The pulsing panic, incessant self-doubting and debilitating worrying starts when the airline’s e-itinerary shows its bolded subject line in my inbox. Or when a friend or family member hits send on the text message to confirm when we’re leaving for that road trip…in that hot, cramped car.
Sure, I know I was an over-eager brainstorming machine when the trip was just an innocent idea. But now it’s real. The date is branded on my irrational brain, and the worry countdown has begun.
You see, a “vacation” is another word for the worst nightmare of many people who have anxiety. Being in a controlled space with no escape route with people constantly watching you, expecting you to be happy. Expecting you to be relaxed.
I have an anxiety disorder. Being happy and relaxed is an exhausting battle I wage every minute of my waking life. And now, since we’re going on vacation, it will be on display.
And I’ll have nowhere to hide.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be purely excited and carefree on vacation; the only tough decision being where we’d go for dinner.
Instead, I am constantly wrestling the questions and infecting thoughts of my anxiety disorder:
What if I get sick? Did I get an aisle seat? What if people can tell I’m anxious? Will I ruin their vacation? Why can’t I be carefree? Did I pack the right clothes? What if I am not fun enough? OK, then how can I look like I’m having fun if I am anxious? I should bring a book. That’s what relaxed people do, right? They read books on vacation. But what book should I get? What if I have a panic attack? Where will I go? Where will I hide? What if I’m having a bad day? This is supposed to be fun. Just go with the flow. Wait, the flight is three hours?!
I love vacations. I love traveling. And just like you, I love having fun with my family and friends.
But remember, I don’t choose these relentless thoughts. I didn’t choose this brain. See, anxiety never takes a vacation. My struggle travels with me — and now with you.
There are a few simple ways, though, that can help make vacation enjoyable for myself and others with anxiety.
Here are some tips:
1. Let me ask (a lot of) questions about the details.
When I ask those annoying questions, I am processing. Asking the same questions over and over in the three weeks leading up to the trip is how I prepare myself. So let me into the details a bit and entertain my incessant questions. It’s how I cope.
I promise I am not doing it to be annoying. I am trying to reassure myself I’ll be OK by knowing what to expect.
2. Make flexible plans.
Try not to schedule that three-hour massage and yoga class for me without asking. Personally, it gives me something else to dread because I can’t get out of it. Instead, let me know what your plans are, and let me choose what I want to do when I am ready.
I know my limits and tendencies, and I will let you know what I’m up for. While you may find these plans exciting, they add to my cauldron of worries.
3. Ask me how I am feeling.
This is so simple, but don’t assume because I’m on vacation, I am happy and relaxed. Kindly and authentically asking how I’m doing can do wonders. That way, I can let you into my world and if we’re with a group, I know I have an advocate.
4. Allow me to have alone or quiet time without feeling guilty.<
Alone, quiet, unstructured or unplanned time in a comfortable place is what a real vacation looks like for me and for many with anxiety disorders. Spaces where I don’t have to “pass” for being carefree will allow me to be myself, lower stress and reduce the exposure to anxiety triggers. Now that’s my kind of vacation!
5. Remember I love vacation too.
I love spending time with you, having fun and going on vacation. But just like you would need to modify your vacation plans if you had a cast on your arm, I too have to adjust for my anxiety. It’s nothing personal.
And know for someone with anxiety, it is hard to commit to these types of things. The fact that I decided to come along with you means I really want to be there, with you.
Now, let’s have some fun.