Traveling & Anxiety: How to Stay Sane on the Road

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I’ve been thinking about traveling with anxiety a lot lately. As someone blessed (ha!) with anxiety, it’s really not terribly surprising that I’ve been overthinking this for so long. It’s what us Nervous Nellies do, after all. And sometimes I tend to go all the way to the Depressive Danas team and it’s not fun!

My anxiety and depression aren’t something I like to openly advertise with the world. In public, I’m usually the bubbly blonde with a knack for striking up conversations with the most unlikely of strangers (“Oh hey, new friend! What, you didn’t know that we were about to be BFFs? Too bad!”) But, I’m trying to be more honest online and offline. The world doesn’t need any more sugar-coated fake stuff. Although it’s difficult to be honest and real when the fake world created by Facebook and other social media seems so perfect.

And that makes you even more depressed, right? When you see that all those people are laughing and eating the good food and seeing the most beautiful places in the world and having the time of their lives every day. Right?

Well, it’s not entirely true and you probably know it as well. Look at your social profiles and you will see photos of Happy You, Satisfied You, Living-the-life You and so on, just like everybody else. It’s all fake (in many cases at least): and I know for sure that I was torn inside and broken, yet I still took that happy-face photo to post in Instagram. It didn’t matter that I felt horribly tired and all that I wanted was to sleep… I had to look good in the photos so that the entire world would see me.

Yes, it’s not easy to speak the truth when it comes to anxiety in general, or anxiety related to the life of constant travel. But I will do that today. Because depression is serious business, no matter how good we are at hiding it!

So, here we go…

As you can imagine, I have what can, at times, be crippling anxiety. And depression, but that’s an entirely different topic that I’ll touch on in another post. Have you ever felt the same way?

I’m talking panic attacks in the middle of the street in the dark of night that come on so forcefully, and so unexpectedly, that neighbors come rushing out of their homes with looks that say “What the hell is happening here?”

Panic attacks that manifest so mysteriously, I don’t even know what hit me until I’m cocooned under my bed, struggling to breathe, while my best friend visiting from abroad pretends to be asleep downstairs. Embarrassing is an understatement. These things suck!

Anxiety that can come on so suddenly in the most innocent of places. Like the gym I visit every day. On the trails I’ve hiked hundreds of times. In the car. At a bar. In the air. On a plane. In the rain. Everywhere.

Despite all of this, I still travel, and I often do it alone. I’ve just had to figure out a way to make it work.

It’s not always easy. Hell, it’s never easy! It’s a monumental pain, on most occasions, to be honest. But, it is what it is and I’m not going to let it stop be from living the hell of out of my life. Most of the time, at least. Sometimes quivering in irrational fear is the only option.

I might not know you, dear Internet Friend, but if your anxiety has been holding you back from traveling, I’m here to tell you that you can cope, too. Here’s how I manage to make it work and travel with anxiety and depression.

And no, I’m not going to tell you to “just breathe.” (Don’t you just love that piece of advice? Like, oh thanks, I never considered that genius remedy before!)

Plan out of everything, like a maniac

I love the idea of free-wheeling, spontaneous travel, in theory. I’m even capable of doing it sometimes. I almost always leave my plans mostly open-ended in a new place and figure it out as I go. But, ya know what, there is absolutely nothing wrong with planning. You are NOT a “bad traveler” for planning ahead.

When I’m on my own I always have accommodation pre-booked. Knowing where I’m going to stay next helps me calm down and enjoy my trips. Having tons of screen shots with street directions makes me feel a smidge better about finding my away around a new town. I also research map apps for my mobile phone and I always make sure they work out fine. (Here’s a list where you can find yours)

I usually plan as I go when I’m on a longer trip. For me, it’s the perfect combo of the comfort found in planning and the spontaneity I also love. It helps me stay sane. If planning also gives you a slight advantage over anxiety, plan away! It doesn’t make you a bad traveler; it makes you a self-aware traveler.

Remember all of the times things went wrong

This might seem counter intuitive, but hear me out. One night on the Greek island of Kos, I was on the lovely couch of my CouchSurfing host, trying miserably to fall asleep. I was physically shaking from fear. The next day I had to make it to Izmir in Turkey to meet up with a friend, and moving cities always turns me into a nervous wreck. I was terrified, running through the what-ifs:

– What if I get lost?
– What if my horrible sunburn makes it impossible to carry my backpack?
– What if I miss one of my buses, or the ferry?
– What if I can’t find my hotel?
– What if I have trouble with my debit card in Turkey?
– What if the ferry sinks?

And, well, it just spiraled out of control from there. Ironically enough, I did get lost. I had to throw back Vicodin like an addict to carry my pack on my horribly sun burnt back. An ATM inhaled my debit card, and I nearly missed my bus to Izmir. I couldn’t find our hotel for hours.

So, some annoying crap did go down. But I was fine. I had a backup debit card. I had my handy prescription pain meds (thanks, wisdom teeth!) I eventually found our hotel and all of the locals were crazy nice about helping me out.

Now, when I’m about to move on to a new city I try to remember that ridiculous day trying to find my way to Izmir. I’m still anxious, but it helps give me perspective.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from all this: it’s not as bad as it it when I hear the voices in my head. (Seriously now, I don’t hear voices inside my head, but you understand what I mean!)

Test your boundaries, slowly

Us anxious folks don’t always have the mental capacity to consider stepping drastically outside of our comfort zones… but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test the waters.

If backpacking solo around India sends you into a tizzy, start with something easier. Maybe you take a weekend road trip a few hours away from your hometown. Maybe you stick to “easy” destinations that feel somewhat familiar, like Western Europe. You don’t have to go balls-to-the-wall if you’ll be too anxiety-ridden to enjoy it.

Nomadic Matt has a great article written by Lauren Juliff from Never Ending Footsteps where she gives similar advice for dealing with anxiety when traveling and how to test your boundaries and expand them. A good read as well, make sure you check it out here.

Don’t be afraid to get help

Admittedly, I’m not the best at taking my own advice, but if your anxiety is truly terrible and you still want to travel, there’s nothing better to do than to seek professional help. It could be your psychiatrist or yoga instructor, as long as it’s someone who can show you ways to manage your anxiety.

You might need medication, you may need meditation… whatever it is, you need to figure out the best way to cope. Sometimes that’s only possible with outside help. In my case, on most occasions, listening to inspirational or motivational videos on Youtube helps. I don’t have a favorite, I just perform a generic search and pick it up from there. It works wonders for my anxious brain!

If all else fails and you have a super loud panic attack in the middle of your hostel dorm, well… that’s the beauty of travel, you can always move on to the next spot and start fresh. But, you might be surprised by how many other people out there are also dealing with this stuff. The more I’ve opened up the more surprised I’ve been about how common anxiety is. We aren’t alone, fellow worriers!

Are you lucky enough to be part of Team Anxiety, and is it making you nervous about traveling? If you love getting out into the world, how do you deal with anxiety when you’re away from home?


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