A golden early morning sun was just sneaking up to paint the sky copper over JFK as I boarded my 6:30 a.m. departure flight. Running on (at best) two hours of sleep and an airport Dunkin' Donut snack, I kept thinking to myself, "Wow, I did it" — and I didn't just mean getting through the absurdly crowded security and to my gate on time with a Boston Kreme in hand. I had finally conquered New York City on my own; no travel buddy, no significant other, just me.
Perhaps "conquer" is gratuitous, but for someone who used to be paralysed by the thought of eating lunch alone, the idea that I could go it alone on a flight (twice) and seven full days of solo exploration in foreign territory basically felt like reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro.
I had some friends to meet and see, but they weren't there to constantly host, hold my hand, or even tag along on many of my touristy adventures. It was comforting to have the fail-safe of friends nearby in case of emergency, but for the most part, it was just me — and my anxiety — in the city that never sleeps.
Solo travel and travelling with anxiety each pose their own challenges, but I have no intention of letting said anxiety hold me back (anymore) from the incredible experiences, self-exploration, and exhilarating rush of independence that comes from adventuring alone. I don't consider my choice a brave one, but rather a necessity. I need to condition myself to be OK on my own!
Though thoroughly exhausted (both physically and mentally), I feel emboldened and empowered by every solo subway navigation, every photo snapped at a long-dreamed-about landmark, and every successful arrival at a hotel and airline check-in. Looking back at my week, I realised there were a few keys to what helped me get through — with my sanity intact — that I'll be referring back to for my next trips. Because hell yeah! I'm taking more solo trips!
1. Make a Bucket List
Panic tends to kick in if I don't have some sort of a game plan, so I relied on my touristy, carb-laden bucket list as my guiding light for this trip. Like Lady Liberty's glowing torch bringing ships into port, my sightseeing (and eating) checklist gave me some structure on what to do and where to go and helped me feel less aimless. I didn't give myself a hard and fast schedule (that would've overwhelmed me, too), but having at least some semblance of purpose and direction helped mitigate my anxiety.
Gorgeous views of the city on the Staten Island Ferry (en route to see the Statue of Liberty, naturally).
The fun part about this is that you don't have to run your schedule by anyone else. When you're travelling solo, you're the boss. You don't need to ask permission to go to Shake Shack AND the unicorn ice cream shop back to back (I mean, what?) or skip activities you've had your heart set on because the other person isn't interested. The thrill of truly getting to "choose your adventure" can also help abate any impending panic.
2. Have Backups
Just like not having a plan, plans that fall through can also send me into an anxiety attack. Equipping myself with proper tools (including very crucial emergency money) was essential to making sure I had every type of backup plan.
The Hotel Tonight app was my saviour through my week in the Big Apple. I gave myself a bit of a monetary cushion as opposed to a strict budget so if anything fell through I wouldn't be stranded. The combo of generous budgeting and access to incredibly discounted lodging made for an anxious traveller's knight in shining armour. With the touch of a button (and a thumbprint Apple Pay scan), I had a place to leave my luggage, shower, and sleep — in seconds flat. This has led me to feel even more confident for future adventures on my own.
Part of the aforementioned carb-laden bucket list.
The same goes for transportation. I knew that if the subway was too confusing and I got lost, I could grab an Uber. If my phone had died and I couldn't get an Uber (my throat is closing up just thinking about that scenario), I had cash ready for a cab. Think about plans A right through to Z ahead of time and you'll feel much more secure.
3. Take What You Need
Every time someone says, "Just don't stress!", I wonder if they think I have an off button for my anxiety. Do you ever feel that way? The ever-present suggestion of "don't sweat the small stuff" can not only be lost on someone with anxiety, but it can be excruciatingly frustrating. When "the small stuff" feels overwhelming, don't neglect your routine self-care, remedies, or medication.
Do you opt for lavender oil to calm yourself down? Do you have a prescription for when the chest-tightening fear sets in? What about meditation audio? I brought my CBD oil just in case; I used it once on my trip when my anxiousness was at its peak, and it was a clutch decision. Solo travel offers a million little moments that can trigger your sense of panic, so arm yourself properly with whatever you need.
4. Treat Yourself
At the risk of sounding cliched, it's so important to treat yourself to special moments — and it's an excellent way to quell anxious feelings. Give yourself the TLC you need and deserve, whether it's a decadent dessert, a swanky meal, a pricey tourist attraction, or a night at a beautiful hotel. You'll promote a sense of peace, satisfaction, and joy that can counterbalance any anxiety you may have induced by throwing yourself willingly into uncharted territory all by your lonesome.
During my trip, I took time to get a decadent, adorable unicorn ice cream at NYC's Taiyaki and nabbed a long-awaited scoop of raw cookie dough from Dō in Greenwich Village. I took a ferry alone to see the Statue of Liberty, and met with my cousins to see the city from the top of One World Trade. On my last night, I stayed at arguably one of the nicest hotels I've been to at The Westin in the heart of Times Square and looked out at the city lights and the Empire State Building; it was one of those moments when you feel like you're in a scene from a film, and it gave me a sense of peace to be in a calm, quiet place looking out at the hustle and bustle from above. Those moments of joy made all the moments of stress, fear, and anxiety seem like a distant memory.
The stunning (and surprisingly calming) view from my room at the Westin. Hello, Empire State Building!
5. Find Your Anxiety Outlet
What's your outlet for stress and anxiety? Maybe it's reading, journaling, or going for a walk with a great playlist pumping through your headphones. Mine is exercise, so I made sure to incorporate plenty of that into my trip. After sweating it out at Swerve cycling in Midtown, I had a total emotional release at The Class by Taryn Toomey in TriBeCa. I went to free outdoor yoga to calm myself in Bryant Park and to an intense Fhitting Room HIIT class in the Upper East Side before trying Peloton cycling in my Westin hotel gym in Times Square . . . I made plenty of time for my favourite physical and mental anxiety release. And I saw a ton of the city in the process, which was an adventure in itself.
Make your anxiety outlet part of your solo adventure. It'll feel natural and give you a sense of peace that will guide you throughout your trip. You can then keep adding to your bucket list (back to point number one!) based on these plans, thus continuing to encourage yourself to take even more trips by yourself . . . you see where this is going right? Keep at it, and don't give up, even when it feels terrifying. It's so, so worth it in the end. You can do this.
Lodging for the author was provided by Westin for the purpose of writing this story.