naturally, I never thought I’d travel. I spent my teens watching travel shows — hoping I could visit those faraway lands someday. Back then, I was content with virtual travel. It seemed easier that way. Honestly, the easiest route is never the best route. It might take you from point A to point B and sadly, point B is the only place you’d see. You’d miss everything else along the way.

“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.”
― Napoleon Bonaparte

Most travellers and travel blogs focus on strengths and achievement. We live in a world where success is equated with fearlessness and the ability to hide your weakness. A part of me envies people (including Basil) who don’t let fear rule their lives. I would love to be like them. But, I also know there’s nothing wrong with being me. Fear or anxiety is not a weakness. It’s an opportunity to tap into a latent inner-strength that’s been hiding under self-doubt.

“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’
No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

It’s not been an easy journey to conquer fear. I wish I could say it gets better with extensive travel. I wish I could say I’m invincible now. But, even after a decade of travel, I can never say when will I struggle to move a foot forward. I’ve learned to accept that as a part of my life and at the same time: not let that stop me from travelling. We all have our own ways to cope with being different, and here’s what I learned on the road.

Get a supportive travel partner

Manali-Leh, India

Lachung, India

Having a supportive travel partner or companion is the best way to gain confidence. That doesn’t mean you can’t do solo trips. It just makes a difficult journey more bearable and you have someone to boost your morale — when its on a downward spiral. Travelling through mountain passes and high altitude mountain towns has been my worst nightmare. But, Basil was incredibly supportive when AMS (in Lachung) struck or when fear got in the way. Any traveller, including guides or drivers, can also be a pillar of strength. Our driver, from Manali to Leh, kept repeating, “It’s nothing” whenever the pass got difficult. That’s all I needed to believe.

Distract yourself with the view.

Diskit, India

Jökulsárlón, Iceland.

Exploring some of the most beautiful places on our planet requires bravado. Nature can be soft and harsh — if you don’t respect her. I’ve found that looking at her beauty can be a nice distraction from any sort of anxiety or travel-related sickness.

Don’t forget to breathe.

Pattaya, Thailand

Mawswami Caves, India

Fear targets your breathing. And when you’re struggling for air, there’s no way you’re going to think rationally. Practicing breathing techniques have helped me control my breathing and placate my fears in tricky situations. Closed spaces, with limited air, are especially challenging. When you’re underwater or exploring a cave, how you breathe can turn the experience from a living nightmare to exhilaration.

Be well prepared.

Hallasan, South Korea

Being prepared physically (through regular exercise) and mentally (mediation) is important for any trip. It’s also important to carry the right clothes and footwear depending upon the terrain you choose to explore. It saves you the trouble of triggering your sore points. I made a mistake of not using hiking boots on the Hallasan hike and struggled with a sore knee — all the way down. It wasn’t a difficult path, but the rugged stones just aggravated an old condition. I could have completely avoided it — had I been better prepared.

Push yourself, but take your time.

Taebaeksan, South Korea

Goryeosan, South Korea

Travel isn’t a race, unless you’re actually competing in one. It’s a journey of self-discovery through exploration. I prefer to start a trip or hike early in the morning, so I can take my time and not worry about rest-stops. It may seem cliched, but maintaining a steady pace will get you to your destination. It eliminates the need to rush (trigger panic) or feel the pressure to make it before a deadline. It’s always worked for me.

It’s OK to cave in. There will be a next time.

Seoraksan, South Korea

The Great Wall of China, China

Mt. Bromo, Indonesia

I’ve never liked to leave a project incomplete or a book unfinished. I’ve always liked to compete any task that I attempt. But, on a trip, it’s wiser to quit rather than risk injury and avoid a sticky situation — you can’t get out of. There’s no shame in not completing a hike or a trail. It’s the attempt that’s more important. In Seoraksan, I didn’t feel confident walking along the suspension bridge and sat till the others came back. The story wasn’t very different along the Great Wall. While a part of me wishes I could have completed the trail, it motivated me to complete many trails afterwards.

We all have an inbuilt survival mechanism.


Our survival depends upon our ability to adapt and change in difficult situations. We all have this inner compass that makes us want to survive the odds. When our guide lost her way in a Mongolian forest — I panicked. I was the weakest link, because of my ill-fitted boots that triggered my weak knee. But, I was also the only one with a keen sense of direction. Now, no one wants to listen to the person who’s crazy scared. After some yelling, they took my advice and I, tried to follow them without keeping them back. Teamwork and the fear of wolves got us to the other side.

Stay Calm and you’ll figure it out.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Staying calm isn’t easy for anyone who’s experienced anxiety. It’s easier said than done. You just need to believe in yourself and don’t let doubt cloud your judgement. Water scares me and I’ve never been comfortable on or under it. During our river tour of the Mekong Delta, our oarswoman urged me to try rowing her sampan. It took some effort and I was quite successful. Cut to Halong Bay, two days later, Basil signed the two of us for a kayaking experience. It was our first kayaking experience as a couple and after some bumpy hits and nervous stares — we made it to the start.

Stop reading and stay optimistic.

Orkhon Valley, Mongolia

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia

Last year, a week before our dream trip to Mongolia, I let pre-travel anxiety control me. It’s also the reason why I’m writing this post — a year later. I was so nervous about the unfamiliarity of the terrain, the instructions in the travel brochure, and all those negative thoughts that kept clouding my rational thought process. I nearly cancelled a trip that I had been dreaming of. I’ve learned that planning, saving, and preparing for a trip should start from 6 months or a year before — if it’s a challenging trip. Information helps in being prepared physically and mentally. A week before, stop reading. It’s like exam fever and it’s best to bet on what you already know rather than get confused with every possible outcome.

You’re the only person who should judge yourself.

Bromo View Point, Indonesia

Mt. Bromo, Indonesia

Quite often, we let others judge our ability. As a geek, I’ve always had people expect more from me. But, when it comes to adventure, Basil is the only person to believe I can do something. Our Java trip was packed with early mornings and long days. We reached Bromo on the last leg of our trip and my body was finally telling me to stop. I struggled with breathing during a simple climb to Bromo view point and I wondered if it was tiredness or the slight change in altitude. Our guide looked at me with sorry eyes and wondered if I would climb Mt. Bromo. Honestly, I doubted myself until I reached the ash-covered steps. I struggled with the sun, dust, and fumes; but made it to the top. I was not going to let my fear or someone’s judgement deprive me of that stunning view!

Lastly, having a little faith in yourself can help you take those first few steps of discovery because…

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”



Posted by:twobrownfeet

Writer-Photographer Duo. Now in Seoul.

39 replies on “Learning to Beat Travel Anxiety

  1. This is such a bold and realistic post to write about, Cheryl. Travel is not all nice roses and blue sunshine, and I think many of us have had travel anxiety. You are so right that fear targets or breathing and if we are feeling panicky, we might feel we are suffocating. Controlling your fear you can control your thoughts about the situation around you and avoid negative thoughts. Like you, I’m not too good at ascending altitude and even found going up and around Borobudur (hiking uphill) hard because of that. So in the end I hiked at a slower pace than everybody else – and as you said, travel is not a race unless you are in one. Travel is very often a once in a lifetime opportunity and there really is no point in rushing.

    1. I’ve been learning so much from you, Mabel. You know you’re such a brave writer. It’s easy to get scared with the hate online and you just keep writing. I think that’s inspirational! Writing is conquering my biggest fear. 🙂
      It must have been really hot when you climbed Borobudur. In the morning, it was pleasant and it made the climb easier. After the sun came out it was so hot. Borobudur is about peace and tranquility. It’s good you took your time. I agree. We always consider ourselves fortunate to be able to travel. We know of so many who don’t or cannot leave their town or city. It makes everything worth it!

      1. Thanks for your kind words, Cheryl. Very nice of you to say. I connect best and express myself best with words 🙂 It was definitely hot when I climbed Borobudur, climbed it in the middle of the afternoon. But it was a bit cloudy that day…but still hot lol. Travel is always something to immerse yourself into, and above all enjoy and appreciate 🙂

    1. Awww! You know I’m your biggest fan and virtual stalker! lol. Did I tell you about reading your Hallasan Hike before ours? The two of you are so amazing and fit! Hiking in that rain. Wow! And obviously I loved your Bhutan pics (it’s been on our list for ages). Also, do you remember I cancelled our lunch date before you left Seoul? It was a weak stomach because of pre-travel anxiety. We finally walked along the forest line and had tea. 🙂 Miss you! xoxo

      1. That hike was totally insane, I still can’t believe we did it! I’m still sad we didn’t meet sooner, but I’m so glad you’re in my life now! Miss you too! xoxo

  2. That’s a great read, Cheryl. I sometimes wonder why do we stereotype the success or a charismatic personality? Why is it we all have to adhere to the list of traits to be successful or popular? Why can’t we be “we”? That’s exactly what makes us unique! Why do people want to take away our identity?

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the read! It felt good getting it all out. 🙂 I think people like to see others in boxes. It’s easier for many to interact with someone who fits a particular trait. Change is slow to come. But we can start the conversation. 🙂

  3. This is a great post, Cheryl, and brought back many memories for me, especially the time in Bolivia when the people I was with decided to walk along a six inch wide goat trail along the edge of a loose gravel cliff with no foliage and a steep drop. I simply didn’t feel like ending my life at the bottom of a slope in the wilderness of Bolivia, so, like you, I sat and waited until the others came back.
    However, I do have some advice for you regarding the kayaking. I believe I recall you saying once that you are not a swimmer. I live beside the ocean, have canoed, rowed and kayaked plenty and know how quickly a situation can turn dangerous on the water. I suggest you take up swimming if you plan to do any more boating activities. Both my sons were competitive rowers for a time. Before they took their first rowing lessons, they were required to swim 100 metres in cold water with clothes on. You also need instruction on how to act around currents, riptides should you end up in them and how to rescue yourself and others when you dump in a kayak or canoe. We have many drownings off our coast every single year.
    Take care, Debbie

    1. Wow! Your adventure sounds more scary than mine. 🙂 I agree, feeling mentally prepared is so important before any sort of trip or hike. Even easy trails can look like mountains — if I don’t feel like it.
      Thanks for your advice, Debbie. I’ll keep it in mind. We’ve been wanting to take swimming classes, but it’s like our Korean classes. We aren’t disciplined in our normal lives or there’s always too much going on. I agree, it’s always an added advantage knowing how to swim. I’m not sure if we would have many opportunities with kayaking or canoeing here in Seoul. The Han River has some courses, but it’s not easy to book them. The next easy route would be in Chuncheon and that’s about 2 hours away from Seoul.
      It’s so good to hear from you! xo

  4. I totally agree! It’s hard to take those first steps into travelling. Even after all the flights I’ve taken around the world, I get anxiety every time! But travel is about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and perseverance much more than it is about seeing those beautiful sites… that’s just the reward at the end!

    1. Hi Paige! I forgot to talk about my fear of flying. lol…I watch movies to take my mind off. It’s getting better now. I agree. The reward is worth every bit of uncertainty before!

  5. What an absolutely amazing post and such an honest insight into you Cheryl. I think that many of us can relate to so many of the fears and anxieties you write about here, but it does sound like through facing them and living then you’re slowly conquering them. Good for you my friend. Life and travel is not always sunshine and roses but it is about getting out there and being true to ourself. Wonderful messages and quotes throughout and, as always, spectacular photos. xx 🙂

    1. You’ve been such an inspiration talking about anxiety and panic attacks. I know how difficult those are! I think, I have a mix of good and bad days. I try to learn from both. 🙂 It helps me to keep going. Thanks for your wonderful comment. It never fails to make my day! xoxo

  6. It is this very fear that makes all those travel expeditions worthwhile. The constant battle of cannot and can, the incessant conversations you have in your own head, this very uncertainty is what gives us all our stories. Cheryl, thank you for this amazing post. No one should judge you for the way you are and I feel this so many times. Everytime my health comes in the way of travel, I tell myself, No I will embrace this as me and go ahead. I could feel you in so many instances and I so agree to the fact that one must go at their own pace because honestly, it isnt a race. I was the last one during the trek at Barsey in Sikkim and I broke down when a fellow trekker called me a damage piece in jest, but it was worth it. The tears, the self introspection, the journey…
    Thank you for penning this. It gives so many people courage that yes, it is okay to harbour fears and still travel the ‘world’. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your support, Div! 🙂 I’ve been sighing and oohing (I hope that’s a word) at your Himalayan pics. I’d love to go/come back there! And I know how difficult those terrains are. Sikkim’s such a gem! It’s got a special place in our hearts. I hope it hasn’t changed. I’ve been laughed at during trek. I rarely travel with others — especially hikes. Fighting my own fears is hard enough and I could do without external triggers. 🙂 “Everytime my health comes in the way of travel, I tell myself, No I will embrace this as me and go ahead.” This is fantastic! I think travel keeps us healthier, no? 🙂 Thanks so much for joining the conversation. It’s so good to hear from you! Hugs!

  7. I believe many people who appear confident and brave have all these fears and anxieties inside somewhere. Maybe they/we have been conditioned to hide them, or perhaps the worries surface more strongly at some times in life and not others. Yes, there do seem to be people who blithely go about all sorts of scary things in life, walking on physical and metaphorical ledges, but my guess is many of them have simply found a way to short-circuit the kinds of worries that handicap others. I’ve been in both camps, and I think there’s always a reason for being one way or the other, no matter how frustrating it can be at times.

    1. That’s so true! I know people from both camps. I agree, some people don’t feel fear as much as others and some people have learned to hide it effectively. I think a lot of it is in the mind. Our mental make-up, the chemicals in our brain, and our external triggers create those weak moments. Once I figured that out, I thought I had a shot at all the things that I thought couldn’t do. 🙂

  8. Your insights into the full range of emotions of travel is perfectly reflected in this post ~ the challenges and fear is part of the appeal in travel, but the faith in knowing there will always be something good, something tremendous around the corner is why it is so intoxicating to take the next step forward. Cheers to more travel and experiences.

    1. Thank you, Randall! You read my mind perfectly. Keeping faith is such an important part of travel. And it helps knowing that our mums are always hoping for the best and praying for us. It’s got us through some rough spots. Have a great week ahead!

  9. Absolutely love your first two photos. As you know so well, travel is such a brilliant tool for facing our fears and our mindset. I too have come to learn that the challenges never diminish. But, hopefully, we continue to rise to meet them each time. Here’s to growing that seed of faith in ourselves!

  10. Excellent post. There are a lot of different flavors of travel, some more nervous inducing than others. If the riskier ones don’t give you a bit of anxiety you’re probably lying to yourself (deliberately or otherwise). I suspect even the “brave” ones have the fears, but they’ve just come to terms with the idea they’ll have that background fear, and may even like it. (Adrenaline junkies.) Based on the places you’ve been, I suspect you’re braver than you admit to yourself.

    1. Thanks, Dave! I agree. Even the brave ones have their fears and I think they like the idea of conquering it. You’re right. Beautiful locations motivate me to be brave. It’s worth the effort! 🙂

  11. Like you I do get some vertigo unless there is a rail I can use..and a wall on both sides of me.

    So far I’ve travelled outside of North America with another person.

    1. I like having railings or a hand to hold. 🙂 I enjoyed reading your post on Fushimi-Inari. We couldn’t make it there in 2012. Your journey is equally exciting! Thanks so much for stopping by, Jean.

  12. Great advice here. I am guilty of often overdoing it and cramming in way too much when I travel. I just don’t want to miss anything! But I really do need to learn to slow down and relax. I’ll keep trying…

    1. Thanks, Juliann. I know what you mean. I’ve been wanting to slow down too. 🙂 See a few things, live in the moment, and let time pass. But we keep breaking our own rule… 😦

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