The Agoraphobe Who Longs to Travel

Fellow travelers,
I’ve taken a couple months off from this blog to do some important work with people who desperately want or need to take a trip, but have been frozen in place by their own travel fears.  I would not call this work “counseling,” but more like exercises in empowerment with anxious travelers who personally sought me out for help.

I worked for several weeks with Tom, a 30-year-old lab technician from Mill Valley (just north of San Francisco) who has taken three trips to London in the past four years only to sit in his hotel room almost every day while his girlfriend went sightseeing.  The only time Tom left his room was to go to the petrol station mini mart across the street for a bite to eat.  He didn’t want to eat at the restaurant hotel because he was worried about food poisoning.  He didn’t want to ride the Tube because he was worried about germs.  He was afraid to dart into the local tourist information centre because he feared the operators were in constant contact with foreigners, and carried nasty viruses.  On the third trip to London, Tom and his girlfriend, Katie, just missed their flight home because Tom spent an hour sanitizing his hotel room before check-out in order to protect the next guests from his own germs.  “I kid you not,” Tom says.  Needless to say, his relationship ended with his girlfriend.

Today, Tom emailed me from Auckland, New Zealand.  He’s been out on the beach for six hours and coming to terms with his travel fears.  London was too much for him to jump into, he says; too many people, too many cramped spaces, too many stimuli that inspired his fears about viruses and hygiene to take on an irrational life of their own.  Auckland was the perfect place for him to take that one large, important step forward.  He has the vacation time saved up at work to come back to Auckland and try something he’s always wanted to do: a sailing trip in a small island chain of the South Pacific.  And he is certainly happy at the idea of being able to eat what he catches, without anyone else touching it.

Tom, it was a privilege to work with you, and I wish you all the best on your upcoming sailing adventure.  I’m so glad you feel free at last of your worst travel anxieties.  London will be there.  And don’t forget… there are some great sailing opportunities down the Thames.


Traveler’s OCD: A Real Issue, and What to Do About it

Do you consider yourself mentally healthy, but find that you do the following types of things when you travel?:

  • Checking several times to make sure that you still have your passport, that you have all your belongings, that your hotel door is locked, etc.
  • Counting people going by, particularly when you’re waiting for someone or something
  • Needing to leave the hotel room in just a certain way before you leave for the day
  • Repeating directions or instructions (to or from your destination) over and over in your head
  • Reaching for the hand sanitizer a few more times a day than is really necessary

Many people who don’t suffer from clinical Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) experience some obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior when under the stress of travel.  We all know that there are a lot of opportunities to lose things, forget things, miss departures, and make numerous other mistakes when we move around in an unfamiliar environment — and that these mistakes can cause us some fairly large problems during our journey.  The fear of making these mistakes causes people to develop “Traveler’s OCD.”

If you have a perfectionist or “Type A” personality and are prone to being distracted from your immediate environment, some compulsive activities that you do in order to avoid making mistakes can really affect your enjoyment of a trip.  Fortunately, there are choices you can make about how and where you travel that will prevent your tics from flaring up — and from attracting attention from fellow travelers who are as laid back as they are when drifting around their own house!

Choose a smaller hotel room.  A smaller room means fewer places to put things, which means you won’t spread out as much, and are less likely to leave something behind (or worry about leaving something behind).  Stay in a suite and you have more windows, faucets, doors, etc. to think about checking before you leave every day, and far more crevices, nooks, crannies, etc. to worry about losing or misplacing something.

Use a compartmentalized travel day bag or purse.  If you have a specific place for everything in your bag, then taking a quick check (and not four, accompanied by a considerable amount of rummaging) can ensure that everything is in its place.  Travel with a gunny sack and you’ll make yourself miserable (not to mention give yourself a couple of scares if you distractedly slip your wallet into a rarely used jacket pocket instead of your bag).

Recognize that you have a finite amount of energy.  The urge to double- and triple-check things can grow with a life of its own depending on what you’re preoccupied with, and how much stress you’re under.  Traveling takes a lot of energy, and mistakes can compound faster than you can count the number of people ahead of you in the currency exchange line.  If you check your bag several times to make sure you still have your camera, for example, you could miss your bus going by, with a string of potential consequences from there.

Understand how and when you contract a virus.  This might sound like an odd suggestion, but plenty of people slather on the hand sanitizer upwards of a dozen times a day out of fear of getting ill and ruining their vacation.  In general, remember that you get sick when you spread germs by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and when you breathe next to someone who’s ill.  If you can be better about keeping your hands away from your face, and keeping a good personal distance from others, you’ll be a lot less likely to get ill — and only need to use the sanitizer before you eat, wash your face back at your hotel, etc.

Get enough sleep.  When you’re exhausted, you’re more likely to make mistakes and be forgetful, which can send your Traveler’s OCD into overdrive since you might actually leave something behind, or neglect to do something.

Consider your environment.  Some hotels have such formulaic, cold, and repetitive decor that it’s almost as if someone designed them to make you feel neurotic and start counting the tiles down the hallway.   Go for a place with more character and novelty, individual furnishings, and a homey atmosphere, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Finally, places that have a fixation on quantities — like casinos and mega malls — are more likely to bring out your type-A tendencies than natural environments like parks and beaches.   Also, consider that sites and attractions featuring supernatural or religious phenomena (such as the belief that repeating the same proclamations over and over will help keep evil away) are not the best for your mental health.  Could you find a less anal-retentive activity to enjoy?  You might end up spending more money elsewhere, but at least you won’t fall asleep that night thinking about the number 6 or 13, or how often you’re blinking.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Don’t worry, counting your money once or twice on your trip doesn’t count as obsessive or compulsive.