Travel can be pretty stressful for all of us, from packing your suitcase to choosing a hotel. But if you suffer from anxiety then I don’t need to tell you that things can get tough. So here’s what I’ve learnt so far* about travelling with anxiety.
But first, things this post is not:
- A moan about how I wish more people understood what it’s like to live with anxiety. I wouldn’t wish that anguish on my worst enemy. Empathy is fine, but I don’t always understand things so how can I expect others to?
- An admission that suffering with anxiety makes travel harder. It doesn’t. Resisting my anxiety is what makes things 100% tougher
- A rant about how much I hate my anxiety. I don’t. It’s as much a part of me as my cellulite thighs and frizzy hair. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I love it, but I’ve learnt a lot through anxiety about myself, and for that I am truly grateful
What is this post about and where to start? The beginning…
My first panic attack happened while I was travelling.
I was diagnosed with anxiety over a year ago, just after I’d returned from an 18 month stint around Southeast Asia and the US. My first panic attack happened whilst on board a boat cruise in Halong Bay. The people I was travelling with had begun to turn against me for no reason. I’d been tricked into thinking that they cared about me. I felt isolated and vulnerable. I was burned out from backpacking and I didn’t love myself enough to give myself the time I needed to recuperate. I cared too much about what these so-called friends thought of me to realise that I was better off alone. I broke down in my cabin, crying, screaming, hyper-ventilating, hitting myself in some sort of punishment, spiraling into a hole that, at the time, I was ill-equipped to dig my way out of.
“Remember: you’re awesome. Don’t let anxiety stop you from seeing the world. You’ll be fine. You’ll be more than fine. You’ll learn to finally accept and love yourself.”
Since going to my GP and asking for help, it’s been a long journey of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) learning about meditation and yoga, and practicing self-love. Living with anxiety still sucks. Panic attacks in bed because the sheets aren’t on ‘properly’, constantly worrying about replying to emails immediately and loosing your shit in the middle of the supermarket because they’re out of aubergines – these things aren’t exactly fun. But I’ve learnt A LOT about myself!
I’m by no means a mental health expert. I am far from ‘enlightened’. But I have a few tidbits that some of you might find helpful, all of which comeback to the same essential truth: you’re awesome, don’t let anxiety stop you from going out there and seeing the world, you’ll be fine, you’ll be more than fine, you’ll learn to accept and love yourself. These are my home truths. They’re for anyone who has travelled, is currently travelling or planning a trip, who suffers from anxiety. They’re for everyone:
1. Fear is not a motivation for fun
You’ve arrived at a new hostel and all you really want to do is take a book and go sit in a café, people watch and read for a few hours, maybe eat dinner and get an early night. But you don’t know anyone and you have to make friends, you have to watch a movie in the common room, you have to go out drinking, you have to do shots and dance on the tables ’til 3am. If you don’t you won’t have anyone to go out with the next day, book trips with or share breakfast with. You’ll end up alone and miserable for the rest of your trip, no one will like you and they’ll all think you’re weird. Now breathe…
Those things can be fun, but if you feel obliged to do them out of fear, afraid of being alone, well that’s just not right. Fear will suck all of the fun out everything that’s meant to be fun, and you’re new found friends? You’ll end up resenting them from taking you away from what you, your body and your mind, are telling you need in that moment. And if you’re scared they won’t like you…
2. Caring about what people think will stop you from finding your own path
Quite simply, stop giving a fuck (in Sarah Knight’s wise words) about what people think of you. The people you meet when you’re travelling are strangers, they know nothing about you or your life, so why do you care what they think? If they’re so quick to judge you that they think you’re not worthy of their presence, fuck ’em. Those who take the time to get to know you, who accept when you’re being true to yourself and your needs even if this goes against what they think or want to do, they’re the ones who ultimately you should care about. And how many of those people do you meet in a lifetime? So worrying about what everybody thinks of you is pretty pointless, not to mention a lot of wasted energy, as you’re more than likely never going to see them again once you leave a place. But by then it’s too late; you never went on that bike ride, you never ate in that restaurant you never visited that temple, because you were so consumed with what others might think. That kind of anxious behaviour only stops you from finding out what makes you happy and doing those things. A trip that you’ve planned should be about you. Sacrificing this to make others happy is a road to disappointment and missed opportunities. Having said that…
3. Don’t sweat the things you don’t do
Most of us suffer from FOMO at some point, but if you suffer from anxiety then missing out on seeing or experiencing something is like FOMO x10. The prospect of missing out on that sightseeing opportunity, that cute café primed for Instagram or that 4-day hike when all you’ve packed is flip flops used to stress me out beyond belief. I’d run around like a headless chicken trying to tick all those boxes, until I learned to slow down. As meditation and other things designed to calm your mind start to take affect, you learn to let your body slow down too – and that’s when the magic starts. You start to see the details again, you appreciate the unexpected moments and places you find and you experience more meaningful interactions with people, simply by not flying through it all desperately trying not to ‘miss’ anything. But that museum, street food stall or bookshop isn’t on a TripAdvisor Top 10 list! Don’t sweat it, you’re much richer for just being there and your experience is usually more authentic. And if it’s authenticity you’re after, then it’s worth remembering…
4. Research and planning will only get you so far
If you suffer from anxiety then planning is probably quite important – we’re unicorns who don’t really like uncertainty if it can be avoided. I like to know what I’m eating and when I’m eating, partially because I love food, but also because the not-knowing kills me, like consumes all my mental space. What if we can’t find anywhere? What if it’s shit? What if it’s unhygienic and we all get food poisoning? I know rationally I not actually going to die, but that doesn’t stop me thinking up 101 things that could go wrong ad fretting about them all.
Planning and researching somewhere to death isn’t going to stop surprises (good and bad) from happening. By all means, be prepared, make a shortlist of restaurants and bars you’d like to check out, book tickets to something if it’s super popular and it’ll save you time and money when you get there, maybe even get a list of emergency phone numbers together should something go wrong. But at some point you’re going to have to accept that even the best laid plans are prone to going tits-up. The bus was late, the airline lost your luggage, your hangover stopped you from taking that kayaking class. You’re going to have to rip up that plan, throw away the guide book and accept that life cannot be planned to the millisecond, and you know what, you’ll be ok. So what you have a shitty meal? So what you don’t get to see that famous painting? You’ll live. You might find you’ll have even more fun and feel even happier. But for those times when you don’t…..
5. It’s ok to be hating every second of it
For whatever reason or often for no reason at all) when you feel sad, disappointed, fed up, lonely or annoyed by everything and everyone around you, even if you’re on the most beautiful beach on earth, that’s totally 100% ok. You’re allowed to have moments when you hate travelling or being on holiday. When you suffer from anxiety you can’t always predict or prevent these emotions, but don’t be harsh on yourself or judge those feelings. They just are what they are, but they’ll move on and being overly-critical with yourself and resisting them will only cause you more pain and waste more energy. Instead of spending your time rationalising why you feel what you do, acknowledge it and then concentrate on reading your crappy chick-lit paperback, eating ice cream or listening to the waves. Trust that those emotions will fade and all will be right with the world in no time.
Accept these truths, whether you’re travelling or not, and I hope they make you feel lighter and happier. Not all of the time though, because that would be boring and who needs an easy life right?
*I’ve still got a pretty long way to go, so if anyone out there has any tips of their own then feel free to share 🙂
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