Mental Well-being, Travel & the Brain

Travel, Anxiety and Fear of the Unknown: Insights from the Brain

Fear of the unknown is a common challenge for anyone wanting to travel abroad. According to neuroscience, we fear the unknown because our brains are, inherently, prediction machines. In unfamiliar settings, the brain goes on “threat-mode” as it tries to get a handle on its surroundings.

Since I was about 15 years old, I harboured fantasies about travel abroad that would come to the fore on tedious high school days. Much of this was spurred on by the movie, The Beach, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and takes place in a secret tropical paradise off the coast of Thailand. This was long before the time of social media sites like Pinterest where you’d have to be positively brain-dead not to get intoxicated by the borage of utopic scenes of romantic escapes and blissful beach locations. The allure of travel in this modern time of the Internet is ever present. Why then, do relatively few people make it a priority?

There are two parts to that story. The first is about money and work. The second is about fear and anxiety. For now, we will skip the first chapter because even though it is possible to adjust your lifestyle and find room for a travel piggybank, there will be times when it feels unrealistic.

Pontificate for a moment about a trip abroad. Try and be realistic. Move away from thoughts of your cocktail-supping on the beach and think about the spectrum of events that would need to take place in order for you to find your way to the ocean-front lounger. Schedule leave from work. Book your flight. Apply for a visa. One hundred million forms. The aeroplane ride. Finding your way to the hotel. Is it late at night or amidst rush hour traffic. Are you alone or with a companion. Your hotel room, is there a safe and will there be bed bugs? Do you speak the language? Will your bank card be rejected at the ATM. Will it get swallowed right up? If these risks were not likely to happen, why ever would you need travel insurance?

These are common fears that will run through your mind when vacationing in a foreign place. Without being able to visualise your journey and predict, with a fair degree of certainty, what obstacles you will encounter, you begin to fear not only the conceivable threats but also the unforeseeable future. This is you feeling out of control and unfamiliarity sparks alarm bells that ring loudly with foreboding. This is the fear of the unknown and its influence in your life can range from elevated stress levels to complete avoidance, meaning that you may never take that series of steps towards finding your way to your dream destination.

At the bottom of the page, you’ll find some tips for overcoming travel anxiety.

Why do we feel like fish out of water when contemplating the unknown? Recent developments in neuroscience have shown us that our brains function like prediction machines, running smoothly, at optimum level, in predictable environments. The brain likes familiarity and processes familiar places in a special kind of way. There are many systems in the brain that help guide our actions, thoughts and feelings but one in particular, of relevance here, is called the proactive control system which kicks into gear when we find ourselves in highly predictable settings, like home. In places that you know well, your brain is able to pick up on small cues all around you that act like previews for what’s going to happen next. In familiar places, or during highly familiar activities, your subconscious brain is able to anticipate successive events. It guides you according to a context model. Think of it like a road map, how much safer you feel with the guidance. Your brain does not need to be on high-alert, attending with great vigilance to every change in the scene. It switches into a kind of “economy” or “energy saving” mode. This is your “comfort zone”.

For example, you may have had the experience of realising, as you arrive at a familiar destination, that you were oblivious to most of the journey. This happens because your brain guides you in a kind-of “auto-pilot” mode, where you unconsciously steer your way back home on an over-rehearsed route. The brain has its map, its context model. This allows your mind to “relax” and engage in other day-dreamy sort of thoughts. This is a nice mental space to be in and you’re only likely to get here once you’ve become familiarised with your surroundings.

Two separate control paths are routed from limbic networks through the frontal lobe to motor cortex. A ventrolateral pathway (Reactive system) proceeds from olfactory cortex through the orbital frontal lobe to lateral frontal cortex before reaching the ventral premotor and motor cortices (ventral/bottom arrows). A mediodorsal pathway (Proactive system) proceeds from the cingulate gyrus through medial frontal cortex to dorsolateral frontal cortex to the premotor and motor areas on the lateral convexity of the hemisphere (upper/dorsal arrows). Right: primary direction of corticolimbic traffic for integrating perception from specific modules in the sensory cortex (in this case the arrows start from the visual area) toward the limbic cortex shown for dorsal (upper arrows) and ventral (bottom arrows). (Tops et al., 2010).

It is the proactive control system at play when you are able to habituate to excessive sensory stimulation so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by it. To habituate means to be able to drown something out, like if you were feeling settled on a noisy, chatter-filled bus and able to “tune-out” from the sound so that you can focus on the conversation with your partner. And enjoy yourself. If someone had to unexpectedly bump into you, your brain would switch immediately to the reactive control system, which operates in unpredictable situations (like a foreign city) where you find yourself being acutely aware of the things around you.

The reactive control system interferes with what is called working memory. This is a short term memory storage that allows you to juggle thoughts and ideas in your head. If I had to ask you to repeat back to me in reverse the 6 numbers that I had just called out to you, that struggling feeling in your head is working memory at work. Learn more about it here. Its very important for being able to think critically about things, to take perspective, to manipulate information in your mind. If you’ve ever felt compromised in your ability to “think straight” or clearly when you’re under pressure, its because your working memory has shut down. Its likely that something in the environment has alarmed you and switched your brain into reactive control mode.

In highly unpredictable settings, your working memory gives way to outwardly directed attention so that you’re vigilant and at the ready. This is a bit like the brain’s security system, allowing you to deal rapidly with possible threat.

But, to deal rapidly with threat you need to be anticipating it, and that’s why unfamiliarity can prompt negative biases in your thinking. You start expecting the worst. This is the essence of the fear of the unknown. Although the reactive control system has evolved to keep you on the defensive, continuous activity can be mentally tiring. Threat-mode can take its toll.

When you arrive in a foreign place, exhausted, it’s not simply that you’re lacking sleep. It’s that for an extended period of time, your brain has been on high alert, absorbing everything around you in case it poses a threat.

A brain chemical called acetylcholine seems to be the chief instigator of the reactive control system. It has been linked to anxiety and the motivation to “back away” when things begin to feel overwhelming. Interestingly, at night to promote REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep when dreaming mostly occurs), the brain fills with acetylcholine.

Perhaps this is why thoughts that run through our minds when we wake up in the middle of the night can sometimes feel overly panic-stricken and ominous. In such moments, its best to remind ourselves that it’s just a chemical thing. Everything will be okay come the morning.

If you are the type of person who is prone to worrying about the unknown, here are some guidelines to help you adjust:

  1. It’s a good idea to plan well in advance, especially for the first few days of your trip. Book accommodation. If you’re on a budget and opting for dorm rooms, you might want to consider getting a private room for just your first night.  Make sure you research the transport options for getting into the city. Make sure that you have the address of your hotel written down clearly on a piece of paper.  Don’t rely on electronic devices that are prone to running out of battery when you need them most. If you’re travelling long-term and buying one-way flights, make sure that you don’t require an outward-bound ticket. You may get trouble at immigration.
  2. Use Street View on Google Maps to virtually check out the area around your hotel. This will help you feel oriented. When you’re settled, take a walk around the block. Street View can be used to check out bus terminals, airports or another place that can feel overwhelming.
  3. Set aside extra funds for your initial week. For instance, getting an authorized taxi from the airport instead of trying to figure out the public transport can do wonders to quell arrival fears. For maps and addresses, , but consider loading up a map on your phone while you still have access to wifi. You’d be surprised at how often Uber and taxi drivers get lost in their own city.
  4. Put aside some money for “hotel asylum”. Sometimes, especially if you’re travelling alone and staying in drab budget accommodation, things can reach a tipping point. Make peace with over-spending and book yourself into a good hotel for two or three nights. Don’t feel guilty about turning your back on the outside world for a few days. Take the time to recharge. The benefits to your mental health will far outweigh the time and money.
  5. If you don’t speak the language, use Google translate to get some basic phrases like “I want to go to… / Where is the bathroom? / How much is it? / I need to go to…”.
  6. If you’re travelling long-term, create structure and set up a routine. Though the familiarity of your surroundings will be hard to control, you can set up familiar activities. Exercise not only has powerful effects on your well-being, but it is a good way to create structure in your day. Set an alarm and begin each day with a jog. Alternatively, visiting the same coffee shop each morning to gather your thoughts will provide a sense of stability. Alternatively, you can create structure by having a “project” on the go. I once met a guy who was creating a photograph collection of unusual trees and football fields. For me, this blog has provided me with an important sense of structure to my days.
  7. Tread lightly with alcohol. If you know that one drink at the bar will lead to 5, consider avoiding alcohol while you adjust. A hangover can bring with it a fierce sense of confusion and disorientation.
  8. Stop comparing, relax your expectations and slow down. The web is a wash with countless travel bloggers documenting their fabulous and carefree escapades. Remember that they’re not showing you the behind-the-scene stuff.  Your adventure will be unique and worthwhile in its own way. With so much information and opportunity, deciding exactly what to do and how much of it can feel overwhelming. As soon as you accept that you can’t do everything, the things you do get up to will start to feel worth it enough. In any event, slow travel can be far more rewarding.
  9. You can go home, anytime. Returning home might feel like you’ve failed but its just as empowering to be able to say that you didn’t enjoy it. Everyone knows travel can be hard. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t able to travel, it simply means that at this moment in your life, you’re happier else where. You may never opt to use your “go home free” card, but simply knowing its on the table can be reassuring. If you do decide that its time to schedule your flight back home, first take hotel asylum.
  10. Don’t forget that you’re learning. For me, reminding myself that although things may feel like a mental struggle at times, travel is not simply about the pursuit of hedonism. It is to gain experience about life and learn. Stop fighting so hard against hardships. Take time to reflect on the lessons you’ve learnt and recognise the value in this.

But, the unknown is not all bad. Part of the fun of travelling is about the thrill of discovering new things. In my experience, although hours of research online can help you plan and visualize your trip, too much research on the internet can be overwhelming. And, its very likely that your own imagination will do a much better job of envisioning your destination from the comfort of your home. In such case, you may find yourself arriving, feeling just a little bit disappointed by your surroundings. Give yourself time for acclimatizing and enough cash for creature comforts and it won’t take long before you realize that pursuing the unknown is part of what you were looking for.

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Tops et al. (2010). Brain substrates of behavioral programs associated with self-regulation (Frontiers in Psychology).

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