I have touched on my issues with anxiety in other posts, but never fully in depth. I think a lot of people are unfamiliar with exactly what it means to have an anxiety disorder–instead thinking that sometimes those of us with one are perhaps just a bit too Type-A personality/high-strung. While that’s probably not a stretch for some of us, anxiety disorders are more than that.
When I was 14, I was first diagnosed with anxiety. I don’t know that I ever really felt like I was a particularly anxious person–I thought it was just who I was: always worrying about everything; living with the ever-present knot in my stomach and constant headache. I was put on medication for it, which I took for a little while until I realized it was affecting other parts of my life negatively, at which point I decided to go off of it.
I learned to manage (or live with) it to a certain degree. Sometimes it was worse than others. In college, it began to affect my health in that I was getting almost daily migraines or headaches, and occasional mild panic attacks.
It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I began having pretty bad panic attacks–to the point where I went into the emergency room because I could not catch my breath and nothing I did helped me to calm down. It was then that I knew I needed to do something better to manage it. Exercising, making lists, practicing mantras, and the like were no longer enough to calm me down–to clear my head. I spoke with my doctor, who prescribed Xanax for me. If you’re unfamiliar, Xanax is a medication that you take when you’re feeling overwhelmed or when you sense a panic attack coming on. It’s not a daily medication like I was on before, so it doesn’t have that steady dose which can mess with your mood, feelings, etc. Thankfully, I haven’t had to take much of the Xanax, saving it only for times when I really cannot calm myself down or for when my chest starts to feel so heavy that I cannot breathe.
So, how does one travel with an anxiety disorder? It’s not easy. At least not for me. I love to travel, obviously, as this entire blog revolves around that very subject, but sometimes the very idea of travel can send me over the edge.
With my particular type of anxiety disorder, I not only feel the tightness in my body, but I also experience obsessive thoughts. Before I travel, I lie awake in bed at night, imagining every possible horrible thing I might encounter while traveling. I account for every situation and try to imagine a solution for them. These horrible things might range from something as small as forgetting my toothbrush or losing my luggage to being mugged or raped. Even after I manage to run through all of them–from the plausible to the ridiculous–and fall asleep, I’ll jolt awake mid-sleep, panic-stricken, and have to run through them again. I know to some people it sounds absolutely insane, but for me, this is how my brain has always operated. It’s something that I’ve struggled with and have tried to contain.
When I’ve finally worked through all the scenarios and think I have a handle on them (and ensure I have travel insurance and that my family has copies of all of my documentation and travel plans), I leave. Then comes more anxiety: Will I make it to the airport on time? Do I have everything I need? Will I make it through security quickly? What if I can’t find my gate and I’m the last one there? What if there’s no room for my carry-on above my seat? What if.. what if.. what if.. There’s really no way for me to deal with any of this anxiety except to just roll with the punches. (And, to my credit, I usually handle things fine when they actually happen–no breakdowns or anything–it’s just the leading up to the “catastrophic” event that is bad.)
Then comes what I think is the worst of it. When I finally land in a place and make it to my accommodation to get settled in, I start panicking again. Sometimes, and especially when I am traveling solo, I am almost too paralyzed by fear to even leave the room. So, I’ll fly around the world and then sit in my room, bargaining with and convincing myself that I need to go out and actually see the place that I’ve just spent all this money to see. I tell myself that it’ll be fine and that I can come back at any point if it feels too overwhelming. My fears are similar to the ones I have on those sleepless nights, but also now include: What if I get lost and no one speaks English? What if I don’t have enough cash and a place doesn’t accept credit cards? What if I’m the only person eating alone? What if I’m not dressed properly for a particular place? What if people see me and know I’m a foreigner and try to prey on me? What if someone is rude to me or makes fun of me? Again–everything from the plausible to the ridiculous.
Eventually I’ll convince myself to go out. Perhaps it’s just with the idea of taking a small walk at first. Or going to grab a quick bite to eat. And once I am out of the room and in the city, I get lost in discovering new things and collecting new experiences. But, without fail, the next day will be the exact same: I’ll wake up, paralyzed with fear, and have to remind myself that the previous day went just fine and that today will go equally as well, if not better.
Traveling with an anxiety disorder sucks. I can’t tell you the number of things I’ve probably missed out on because I was so wrapped up in my own obsessive thoughts about what could happen rather than getting out there and living. As the years go on, I’m getting a bit better about it, but it’s something I will live with for the rest of my life. And it’s something that I keep in mind every time I book a trip–I always account for a bit of extra time in a place so that I can assuage my fears and work my way up to getting out of the room.
If you also suffer from an anxiety disorder and are wondering how you might be able to manage it while traveling, here are a few things I’ve found that help me:
- Make lists. I make lists for everything. Things I want to do and see. Things I’m scared about (along with the solution to the problem or the counter-argument for those things).
- Close your eyes and take deep breaths. While taking those breaths, be present: imagine the air going in through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs–expanding them before releasing. Imagine the life inside your body as that happens–blood flowing down through your arms into your fingers; down through your legs into your toes.
- Focus on something else–find a book or a magazine. Turn on the TV and watch a foreign channel and try to figure out what they’re saying or what the storyline is.
- Narrow down the biggest thing that is causing your anxiety at a particular moment, imagine it, and then release it by whispering, “Let go. Let go. Let go.” to yourself until the thought has moved to the back of your mind.
- Listen to something that either calms you down (Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky) or pumps you up in a positive way (M83, Arcade Fire).
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