There was this one time…got your attention did I? Well, there was one time which I swore we need never discuss, however, I will share it with you here in the hopes you can avoid the mistake I made. It was my first time in South America. I had 10 people with me, many of whom were traveling internationally for the first time. The folks we were meeting up with had done their best to educate us in advance about our destination and what to expect upon landing. I promise you I had read all of the information and prepared as much as was required, or so I thought. What I had not done was address for myself how I would remember what I needed to know when I entered into a crowded hot, busy, noisy airport where everyone spoke Spanish (Hablo inglés y un poco de español ahora, pero no entonces.) The culture shock of such a situation, even with 2 prior trips under my belt and a degree in intercultural studies did not prepare me to address what my brain did – which was to forget everything I had been taught. As a result the first non-threatening individual who approached and offered to help us find out bags made some money that day. The group will tell you I terrified them (much to my chagrin, rightfully so) as I told my group to stay together and that I would come back with the bags – and then walked off after the man. 

Below I hope you will find information which will allow you to go into new situations more prepared than I was, with knowledge to address how your higher levels of cognition will shut down if you are not prepared to address the changes which occur in your body during new experiences. For instance, during travel, as it often involves multiple locations, extended time frames, and sometimes new people and activities. You may travel for work, back home after work, for fun, for family time, or for emergency, but the reason does not change the importance of how you should conduct yourself and prepare in order to maintain the safety of yourself as well as those around you. Additionally, during travel you must maintain an awareness of your surroundings as well as yourself.


Self Management

On any given day there are many things which you have no control over. The exception to this lack of control is yourself. You have the ability to build your skills, emotional stability and physical well-being both before travel as well as during. It is for this reason I share with you the concept of self-management when discussing safety. 

In order to understand how self-management works to keep yourself safe we need to discuss something called your Fight, Flight and Freeze response. Below you will see a diagram which helps illustrate what occurs in the body during each of these phases.


Undoubtedly you recognize the descriptors in each of the green, red and blue areas of the diagram. Some of those descriptors near the top may stand out as uncomfortable and as being unhelpful ways of reacting to a situation. At the bottom are characteristics of how we should aim to respond to new people and places. Namely it is best to respond with curiosity and openness. Both for the purpose of managing your own well-being and being able to successfully develop relationships it is paramount you study these feelings. Identify in yourself when you start to feel yourself sliding towards concern, anxiety, fear, frustration or panic. Consider and acknowledge what may be causing these internal reactions, and determine to respond with self-soothing actions to prevent complete “shut down.”

Travel has a high probability for what is termed as culture shock where you may feel like a fish out of water. The inevitable additional alertness triggered in your body due the shock of all new sights, smells and sounds may cause “the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations;” or the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Travel is often fun and a chosen activity, however that does not always prevent our “animal” brains from responding this way. 

In other words, we panic.

How then do we conquer our fear and live in the moment? How can you help yourself enjoy your vacation and stay in control of YOU?

  1. Learn what you can ahead of time about your destination.
  2. Teach yourself some key phrases in the native language.
  3. Travel with an experienced guide who is familiar with your destination.
  4. Use exercise to help the body get rid of excess energy associated with nervousness.
  5. Keep yourself hydrated, and well-fed. Physical deprivation will add to your body feeling stressed.
  6. Get lots of sleep, and less sugar.
  7. Talk openly about your struggles, ask questions, and observe. Keeping things in will often only lead to increased frustration and allows your inner voice to “isolate” you.
  8. Recognize the humanity of those around you. People are people. In most places you are no less safe or in more danger simply because your physical location has changed. (there are some exceptions)
  9. Be respectful, and practice the two concepts below.
  10. Remember to breathe, and ask if you need help.
  11. Use the STAR acronym to guide yourself through your responses.

Stop – mentally interrupt any internal conversation

Think – consider options and responses 

Assess – consider which response is best in this situation

Respond – use the chosen response and proceed  


Environmental Awareness

Defined as being in tune with what is going on around you, environmental or situational awareness is the second skill (or set of skills) which can help keep you safe. The following 8 steps should be taken to ensure you are properly aware of your surroundings at any given time. 

Learn to predict events:

The most effective aspect of situational awareness involves the ability to project the future actions of elements around you. Use this information to think ahead and determine how it will affect future actions and events in the environment.

Identify elements around you:

Start by noticing the threats/non-threats that surround you. This is the most basic level of situational awareness where you begin to monitor, detect and recognize multiple situational elements. This includes objects, events, people and environmental factors.

Limit situational overload:

Overload causes distraction, increased errors and high stress. Prioritizing, delegating tasks and minimizing surrounding distractions can improve survival during times of overload.

Be aware of time:

The pace of your environment is constantly being changed by the actions of individuals, task characteristics and outside elements. When unplanned events begin to arise, be sure to make the necessary changes to your schedule and goals to help you survive.

Actively prevent fatigue:

Fatigue affects your ability to watch for possible danger or difficulties. Try adjusting your work routine and imposing sleep discipline to prevent wake cycles longer than 18 hours.

A confused mind is your worst enemy:

When confused you tend to overlook clues that could help you. You get distracted, make mistakes and increase the confidence of a potentially threatening person. Clear your mind.

Step out of the smartphone zone:

Take your eyes off your smartphone and look around. Smartphone usage is emerging as a leading cause of accidents and attacks since it blinds you to your environment.


Use your senses:

One of the excellent ways to improve your situational awareness is to turn on your senses. You need to utilize your sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste to strengthen your power of observation. Each of these senses helps in memory development and utilizing them provides more material for your brain to store related to your environment.

Each of the above steps will be harder, if not impossible, to complete if your sympathetic nervous system is activated due to feelings of fear, anxiety or stress. This is why I always start by introducing self-management or self-awareness as the most important skill to have when discussing personal safety. If you recognize yourself moving towards a fight, flight or freeze response the idea is for you to redirect yourself and allow the brain to continue working in a clear manner so you can proceed through each of the above considerations. These steps are not just for travel, and should be practiced during day to day life for best development.


Now What?

You’ve read all the information, you are taking it in and processing, but what does this look like when you are actually in a new situation? Here are some suggestions to put the above information into practice.

Be Inconspicuous:

Consider wearing neutral colors or clothing which will fit amongst the locals. Avoid wearing excessive jewelry and shirts which look touristy (with big bold city names and such.) Be quiet and subdued (Americans are thought of as overly boisterous in many countries.) Avoid counting your money in public, keep your wallet well hidden and close to your person at all times. 


While not every moment of your day needs to be planned out, and it is okay to just wander a city, you can think ahead about other things to help keep you safe. For instance, consider packing the following items in your day bag: a city map, your hotel address and phone number, and a snack. Learning a few key phrases in the local language goes a long way in case you need to ask for directions or use a telephone…or a bathroom. Check the weather forecast and ensure you have appropriate attire for both the weather and your activities.


Learn about the area, things to do, sights to see, but also learn about any places which it is not recommended tourists go. Off the beaten path is very exciting and sometimes well worth the adventure, but you should only venture into some areas after you are thoroughly educated on do’s, don’ts and safety precautions. This is where it can be very helpful to have a guide who is knowledgeable (and has done the research).