By Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist
Travelling solo can have a number of benefits for our well-being. It can teach us that we can deal with challenges, improve our confidence and can help us to fully immerse ourselves in the experience. But can we and should we travel solo when we have social anxiety? This article will explore the reasons for traveling solo, help you to consider whether it is right for you, and provide ways of manging social anxiety if you decide to go it alone.
Should I travel solo?
Google searches for solo travel are currently reaching an all-time high, suggesting that going it alone is more popular than ever. According to solotravelerworld.com the most common reasons for setting out on a solo adventure are wanting to see the world without having to wait for others, wanting total freedom, meeting other people, and personal growth.
But just because travelling solo has lots of benefits and is increasingly popular, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right for you. Whether it is the right choice will depend on your personality, preferences and what you want from your trip. I would encourage you to think about whether you really like being alone and what you want to gain from travelling solo. Being alone can be tough at times so you will want to make sure that you are fully prepared and that you are able to cope with stepping out of your comfort zone.
How should I travel solo?
Most online advice around travelling solo involves staying in hostels. This is a good way to meet people as hostels are often set up to facilitate people meeting and mingling, but again this doesn’t mean that this option is right for everyone.
If you are an introverted person and you like your own space and to interact with people on your own terms, sharing a bedroom with a number of strangers probably isn’t right for you! There is nothing wrong with this, and we all have different levels of need for social interaction. People who are introverted may enjoy social interaction but can feel drained by a constant need to interact or chat. This can be hard for those with extraverted personality traits to understand because they are usually energised by interacting and having other people around.
If you decide that staying in hostels is not for you that is totally ok. Ignore the opinions that staying in hostels is the only way to travel authentically or to meet others. There is no one size fits all when it comes to travel.
If you choose to stay in another type of accommodation such as an hotel, apartment or Airbnb you can research alternative ways to meet people. Volunteering at a local charity can be a good way to do this; animal charities are often grateful for people to help out with cleaning and taking care of the animals and this usually doesn’t require experience. It is also easy to research local social groups or activities online and make connections with people even before you set off; a local yoga class or walking group for example.
Tour operators such as Flash Pack and Intrepid Travel offer group tours for solo travellers. These can provide another option for those looking for a way to meet other people and to make friends whilst travelling solo.
How can I manage social anxiety?
If you do decide to travel solo, here are some tips for managing anxiety in social situations:
Be clear on why you want to mingle
Managing social anxiety and putting ourselves in situations at the edge of our comfort zone can be really uncomfortable, so I would encourage you to think about what you want to achieve by interacting with others on your trip. If we know what why we are pushing ourselves it helps us to manage those uncomfortable feelings. Your goal might be to improve your confidence, to understand more about the world by meeting lots of different people or it might be to make new friends. Your goal will be unique to you but being clear helps you to be focused.
Organise a test run
If you have never travelled alone it would be sensible to plan a short break away, somewhere close to home as a test run. This allows you to experience how you feel being alone and planning your own time, without the difference in culture or language to navigate. Spend some time visiting a museum or local sites, and spend some time making small talk with the barista in the coffee shop or a local shopkeeper. Ask people’s tips on what might be fun to do and see locally. On your test run you might find that travelling solo energises you and helps with your confidence. You might find that its not for you, in which case it is better to know now that when you’re on the other side of the world!
Gradually build confidence with small talk
If we haven’t made small talk for a while, we may not feel confident and and we may feel anxious and awkward at first. One of the simplest and most effective things that you can do to start to rebuild confidence is called ‘graded exposure’.
This involves you identifying situations that are anxiety provoking for you and organising them by least to most in terms of how anxiety provoking they are. Think about a ladder with the most difficult situation you would want to do at the top. You will start with the least anxiety provoking situation at the bottom. You will then move up each rung of the ladder when you have gained confidence on the step you’re on.
This sounds very simple and can be a really effective way of reducing anxiety and gaining confidence. Make sure you start this process well before taking off to make sure you are as prepared as you can be. Remember that it is normal to feel anxiety at each step on the ladder, but once you have practised a few times the anxiety will decrease.
Building our conversation skills
Those of us who experience social anxiety may have low confidence in our skills at making small talk. We may assume that others who appear more confident or extraverted always naturally ‘just know’ what to say. This often isn’t the case and most people will find it a little difficult to know what to say keep a conversation going. The difference is that people who are more confident will generally feel ok if there are awkward silences or if they don’t immediately know what to say. As a result they are more likely to persist rather than to avoid conversations. Over time if we persist we build confidence and skills in knowing what to say, and how and when to end the conversation.
As a way of helping to prepare yourself for these situations, think of three responses in advance in each of the following categories. Firstly, when the conversation has stopped flowing, one possible thing to say might be “have you been busy today/this week/this season?”. When you want to end the conversation one response might be “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. Have a good day”; Having responses like this ‘up your sleeve’ can help you to feel more prepared and less anxious when these situations arise.
Looking back on conversations
Research in this area suggests that we often underestimate how much other people like us and enjoy conversations with us (Boothby at al., 2018). It is important to remember this! Most of the time we will enjoy conversations, especially when others are polite to us or take an interest in what we have to say. It is not usually helpful to look back on conversations and overanalyse or try and evaluate whether the person liked us.
When things don’t go well
When the conversation doesn’t flow, we don’t enjoy it, or the other person doesn’t want to engage it can be disheartening. If we are not confident we can tend to take this to heart and think that it is something to do with us. This is usually not the case. Often when things don’t go well, it might just be that we are not compatible with the other person or that there is some other reason that they might not want to chat to us. They may have a lot on their mind that mean they are not in the right headspace to chat, or maybe they are just having a busy day. This is not personal so try to remember this, and that there will be others who will want to chat.
Considerations for women travelling solo
As women are travelling alone we will often want to immerse ourselves in a culture and to meet new people. Unfortunately the world is not as safe as we would like it to be and sadly there are situations where being friendly can be misinterpreted. The best advice I can give anyone is to trust your gut when having conversations with people you don’t know. If it seems polite and respectful, these are of course good signs. If someone seems overly interested on you, is pushy, focuses on your appearance, or doesn’t take a polite no for an answer then these are big red flags. Leave the situation. Don’t ever be afraid of saying no or being impolite.
Boothby, E.J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G.M., & Clark, M.S. (2018). The liking gap in conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742–1756.
Sandstrom, G.M., & Boothby, E.J. (2021). Why do people avoid talking to strangers? A mini meta-analysis of predicted fears and actual experiences talking to a stranger. Self and Identity, 20(1), 47-71
Speaking of Psychology: Why you should talk to strangers, with Gillian Sandstrom, PhD, and Jon Levy on Apple Podcasts