Travel Advice

How Not to Be Afraid to Travel

A friend recently told me that she admired me because she thought I was brave to have traveled and moved abroad on my own. And while that’s a very nice thing for to have said, it’s not true. I’m not brave. Well, at least not in the ways she and others may think.

John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” Similarly,  Eddie Rickenbacker proclaimed, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” By those definitions,  I’m not brave to have traveled the world because traveling doesn’t scare me.

I have my childhood to thank for this. I was lucky to have had parents who also enjoyed traveling,  so it was something we did a lot growing up. My parents also placed a lot of emphasis on self-reliance and independence; having my brother and I navigate our home city of Honolulu by ourselves from a young age and sending us to stay with relatives in California and summer camps in Canada. I was taking the city bus by myself by 11 and the first time I flew on a plane solo I was six or seven. It was never something I knew to be afraid of because it was just always a part of my life.

But because I get a decent amount of “I’m afraid to travel. What should I do?” emails and because fear is something I have a lot of experience with (although I’m not afraid to travel abroad, I AM afraid of flying) I thought I’d compile  a list of things you can do if you want to travel but can’t seem to get over the fears that are standing in your way.

afraid to fly
Guess what? I’m terrified of flying. These photos were taken during a flight I took on a tiny plane in Northern California.

See fear for what it is: a chemical reaction in the brain

When you’re afraid, the emotion can feel all encompassing; like it’s hijacked your whole body, your every thought. But if you can remove your intellectual reaction to the fear and focus purely on your body’s physical response, you may find fear isn’t more than an uncomfortable sensation. Think about it. What does the fear experience involve, physically? A tightness in your stomach or chest, an increase in heart rate, a shot of adrenaline that makes you hyper aware and self-conscious…while those aren’t pleasant sensations, they’re certainly tolerable. I find it helps to think of fear as a chemical reaction; your brain’s way of ensuring you’re alert and prepared for battle. Nothing more. If your brain is (wrongly) choosing to react towards travel by pumping fear-causing chemicals like adrenaline or the stress hormone Cortisol through your blood stream, well, so what? Your brain made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you have to make it worse by giving that fear all of your attention and mental energy. Tell your brain to cut that shit out.

Instead of thinking “I’m afraid”, think “I’m excited”

The fear emotion and the excitement or anticipation emotion are very similar. The biggest difference between the two is the labels we attach to each (fear = bad, excitement = good). When I’m feeling nervous about something – say, flying – I find it helps to reframe my perception of those feelings. Every time I catch myself thinking ‘I’m scared’, I stop and rephrase that thought in my head to ‘I’m excited’. I choose to interpret those butterflies in my stomach as excitement for my trip ahead rather than fear of what might happen during the journey there.

Arm yourself with research

We’ve all the heard this statistic: The odds of dying in a plane crash are a million to one. But it’s true. The likelihood of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 1.7 million to 1 in 29.4 million. While knowing this statistic likely won’t help, arming yourself with information about airplanes and flying, may.  When I was trying to get over my fear of flying, I took a ride an a flight simulator (the same ones pilots use) and went for a flying lesson with my friend (he’s a pilot). I had a lot of questions about the flying process that I realized were contributing to my fear. Questions like: What is turbulence? Is it ever dangerous? Why does the wing move up and down sometimes when we’re flying? Why does the plane swing back and forth slightly during takeoff? By asking questions, doing the research and learning about the flying process, I armed myself with the information I needed to overcome my fear. Sure, I’m still a nervous flier. But I’m a lot better about it than I used to be.

If you’re afraid to travel, you’ll first need to identify what about the process is scaring you most. Are you worried the country your visiting is dangerous? Research it. Are you afraid you won’t understand what people are saying to you? Study the language. You’ll still be afraid but it’ll be an informed afraid, which won’t feel nearly as bad.

Don’t think about it, just do it


When I went white-water kayaking in Nepal, I spent five days paddling down a rocky, rapid-filled river. Towards the end of our trip, myself and my fellow novice kayakers were told we’d be facing the hardest task yet: Kayaking down a small waterfall.I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, I didn’t sleep at all the night beforehand. I was visibly shaking. And as we neared the falls and I could hear the booming water cascading ahead, I asked one of my kayaking friends: “How are you not afraid?” He was smiling and he looked elated. Totally pumped to be hurtling through level four rapids and then off a watery cliff. I couldn’t understand it.

“You have to turn off the fear.” He said.

“Huh?” I asked through chattering teeth.

“It’s like this switch in your brain…You have to turn it off. Turn off your thoughts. Don’t think about it, just do it.”

Though that seemed like a ridiculous idea (turning off your thoughts?! Who does that?) in retrospect, that would explain a lot. My friend was a daredevil – an extreme surfer,  a cliff jumper and a sky diver. If anyone had mastered the ability to turn off fear, it was probably him.

I wasn’t so lucky. Though I survived that kayaking trip unscathed, I was terrified the entire time. I nearly threw up from stress when it was all over. But I have taken his advice in the years since and have tried – to varying degrees of success – to remain in the physical moment and ignore my thoughts when I’m in a nerve-wracking situation. If I’m boarding an airplane, for example, I focus on each step of the process: finding my seat, storing my stuff, buckling my seat belt, etc. I don’t allow my thoughts to spiral into fearful thinking. I don’t let my brain entertain the “what ifs” circling my imagination. Or at least I try not to. I’m not always successful. But somehow even just the act of trying to turn off my fear can help to lessen it.

Despite titling this post “How not to be afraid to travel”, none of the content in this actually addresses how to to do that. That was intentional. I think the point isn’t to learn how to travel without fear, but rather to learn how to travel despite the fear. Or perhaps, because of it. As author and poet C. JoyBell C once wrote: “Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.”

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