Our family has been talking a lot lately about travel, about trying new things, and about living in different places. With our kids scattered around the U.S., Scott and I soon to become Bahamian residents, my parents heading back to El Salvador for a few months, and our youngest daughter embarking on a year in Brasil through Rotary Youth Exchange, it’s no wonder these subjects have come up in conversation.
Our daughter, especially, has noted that among her friends and school acquaintances, the idea of travel seems to scare most people. Going on a vacation with your family? Okay. Trying a week-long work trip with a youth group? Maybe. Heading overseas by yourself or with loved ones, for any amount of time? Forget it. She’s unique among her peers, with some exceptions, although I’m sure that varies considerably by region.
If you Google “why don’t people travel?” you’ll find a myriad of articles, top fives, and lists of reasons why many people choose not to venture out of their home country or hometown. U.S. citizens in particular seem to have a greater aversion, statistically, to travel than people of other developed nations. Is it financial hardship? Lack of time? Obligations that prohibit leaving? Disinterest, because home is just fine or because we feel cultured already, through education or exposure via other avenues? We know that there are many understandable factors at play in the travel decision, but one of the most compelling is probably fear.
When it comes to travel, fear can rear its ugly head in different ways. There’s extreme agoraphobia, or fear of being in crowded public places (which is also fear of leaving a safe place.) More than 26 million Americans have a fear of flying. Others have phobias about germs and eating unfamiliar foods, taking public transportation, or even crossing streets. These can be debilitating, and are not to be laughed at; however, many other, overcome-able fears can keep the would-be traveler from venturing out.
There’s fear of the unknown, fear of looking stupid, fear of getting lost, fear of getting sick, fear of running out of money, fear of not liking the experience as much as you thought. There’s the worry that you don’t know enough, that you aren’t strong enough emotionally or physically, or that your friends or family will think you’re crazy.
We’re not saying that everyone should travel, or that those who don’t are missing out on everything, or are denying themselves an essential life experience. We’re also not saying you have to travel to improve your life, or to make you healthier.
We ARE saying that if you want to travel, or think you might, and fears are holding you back, getting in there and tackling those fears through practice and direct experience can change your life.
Disclaimer: we are not neuroscientists, doctors, or experts in the areas of brain research or psychology or spirituality. But from what we’ve read and experienced, traveling is a wonderful way to reap mental, physical, and emotional benefits, and there are definitely ways to overcome our fears about travel.
Let’s take a look at our brains first. We can get started along the path to overcoming fear by challenging our fearful thoughts, and replacing them with happier ones. When we are afraid of something, have a scary experience, or harbor some sort of anxiety, it’s the amygdala in our brains that keeps track of those fear memories and responses. The trick is to overcome these memories by producing oxytocin, which makes us feel better.
This can be part of a long process begun well before a trip idea is even hatched. Thinking positive thoughts, visualizing ourselves scouring the internet for trip possibilities, picturing ourselves packing our bags, boarding planes, meeting new people, checking into hotels and seeing sights can set the foundation for a positive experience. When that catastrophic thinking creeps in, challenge it with happy thoughts again and again. The oxytocin produced in our bodies as we think these thoughts actually banishes fear.
Fear in the form of concern is okay, but we’re talking about worries that, when you really get down to it, are somewhat irrational. Overcoming these types of fears by visualization and positive thinking will get us on the right track.
So, let’s say we’ve tackled some of that initial travel scariness by producing more oxytocin, and helping to connect more neural synapses in our brains.
Let’s look at the concept of habituation. Science tells us that the mechanism of habituation refers to the nervous system’s decrease in arousal after a repeated stimulus. In other words, the more we are exposed to something, the closer it comes to boring. It’s safe to say, then, that the more we put ourselves out of our comfort zones, the more confident we will become. In travel this idea is easy to test.
Planning is a great thing, as is risk management. We certainly want to spend some time before we travel, not only visualizing awesomeness, but also researching destinations, modes of transportation, even purchasing travel insurance in order to allay some of our fears beforehand. Then when we’re ready, (or even when we’re not yet ready!), it’s time to take the plunge.
Fear can often paralyze us, resulting in an incredible itinerary that never happens because we just can’t seem to take that next step. But take that step we must, and when we do, we often find that although it’s still scary at first, through habituation things become a lot less scary.
After a while, we realize we don’t panic at the thought of booking tickets, because we’ve done it a few times now. Then we notice that we actually have some opinions about the different hotels we’ve stayed in, and we vow “next time” to choose something even better. We find ourselves getting that anxious feeling in our guts when we are back home, but realize it’s now a happy anticipation for the next adventure.
As Noam Shpancer, Ph.D. says in “Overcoming Fear: The Only Way Out is Through,” “most people attempt to cope with feelings of anxiety by avoiding situations or objects that elicit the feelings. Avoidance, however, prevents your nervous system from habituating… avoiding anxiety maintains and magnifies it.”
Dr. Shpancer says the only way out is through. Exposing ourselves to our fears accomplishes a few things, namely a feeling of confidence and empowerment, less “need” for worry as you master skills and see your ability to cope, and the knowledge that you can feel fear AND get through it.
Facing our fears.
Scary, but taking small steps towards the result you can be sure is coming, will change your life. David at Raptitude wrote a compelling blog post about how doing what’s hard, while initially daunting and seemingly useless, can make things much easier in the long run. Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Geographic Traveler, “It’s through travel that I’ve stared my fear in the face, revealing it for the phantom it is. The person I bring home is closer to the one I want to be, and I’m damned if I’ll let fear stop that.”
Seeing beautiful sights, meeting new and interesting people, learning more about yourself and the world… Of course these things are a part of most travel experiences. And now you know there’s so much more.
What can travel do for you?