How I Cope with Adult Homesickness and Travel Anxiety
At the Villa Terrace Art Museum in Milwaukee Wisconsin

My Battle with Homesickness

It’s been there since I was little: calling my mom to pick me up from sleepovers early, needing to leave summer camp before the end of the session – homesickness. Staying overnight in an unfamiliar environment – especially a communal one – has never been a strength of mine or even a possibility for me in many cases, leaving me to be a homebody for as long as I can remember. The definition about what it truly means to be an introvert recently went viral and I could not have felt more understood than I did when I saw it phrased as such: introverts lose energy when they spend time with people and need to recharge by being alone.

My homesickness endured throughout my childhood and into high school, but when I got accepted to my dream out-of-state college, I prayed that this frustrating childhood phenomenon was merely that – childish – and that I would no longer be plagued by this crippling anxiety as an adult. I’m writing this post because that was not the case.

After leaving Arizona State University three weeks into my first semester just to spend the rest of it living at home with my parents and taking online classes, I felt defeated by my anxiety and unable to trust my own ability to handle traveling, moving, or even spending prolonged time with people. Canceling vacations and other travel plans at the last-minute (or after the last-minute, like I did in Arizona) due to anxiety has cost me thousands of dollars throughout the years in nonrefundable expenses. Despite all of this, I still love to travel.

When I was growing up, my parents prioritized travel and saved up so that their children could experience different parts of the country and the world. When I was in the fourth grade, they even homeschooled my younger brother and I for a few months so we could live on a houseboat in The Bahamas. I loved the memories I made traveling. My favorite trip I’ve ever been on was the farthest away I’ve ever been from home, when we visited Turkey in 2014. My travel goals are extensive and include living in at least one other state, visiting all fifty states and all US national parks, road tripping across the continent, and visiting more countries. It all begs the question: how can traveling be my dream if it is also my biggest fear?

Portrait Taken in Milwaukee Wisconsin by Jessi Esselman

How I've Managed My Homesickness

What I’ve come to learn over twenty-three years spent in this constant grapple with loving but fearing travel is that there are some things I can handle and some things I can’t. If I’m traveling with my family, boyfriend, or close friends only, I’m good; add casual friends or strangers into the mix and I’ll likely get exhausted and anxious from not being able to let my guard down. If we’re doing activities during the day, I’m good; the second someone mentions doing anything while my body expects to be sleeping, my body will respond with a demand for sleep and nostalgia for my own bed. And, finally, if I have a vehicle or opportunity to leave the situation when I need time to myself or to bail out early, I’m good; if I’m the only sober person wandering around Bourbon Street at night with a group of people I’m responsible for driving home after bar close, those in-between hours will not be pretty.

I haven’t written about this sooner, because I can never decide what course of action I want to promote for myself and others in similar situations. Focus on what you can explore without feeling anxious instead of getting into situations where you feel debilitated or do things that you know will trigger your anxiety and breakdowns for the greater good of seeing the world? When phrased that way, it almost seems irresponsible to work through your anxiety. To what point is my homesickness the result of mental illness and how much of it is just part of my personality? Am I so passionate about Wisconsin because I truly love it here or because I want to be a travel blogger but don’t have the mental endurance or emotional capacity to regularly explore new places beyond my home state?

I’ve struggled with homesickness my entire life, but only after being treated for another type of anxiety that went away with medication and therapy did I question whether my homesickness was also worthy of a diagnosis or just the quality of a human being with a low tolerance for being exposed to new environments. One of the longterm effects of my battle with anorexia was a decreased threshold for stimulation and increased sensitivity to changes in routine and, like walking away from a bad car accident with a minor injury, it is easy to live with when I know things could have ended worse.

Biology is, by nature, imperfect, so there isn’t a single right answer to this. The mental health revolution of the past decade-plus has removed the stigma from conversations about mental illness and increased societal acceptance of those who seek help, but in the process has problematically normalized the idea that every bad day and dark mood is cause to call a doctor or reach for medication, instead of a valid part of the human condition. Wouldn’t we be the first to agree with a friend that studying abroad could be a difficult but rewarding experience for them, then turn right around when they start complaining about how hard of a time they are having and support them in their effort to seek treatment for what was supposed to be a character-building experience?

The paradoxical mindset this movement has created between accepting yourself exactly as you are while also being more readily accepting than ever of seeking treatment after any signs of emotional instability is beyond confusing. Even as someone who has spent years in treatment, I am still unable to come up with a cohesive opinion on the topic of when healthy emotions become unhealthy, and I definitely don’t have a politically correct way to justify my stance yet. Personally, I find that I am able to move forward when I accept that there are some things I can’t do and continue to push the limits of what I can.

Fall Colors at Rib Mountain State Park in Marathon County Wisconsin

...And How You Can, Too

Clearly, we’ve established that I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is a passion for exploring and I’ve found ways to explore within my comfort level by focusing on local travel. In doing so, I avoid many of my anxiety’s biggest triggers, which include overstimulation from crowded environments and a lack of ability/mobility to retreat from social situations as needed. Additionally, this mindset shift keeps my passion for travel alive while giving me the confidence to keep exploring.

If you are struggling to balance your desire to travel with anxiety, consider the panic attacks you’ve experienced on previous travels. What triggered them? Was there a situation that invoked your reaction or a disturbing thought that preoccupied you? Consider ways you can avoid those triggers by traveling on alternate modes of transportation; choosing a destination that is safer or closer to home; or asking a trusted friend, partner, or family member to accompany you.

Don’t let your anxiety tell you that your big travel dreams are the cause of your problems; instead, seek out trips that align with your personality, not fight it. Remember that the blogger jet-setting from Bali to Borneo may appear confident in her pursuits because of family connections in the area, speaking the native language, an extroverted personality, or even the lack of home she experienced from moving constantly as a kid. She might avoid local travel like the plague because of traumatic memories from her childhood hometown or choose a niche in luxury travel because a medical condition keeps her from embarking on outdoor adventures.

All in all, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a digital creator by the location of their content. Admire and be inspired by good photography and videography, but don’t let it deter you from being yourself. Other people with your same personality traits or limitations might be similarly seeking adventure, but lack the tools or community to manage their situation and find a travel environment that’s right for them. You can be that resource and community leader! Your vibe attracts your tribe, right? And you definitely won’t have any luck finding your tribe if you aren’t giving off an authentic vibe.

Balancing Travel Anxiety and Wanderlust Pinterest Pin

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. This is wonderful you sharing. We each have our own anxiety issues whether it is worry over leaving children, parents or in my case little things like getting lost or losing my car. Sounds silly, but it is a real fear, thanks again for your honesty, it was a wonderful read.

    1. That is so true! I am so glad to hear this resonated with you. Thank you for the sweet comment!

  2. Thanks so much for this article. I teach a class about travel planning and this post just reminded me that I’ll need to add managing anxiety and homesickness to my itinerary. I appreciate your honesty!

    1. I think that would be a great addition to your curriculum! Thanks for your sweet comment!

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