Part of the fun of traveling is getting to explore the unknown. Unfortunately, the delight of discovering something new and different can sometimes come with significant distractions and aggravations. Addressing and managing several of the most pervasive “travel anxiety triggers” is easily possible, and will help you get back to enjoying your trip.
Detours. The more you travel, the more you’ll realize that the world is an unfinished work of art. The average metropolis can have at least half a dozen construction projects shaking the ground at once, while a mega-city can have a dozen or more. Popular tourist destinations become even more popular and congested when they win a bid to host a major sporting event, or cultural or political summit; new coliseums, arenas, hotels, and rail tracks suddenly spring from the dirt, outdating your map and giving you a new challenge in the form of blocks-long rows of pylons and yellow tape. Although construction detours are the most common you will find, you might also encounter detours to accommodate marches, protests, security lockdowns for government officials, biking and marathon events, and others.
Unfortunately, pedestrian detours can lead to confusion, disorientation, and getting very, very lost if you don’t know how to handle them. Your stress level is going to shoot sky-high if you “follow the orange signs” only to find yourself in an alley at dusk with no idea which direction to turn. Here are some useful guidelines for managing detours.
- Trust the logic of the detour. City planners and engineers have to get a number of high-level approvals to implement one, and while not all detours are intuitive, the basic goal is to get you as close as possible back to where you need to be, in the shortest amount of time. You may have to let go of your initial assessment of where you should be, and go with the flow of a detour even if it feels like you’re going the wrong way. As any construction worker would tell you, there’s a reason why two U-turns gets you headed in the right direction again.
- Before you go through the detour, clearly understand where you are by picking a landmark that you can identify from blocks away (i.e., at the end of the detour). This is essential if you need to retrace your steps, but the detour only allows foot traffic one way (this usually occurs with detours from a train or metro station).
- If you have no idea where you’ve ended up at the end of the detour, see where the majority of other people (especially commuters) are going, and follow them. Tourist areas in most cities back right up to central business districts. If you still can’t find the tourist area or where you want to go, and it’s too stressful to ask a stranger, then head back to the detour exit and try another direction. Improvising after you’ve followed a bunch of people two blocks down the road is not a good idea.
- Recognize that detours can take you up or down as well as north, west, east, or south. You may have to take stairs, tunnels, or escalators to avoid a construction zone. If you think only in terms of traveling across, you could find yourself staring at a dirty wall.
Crowds. There’s nothing like a throng of humanity crammed into a small plaza or a narrow street to aggravate even the most extroverted people. Anxiety triggers include noise, getting jostled around, fear of pickpockets and other thieves, and feelings of constant self-consciousness.
The key to dispelling anxiety about crowds is to understand that they’re made up of smaller units of people. In social settings, people rarely interact in groups larger than six or seven, and are so tuned in to each other that they won’t even notice you. Except at private functions, each group knows very little about anyone outside their group. And each group can look cliquish simply because they’re a little uncomfortable about all the strangers around them.
As a tourist, managing a crowd (i.e., bunches of groups) is usually a matter of either getting around it, or through it. Groups in dining halls, plazas, or other confined settings can be the most challenging given the potential to get “stuck” for space between one group and another. You’ll find that walking the perimeter of a gathering area can be less stressful as you reduce the number of times you have to break “through” people, and are simply going around them.
Crowds in line are often less intimidating. People will pay attention to you at the beginning, for long enough to see if you’re going to cut in front of them; otherwise, their attention will be diverted to how fast they’re moving forward.
A third type of crowd gathers to fill a theater, stadium, or other event venue; their focus is on what’s happening in front of them, not on you. Take a look around the rows and you’ll see that people are too absorbed to watch you. If you still feel considerable anxiety being part of an audience, then sit in the back (or towards the top) where you won’t feel so many pairs of eyes staring at the back of your head.
Eye contact. One of the most unnerving things for those of us who are shy, sensitive, and/or anxious is to pass, see, or be passed by hundreds or even thousands of strangers every day – many of whom, for whatever reason, want you to look back at them. Stressful emotions that arise from unwanted eye contact include feelings of intimidation from being stared down; intense self-consciousness from people who sneer for no good reason; uneasiness from sexually suggestive ogling or once-overs; and the glares or grimaces of angry or sad people. People carry a tremendous amount of emotional energy in their gaze, and making eye contact with every single person you come near could be so draining that you’re distracted from sightseeing.
One of the reasons people think they need to make eye contact is to avoid bumping into others. The truth is, you don’t have to make eye contact in order to navigate sidewalks, shops, squares, and tourist attractions; if you look in the direction you want to go, then people will not bump into you. Even if you have sunglasses on people will generally be able to tell by your body language what direction you plan to steer, since both your body and attention tilt slightly (but perceptibly) depending on what you’re focusing on. You can make a similar evaluation of others by doing a split-second assessment of their focus and movements.
Is avoiding eye contact a way of giving into (or developing) a phobia? Given the number of cultures that discourage direct eye contact between people on the street – and particularly between the opposite sex – it would be difficult to say yes. Save the emotional energy it takes to make eye contact for the people who matter more – hotel staff, store clerks, and others who are helping you have a pleasant journey.