Travel Comfort Zone: Turning Anxiety Into Adventure

The South African Wine Valleys
The South African Wine Valleys

After traveling pretty extensively over the last couple of years, it’s time to share a little secret: I think travel can be kind of scary.

Yes, you read that right: travel can be kind of scary.

And, if you think about it, there’s a lot of be scared of: missed flight connections, lost luggage, language barriers, crime, unrecognizable food, getting sick, missing loved ones, and everything in between. Reading that list might be enough to instantly raise your blood pressure. That list could scare anyone out of packing a bag and setting out to see the world– actually, that list could scare anyone away from setting out to see their hometown.

So what’s a traveler to do? For me, the answer became clear pretty quickly: there’s no reason to completely abandon your comfort zone.

Let’s talk for a minute about the idea of a comfort zone. Comfort zones make you feel great. Things are controlled and predictable there, and you can exist stress-free while enjoying a low-to-no risk experience. Sounds great, but there’s a problem: we’re not at our best when we’re in our comfort zone. We don’t try new things, and we don’t perform optimally. Of course, too far outside of our comfort zones and we’re all a bit of a mess- high stress and high anxiety don’t tend to help anyone shine. That’s why scientists suggest we strive for something a little more manageable: a state of optimal anxiety, where stress levels are just a bit higher than you would ordinarily like them to be. Optimal anxiety pushes us to try new things and expand our horizons.

The Monte-Carlo ATP Tennis Tournament
The Monte-Carlo ATP Tennis Tournament

What does this have to do with travel? For anyone planning a trip- whether it’s your first time going to a new country, a new city, or a new part of town- embracing your comfort zone can make all the difference. Before you plan a trip, think about what keeps you in your comfort zone. Is it access to great food? Certain hotel chains? Countries that speak your language? Keep some of the elements that make you feel safe and secure in mind as you plan a trip. Let your comfort zone drive certain aspects of your travel plans, and let the rest fall into your state of optimal anxiety.

I didn’t consider the importance of respecting the comfort zone when Adam and I planned our first international trip in 2009. I had a work trip scheduled in Barcelona, and I encouraged Adam to come along without thinking much about whether he would enjoy it. As it turned out, he didn’t enjoy it at all. In fact, the culture shock- the new food, the lack of English speakers, even figuring out how to use public transportation- was entirely overwhelming to him for his first trip outside of the US. The stress and anxiety was so powerful that he wouldn’t consider international travel again for two years- and that was because we got married and needed a great honeymoon destination.

So how did we bridge the gap between “we’re never leaving home again” and “when is our next trip?” Here are a few things that worked for us.

  • DETERMINE YOUR NONNEGOTIABLES in advance. Does the idea of carrying around a phrasebook or struggling to communicate in a foreign language sound stressful? You might want to start with countries or locations where your native language is widely spoken and understood. Do you absolutely need to start your day with a hot shower? You won’t find clean hotels with modern amenities everywhere in the world- or you might pay a premium for them. Everyone has nonnegotiables, so know what it is you absolutely need in order to feel happy and comfortable during your trip—especially if it’s your first one. And don’t be surprised if you notice those nonnegotiables change or disappear over time; the more experienced you get and the more you travel, the more your curiosity might take precedence over your need for access to certain foods or hotels.
  • PICK AN ACTIVITY YOU’LL GET EXCITED ABOUT and let it drive your itinerary. We have a couple of activities we love, and we try to incorporate them into our travel plans whenever possible. So far, our love of tennis has taken us to Melbourne and Monte Carlo, and our interest in wine has led us through the Yarra Valley in Australia, the Wachau Valley in Austria, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and the Paarl Valley in South Africa, and the Casablanca Valley in Chile. Having something specific to look forward to grounds us as we travel. We know what to expect from wine tasting and tennis tournaments, which brings us closer to our comfort zones even in foreign countries. And it’s always great when activities we love connect us with other travelers with the same interests!
  • PREPARE FOR THE WORST, even though it probably won’t happen. I’m an organized travel planner; I like lists and printed confirmations sorted in chronological order in manila folders. I travel with color copies of my passport, and I have everything backed up electronically in case I need something or lose something important. That’s my comfort zone, and I work with it. Are you afraid your loved ones won’t know where you are? Share your itinerary and contact information with them, and schedule times to connect so they know you’re OK. What happens if one of your day trips gets cancelled or the weather changes? Consider having a few backup plans in place in case you wind up with extra time on your hands. Thinking about what scares you and planning for how to counter those situations might be just what your mind needs to stay at ease and remain confident about your trip.
  • KNOW WHAT OUTCOME MATTERS MOST. Is it coming home with camera full of photos of Stonehenge? Making sure you have pizza every single day in Rome? Make sure you have enough space and flexibility in your schedule to accommodate whatever part of your trip is most important to you. Nothing pushes you toward stress and anxiety quite as fast as the threat of not getting what you want out of a trip, so recognize what you want to happen and make your plans around that outcome.

Staying in your travel comfort zone- or even within your optimal anxiety range- isn’t right for everyone. Some of my favorite trips have been the ones where I have landed as far from my comfort zone as a plane could take me, and adapting to new situations, climates, and resources changed how I saw the world. But don’t deprive yourself of the things that might make you comfortable just for bragging rights. Find the mix of familiar and unfamiliar that makes your trip perfect for you.

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Travel Comfort Zone: Turning Anxiety Into Adventure