Traveling with an Anxiety Disorder

anxiety girl

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.

anxiety gibran

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.

anxiety

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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23 thoughts on “Traveling with an Anxiety Disorder

  1. I second the lists thing. Also give yourself extra time to do something. Or even better, go with a partner on your travels. Some people can do this, some people will only do this, some can’t or won’t and that’s alright. But seriously, having someone to share my apocalyptic thoughts with is nice. =)
    Nicole recently posted..Cheap-esque Things We Did in ZagrebMy Profile

    • I agree that having someone around is probably the best way to cope with the anxiety (for me!), but unfortunately, as you said, it’s not always possible. It’s those times that I have to sort of rely on other tactics to get me out and exploring. :)

  2. I struggle with anxiety as well and really related to this. As much as a struggle as it is sometimes, travel usually gets me to overcome my anxiety because my fear of missing out on seeing something cool trumps my fear of leaving. Though, there are days when I do nothing but sit somewhere and read a book…

    And I agree, list making is key!
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..The Best Bites in BudapestMy Profile

    • I think there’s a pretty necessary balance to strike, Amanda! As you said–some days the fear of missing out will get you up and moving, and other days you kind of just want to lie low and take it easy. And I’m glad to hear you’re a fellow list-maker! It helps a lot, doesn’t it? :)

    • Thanks, Cindy! :) Yeah–I have learned to internalize my anxiety quite a bit for fear of freaking others out. ;) But thanks so much! I hope others with anxiety disorders will read and identify with what I’ve written and that it helps them. :)

    • It’s amazing how we can recognize that but still can’t really train our behaviors during the “leading up” moments. I guess it’s the best we can do to just try to manage it! Thanks for commenting, Jamie! I’ll be checking out your blog! :)

  3. I can relate to this on so many levels! I have suffered from anxiety attacks since I was young. It’s amazing how many “what if” scenarios one brain can come up with, huh? Since I have been solo traveling for a few months now, it’s amazing how much I’ve been able to let go and just get out there. (I often sign the ‘let it go’ song from Frozen in my head when I start to panic…it’s weird but it does help lol).
    Mandie @ RamblingMandie recently posted..Why You Should Stop Worrying About Not Having it All TogetherMy Profile

    • I think as you’re traveling longer, managing the anxiety does become a bit easier because you’ve realized that it’s not quite as hard as you built up. It’s good that you’ve got other tactics to help you calm down when you feel a panic attack coming on–no matter how weird they are. ;)

  4. Brave, brave lady. Many people who don’t have an anxiety disorder get so debilitated by the fear of a new country that they don’t ever go, so I have an uncountable amount of respect for you grabbing your worries by the balls (‘scuse the language) and going out anyway. Feeling anxiety is hard enough, confronting what makes you anxious is another thing entirely. I hope that somehow, someway by continuing to travel your anxious moments will diminish (slowly and over time). Keep travelling, keep strong and well done for having the courage to share this. PS: if you ever need a travel partner, just shout!
    Jo recently posted..Travel Hacking in the UK: Can you really fly for free?My Profile

  5. I agree that the fear of missing something cool makes me overcome my fear of everything else.

    Travelling with a partner sometimes can make you worse though. When you’re down they can take it to heart and then argumemts happen which only makes your anxiety or panic worse.

    I think travellers forget that actually there IS a lot to worry about. You ARE more likely to get lost where you can not speak the language than one of your friends at home are. And no matter how many times that happens and you get out alive, you will not stop worrying about it happening again.

    The term ‘roll with the punches’ is perfect. You may stay awake all night but if you can force yourself as far as getting on a plane, or boat or even out of tne front door, you have the will to do anything.

    Thanks for the brilliant read, from a fellow anxious traveller.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Zoe! Thankfully, I’ve never experienced the arguments and hurt that can come with traveling with others as an anxious traveler–I can’t even imagine adding fuel to that fire in that regard!

      And exactly! If you can overcome that fear and get yourself out the door, and can learn to handle everything that comes your way (getting lost, not speaking the language, etc.), then I think you can challenge yourself to do most anything.

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  7. Megan, Great post. Hearing what you go through at night is exactly how I feel and doesn’t sound insane, but basically how I’ve been living for years. I also travel and try to live my life like a “normal” person, but there are definite challenges. Anyway, struggling a bit today, so glad I found this.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Kelli! And, while it sucks, I sure am glad that there are other people out there who can commiserate with me over this! ;)

  8. Hi Megan! Great post – I am in the same boat. In the recent years my anxiety when I travel started growing so much and I wasn’t like that before. I used to make lists but not anymore – they just give me more anxiety.

  9. I do not travel more often but I do have, I mean, I have been there, suffering from panic attack, stress and anxiety which make me feel so insane. Often people ask this question about the possible benefits of meditation but I tell you honestly that it’d work. Since anxiety is one of the most troublesome problem being faced by people (including me) of this modern era, everybody seeks what could be the best antidote of it.Since you are a traveler, you may find l-theanine tea useful because of its calming effects. If you adjusted a little bit, then you’ll manage to control your apocalyptic thoughts.

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