Before we had kids, my husband and I loved to travel—he proposed to me on a bench in Reykjavik after a road trip across southern Iceland, and we spent our first anniversary jumping into natural freshwater pools on the Mexican Riviera. Our last big trip was more than two years ago, when we attempted to enjoy a small island in the Bahamas with a teething seven-month-old. (D'oh!) Now, as the parents of two young girls, travel mostly seems like more trouble than it's worth—and the inherent risks we used to accept without thinking, such as the possibility of a plane crash, seem stark now that children are involved. Sometimes I don't know if I'll ever have the guts to go anywhere cool again. But I want to, and I want to teach my kids how enriching and fun it can be to visit somewhere totally new. With any luck, these mind hacks from psychologists and travel experts can help me—and anyone else anxious about leaving their comfort zone—become a better traveler.
#1 Lean into the stress. Anyone who says travel isn't stressful is lying. Crowds, lines, delays and miscommunications are rampant—and that's before your plane lifts off. “Travel stress is normal,” says psychologist Jonathan Bricker of the University of Washington, who has studied people's reactions to tension during travel. “The key is what to do when you have it. Most people either get angry or try to avoid it.” But feeling irate or attempting to avoid stress usually backfires and leads to more stress—or to a tendency to avoid travel altogether, according to his research. The alternative? “Acceptance! The willingness to just let the stress be there, to just notice it, to let it come and go on its own,” Bricker says. Mindful acceptance is a proven tactic for stress reduction—the difficult parts of your trip will be over before you know it, and you'll be on your way.
#2 Talk to anyone and everyone. Being out of our element and immersed in a foreign culture can be tough for those of us who like security and routine. “What makes us most uncomfortable in another culture is our lack of understanding of it,” says Michael Brein, a travel psychologist based near Seattle who has analyzed more than 1,600 people's travel tales. “But the more I can get to know what the culture is all about, often by talking to people, the more comfortable I'm going to feel.” Doing so releases us to just enjoy and take things in, anxiety-free. “Some of the best travel experiences I've ever had have just been the people I've interacted with overseas, like in cafes or shops. As I talked to them and came to understand the quirks of the culture, then I began to have more interpersonally rewarding experiences.” You can also use these conversations to step outside the security blanket of your guidebook, he says. Discovering unpublished gems, such as locals' favorite restaurants or day trips, can lead to the most memorable adventures.
#3 Channel your younger self. What would you think if a new friend you met in a poverty-stricken country with no diplomatic ties to the U.S. asked you and your traveling partner to come back to his aunt's house for dinner? Me, today: “Food poisoning! Getting lost in a ‘bad’ neighborhood. Kidnapping, maybe!” Me, at age 24: “I would be honored—what bus do we take?” To this day, eating homemade arroz con pollo and drinking a mysterious, unlabeled mint liquor in that family's living room in central Havana is a peak experience of my life. “The younger person is more adaptable and learns better,” Brein says. “When we're younger, we're willing to take more risks—and because of all we learn by doing that, the outcome of a travel experience can be so much more special.” When an exciting but slightly scary opportunity arises during travel, Brein observes, just try channeling your younger self for a moment. Taking a risk—within reason—can mean the difference between a trip you remember until the day you die and one that fades away the moment you get back home.
#4 Practice closer to home. No matter how much I channel my postcollege self, I know I'm nowhere near ready to drag my kids onto a hot, sweaty bus in Havana. So what can I do to slowly but surely build my confident-traveler muscle? “Take a staycation near your town and just do some new and different things. Walk into mom-and-pop shops and talk to the owners like you would if you were abroad, sit in coffee shops and interact with patrons,” Brein says. “If you do some of these around town or on short trips, you'll begin to feel the good, positive consequences of taking a little bit more of a chance.” Okay, so maybe our next family trip won't be turtle-egg watching in Akumal, but I have a feeling that overnight camping an hour away from home will be plenty exciting—and perhaps set the stage for bigger trips to come.