How travel helped me overcome loneliness and anxiety

Cassam Looch is back enjoying travel, but how did he overcome his anxiety to get back to what he loves doing the most?
Cassam Looch is back enjoying travel, but how did he overcome his anxiety to get back to what he loves doing the most?
Photo of Cassam Looch
Editorial Manager26 September 2022
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As someone who travels for a living, I’m obviously going to sing the praises of exploring new destinations as often as you can. I’m thankfully back in a position where I can talk about the benefits of travelling abroad and even encourage others to do so as well, but it wasn’t always that way. Here’s how a trip to Iceland with a group of strangers got me over a bout of travel anxiety and post-covid loneliness.

Towards the end of 2019 – yes, I know that sounds like a lifetime ago now – I was in a pretty good place. I had just completed an epic video series, travelled to dozens of countries and the office Christmas party was on the way. Thinking I could squeeze one more trip in before the end of the year, I managed to get an invite to Macau for one of the glitziest film festivals on the calendar and merrily packed my bags for a week in Asia. As I was on the tube heading to Heathrow, however, a sudden feeling of dread consumed me. I couldn’t explain it, but I had to get off the train as quickly as possible and get some fresh air. As hard as I tried, nothing could convince me to get back on the tube and on that flight. It was a panic attack and a scary one at that. Luckily, work were completely understanding and made all the necessary calls and emails to smooth things out.

Visiting Egypt before the global pandemic grounded travel was a personal highlight, but it seemed like it would be the last trip Cassam would take.

At the time, I put it down to exhaustion and the possible stress of long haul travel. In retrospect it’s tempting to say it was a preemptive measure against travelling to a Covid region (the virus had just started being reported on), but if I’m honest it would be a stretch. I just didn’t feel like I could get on that plane.

A few short haul flights later, and I had all but forgotten about the previous incident. It was early 2020, the virus was a growing concern internationally and I was on my way back from Egypt. All of a sudden, there it was again – that feeling of dread. I was already on the plane this time, so there was nothing I could do, but as soon as I landed, I cancelled an upcoming ski trip to the US. This was becoming a very real problem. Was I a travel journalist who couldn’t travel? How would that work?

And then the lockdowns rolled in. No travel for anyone, and my small problems didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was still anxious about the prospect of travel, probably more so now with masks and tests becoming necessary, but who knew when we would be back in the air? A growing sense of loneliness, which I know a lot of people shared, was also becoming a concern. I used to love travelling, but now I couldn’t go anywhere. And even when restrictions eventually lifted, would I be able to get over my worries and actually board that plane?

One of the dream trips that seemed impossible when I was at my lowest point was Matera in Italy. Luckily after a revitalising Iceland group trip, I’m very much back on the road.

Having been on all sorts of trips with colleagues, journalists, friends, partners, family and on my own, one thing I had never contemplated was going on a trip with a group of complete strangers. It was now January 2022, and I had the chance to join one such group adventure with a trip to Iceland. If I was going to get back to doing what I love the most, this was going to be a crucial part of that process. As I packed my thermals, got in the taxi to the airport and checked my boarding pass I felt a little apprehensive. Was this too big a leap into the unknown for my first big trip back? I got to the airport in plenty of time and as I was about to put my luggage through there was a notification on my phone. My flight was delayed by six hours because the plane could not leave Reykjavik due to the high winds being too strong for the crew to close the doors in the cabin safely.

I decided to book myself into one of the premium lounges at the airport, not something I would usually do. One of the few upsides around a long break from commuting and travel was that I’d ended up putting away some savings – so why not treat myself to a bit of comfort? In fact, I had planned out my trip to do a bit more of that. Rather than joining the group for the trip straightaway, I was going to add two additional days at the start of my journey to spend in downtown Reykjavik in a fancy hotel to acclimate. There was still some apprehension about joining up with a group that I had never met before, but I figured that we were all in the same boat and about to go on an adventure together. Let’s be honest, Iceland isn’t a bad place for that.

Enjoying the midnight sun in Finland is one of the many memorable experiences that I’ve been able to enjoy thanks to getting over my anxiety over travel.

The solo part of my trip was as relaxing as I had hoped. I was basically over the anxiety thanks to a well-planned few days and, to be honest, the luxury of a great hotel. For the first time in almost two years I was able to enjoy a buffet breakfast and come back from a day out to a room that was freshly serviced. It’s always the small things you miss first when you’re back from your travels.

I packed up and walked a short distance to meet the group for a five day adventure into the Icelandic wilderness. As much fun as solo travelling can be, I think I’m ultimately more comfortable sharing the experience with other people. Besides, how else am I going to get all those amazing pictures of me for my Instagram?

As nervous as I was walking into the hotel lobby trying to pick out other members of my group, I was comforted by the thought of everyone having exactly the same worries. Meeting up with the first group who had arrived just before me, we quickly made our introductions and simultaneously breathed a huge sigh of relief. Hannah and Megan were friends from the US who had decided to take the plunge and go on a bucket-list trip to Iceland. It was only in talking to other people that different elements of the trip became apparent. For me this was about going to Iceland to get back on the proverbial horse but for others this was about going on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Meeting up with the rest of the group I found out how some travellers were keen to see the Northern Lights while others were there to just travel after years at home due to Covid restrictions. As the conversations flowed and friendships forged, I began to appreciate elements of the itinerary I had totally overlooked before.

Sharing memories and experiences in Iceland. With a like-minded group, you will spend your time talking about the fun stuff and not dwell on your own worries.

When I got back from Iceland, I began planning more trips. I have subsequently traveled to dozens of countries as part of groups and with friends. My most recent trip to Puglia was up there with the best, and I’m not sure it would have happened without that first group trip to Iceland. I’m not just a more confident traveller now, but I also appreciate the parts of a trip that I might have previously overlooked.

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

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