Are you easily overwhelmed by noise, crowds, bright lights, and bad smells? Are you jumpy and tend to worry a lot? If you are like me, and are biologically wired to be sensitive to your environment, then little things may tend to bother you more than the “average” person.
Basically, I sweat the small stuff. I’m not good at rolling with the punches. Or going with the flow.
But somehow, I’ve found a way to travel the world for the past year without losing my mind. In fact, people who know me well are often surprised that I travel as much as I do.
I am what is referred to as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), a personality/temperament shared by an estimated 20% of the population.
When I first heard the term Highly Sensitive Person, it brought to mind the pejorative vision of an overly defensive drama queen who cried at the drop of a hat. But that’s not a true picture of high sensitivity.
HSPs are strongly affected by their environment. Changes in their lives can shake them up. Being around crowds, traffic, strong odors, extreme temperatures, and loud noise can be overwhelming. For example, riding in a cramped, hot bus for hours can produce anxiety because the HSP can’t stop focusing on how uncomfortable they feel. And, yes, HSPs can have intense emotional reactions because they are so dialed-in to other people’s moods. (Take the HSP self test here.)
When you are highly sensitive, the idea of traveling the world—where it’s certain you will sometimes be uncomfortable and in unpredictable situations – can seem daunting. There are just too many things to worry about and too many things that could go wrong!
Will it be dangerous? What if the hotel is dirty? Are there lots of mosquitoes and bugs? What if I get sick? Is the weather too hot? How will I get around? Did I pack the right things? Will I be able to meet people? What if I miss something great?
Will I be able to handle it?
Some people find questions like these to be part of the adventure and excitement of travel. Others of us find them to be causes for worry.
Have no fear, because I’m here to tell you that independent, long-term budget travel does an HSP good. Yes, travel is probably more difficult for HSPs–but it’s worth it. For me, travel forces me to get out of my comfort zone and gives me confidence. At times, the constant change and adversity of travel gives me anxiety, but it also makes me crave learning and expansion of my life experiences.
At times, the constant change and adversity of travel gives me anxiety, but it also makes me crave learning and expansion of my life experiences.
In order to survive on the move, I do need to take care to manage my surroundings. To that end, I may never be a super-adventurous “hardcore” traveler; I won’t ever take a 15-hour bus ride, attend a full moon party, or sleep in a bamboo hut in the jungle – but that’s okay. I have to accept and adjust to what works for my temperament. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I need calm, quiet, and a clean bed to reduce my stress, increase my energy levels, and help me enjoy the wonders that surround me.
If you have read this far and thought to yourself, “I can relate,” then I’d like to share a few tips I’ve learned from being on the road the past nine months that may be able to help you, too.
These tactics have helped make travel less stressful for an HSP like me.
- Stay in one location for a long period of time rather than moving quickly from place to place (this is a good tip for any long-term traveler!).
- Avoid dorms in hostels and get your own room. AirBnb is great for renting full apartments and can help you feel more stable and comfortable.
- Make sure you have what I call the “HSP Travel Survival Kit”: eyeshades, earplugs, a hat, sunglasses, and, if you are shameless, maybe a neck cooler or personal fan.
- Don’t feel like you have to see every tourist site. The best parts of most vacations aren’t the sites you see, but the interesting stories.
- Give yourself downtime to relax, read a book, or just wander. Take a nap in the middle of the day to recharge from sightseeing if you feel like it.
- Research. The more you know, the less anxiety you’ll have about something unexpected.
- What about organized tours? I avoid tours because I like to explore on my own and be in control of how I spend my day. Others may like tours because they remove the stress of having to plan things on your own.
- When you are going out exploring for the day, plan ahead and carry anything with you that you might need: a sweater/jacket, umbrella, hat, sunscreen, insect spray, water, a snack, or anything else that might make you more comfortable during the course of the day.
- Buy health/travel insurance if it will help you avoid extra anxiety.
- When you first arrive in a new country, take a taxi from the airport to your hotel instead of trying to navigate local transportation. A taxi might cost more, but after a long flight, you just want to get to your hotel, relax, and recharge.
- Make sure the person/people you are traveling with understands your feelings and needs. If you say “no” to partying late into the night, they’ll understand it’s not because you are boring, but because it’s overwhelming to you.
- Give in to the fact that there will be times when you will be uncomfortable and that there’s nothing you can do about it, no matter how well you prepare or plan ahead. When I know I’m going to be uncomfortable, I handle it much better than when I’m unprepared. For example, I knew I’d be sweating profusely all day at the tropically humid Angkor Wat, and I was fine with that. But when I got caught unprepared in a sudden heavy downpour in Budapest, I did not deal with it well.
- Use Chris Guillebeau’s $10 rule. When spending a few extra bucks can make your life much more comfortable, stop worrying about the money and do it. Decision time: take a $6 taxi or walk to your hotel in the searing heat wearing a heavy backpack? Get a taxi! If it’s only a little more dough for a lot more comfort, DO IT!
- Fly long flights in business or first class. How? Using frequent flyer miles from credit card signup bonuses. When you upgrade, air travel changes from a tedious cattle-car slog to luxury. Your seat reclines a lot (or becomes completely flat) and you can actually sleep! You also get access to comfortable airport lounges when you fly business/first, which are an oasis of calm (and free snacks) in the midst of airport craziness. It’s a total game changer.
- Don’t feel like you need to “keep up” with what other people do. There are no rules to traveling. Go at your own pace and do what you want to do.
There’s nothing “wrong” or “weird” about being highly sensitive. Don’t let being highly sensitive prevent you from doing what you love. Traveling will help you better understand the world, but more importantly, yourself, and what you need to be happy.
Do you deal with anxiety in your daily life? Have you used travel to help? Let us hear your story below.