4 Ways to Deal With Anxiety and Still Enjoy Traveling

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My heart pounded, and my thoughts raced, as I leaned over in my airplane seat with my head in my hands, waiting for takeoff. I tried to appear calm and controlled in front of my fellow passengers, although anxiety riddled my inward confidence with doubts and fears like so many tiny bullets. How am I going to survive a whole 12-hour plane flight feeling like this, much less my four-week stay in Indonesia? I inwardly groaned. Thinking of the weeks ahead in a strange place — the exciting, out-of-my-comfort-zone activities I would be involved in and the sleepless nights that would undoubtedly accompany them — only made me feel more desperate to jump off the plane and run all the way home. As the plane began rumbling down the runway, my head started spinning and familiar waves of nausea hit me, one after another.

Why would I put myself through such mental and physical turmoil? Sometimes I have wondered the same thing. If this had been my first time experiencing anxiety, I may have walked off that plane and never traveled again. But, fortunately or unfortunately (I’m not sure which), this was no new experience for me. I had been dealing with anxiety for over eight years by then. Granted, each time anxiety crept over me it expressed itself in varying symptoms and in different degrees of severity.

But, I had to make a choice. Was I  going to let anxiety rule my life and keep me from traveling and from going outside my comfort zone? Or, was I going to step out and face my fears? This was no one-time choice, but a decision that hounds me every day. In the end, though, I personally try to decide each day that I am not going to let anxiety keep me from enjoying life and seeing the world.

Anxiety is an unpredictable companion, but not impossible to deal with. It is not the occasional, healthy worry, but the continuing state of agitation and apprehension. At times, the anxiety is triggered by a certain situation or event. It causes indigestion, nausea, sleep problems and even debilitating panic attacks. Fortunately for me, my anxiety is generally manageable and usually triggered by not feeling in control of my circumstances, by experiencing overwhelming noises and sensations, or by traveling.

I love learning about new cultures, trying new food and seeing new sites. Since I realized I have anxiety, I have experimented and discovered what does work and what doesn’t for me while traveling. I particularly have focused on finding ways I can still enjoy traveling despite my anxiety. No method is foolproof, but I have found four ways to make traveling with anxiety more manageable.

1. Travel with trusted friends, family members or your soulmate.

This may seem like an obvious one, but traveling with other people who understand where you’re coming from and who know how to support you through your anxiety is relieving. Many times, the feelings of being alone and isolated can magnify anxiety disproportionately. In addition, isolation can make you feel like you’re out of resources and like you have to struggle all by yourself to survive anxiety. This can be overwhelming and make you feel helpless and out of control.

Alternately, traveling with inconsiderate, dismissive friends/people can be even more stressful than traveling without anyone. Not only do you end up feeling isolated, since your friends are not listening to you when you express your needs and feelings, but you end up feeling hurt and betrayed. Often, I personally feel like I have to pretend like everything is wonderful and hide my anxiety, which makes it more difficult to manage my anxious feelings than when I can accept and deal with them openly.

But, if you travel with sympathetic people, they can offer encouraging words to you so you don’t feel alone in your struggle. In addition, a trusted person can help you recognize the reality of your situation when your anxiety is causing you to think illogically and comfort you with the reality that you are safe and loved. At times, just having someone you trust physically near you can help ease anxious thoughts and feelings.

2. Keep a familiar routine when you travel.

Whenever I travel, I take along my colorful fleece blanket and pillow, if I can. I usually perform a similar set of activities before bedtime as I do at home. Before I turn the lights out, I brush my teeth and wash my face, apply my facial medications, lip balm and lotion, check Facebook, and read a devotional. I’ve learned over the years that I feel more comfortable and less anxious when at least some of my surroundings and activities are familiar.

Especially for the anxious mind, familiarity can bring comfort and peace.

– Keep the same bedtime routine as you have done for the past 10 years.
– Write in your journal like you do every other night of your life.
– Bring the plush blanket along that you use at home on a cold day.
– Take your own comfortable pillow along.
– Grab your favorite bag of snacks when you head out for a long day of sightseeing.

You get the idea. Anything familiar can bring a sense of safety and can help put the anxious mind at ease.

3. Plan out the details of the trip ahead of time.

Unless I am going on a relaxing vacation with no specific goals to meet and no events to attend, I have realized I am much less stressed and frantic when I can plan out the details of the vacation or business trip ahead of time. For instance, when I traveled to Puerto Rico for an orchestra tour, I felt much more apprehension and anxiety than I did when I traveled to Europe because I knew very few details about sleeping arrangements, food and concert performances. In Europe, my fellow travelers and I had gathered specific information on scheduling, accommodations and daily activities.

Similarly, planning the details of a trip ahead of time can help take a load off the mind of an anxious person. You don’t have to worry about finding a room to stay in when you arrive at your destination late at night. You don’t have to wonder whether you need to pack a lunch or eat out for supper. You don’t have to figure out which parking garage is cheapest as you rush to arrive on time. Instead, all these details can be cleared up ahead of time to ensure a more enjoyable, relaxed trip.

4. Consider medications or aromatherapy.

A misconception persists in our culture that medications should only be used for extreme, dangerous mental illnesses or symptoms. As a result, I felt for many years that my anxiety wasn’t bad enough to warrant medications. I’m not suicidal or out of control, I thought. I can handle this! Yet, secretly, I wondered if medication could make trips more bearable for me. I couldn’t sleep for nights in a row on trips because of my anxiety. As a result, I felt constantly lethargic and exhausted during vacations. I had always loved going on vacation with friends and family before I developed anxiety. So, it was very difficult for me to accept that I felt too anxious to go on trips. Anxiety was keeping me from going to the places I wanted to go and seeing the sights I wanted to see.

Finally, I broke down and asked my doctor about medications for anxiety. He suggested I take a beta-suppressing medication that would suppress the physical expression of my anxiety while leaving my mind/emotions unaffected. “This won’t take away your anxious thoughts, but it can help you manage the physical symptoms such as your elevated heart rate and shortness of breath,” he said. “It may be just the boost you need to feel in control of your anxiety when you travel.” So, the next time I traveled, I armed myself with my new medication. Just as my doctor said, my anxiety was more controllable, and I was able to sleep soundly most nights on my two-week vacation, though I still worried sometimes. Even when I had to sleep in a university chapel instead of a hotel room, I was able to get decent rest because the medication relaxed my body from its uptight, anxious state. I realized medications can make anxiety more manageable for even those with mild anxiety.

Similarly, aromatherapy may be helpful to some people who live with anxiety. Scents such as lavender may cause people to feel more relaxed and less uptight in stressful situations. I have found aromatherapy to be quite soothing when used right before bedtime during trips. Aromatherapy is available in many different forms such as pillow/sheet sprays, room sprays, candles, hand and body lotions, and diffusers.

While the medical efficacy of the various forms of aromatherapy is uncertain, many people have found aromatherapy to be relaxing and soothing.

Everyone is different.

Always keep in mind that what helps one person may not help another person. Research your options and try different suggestions to figure out what is most helpful for you. Only you know what your anxiety is like and what triggers or soothes it. Furthermore, you may have to plan your trips to avoid anxiety-inducing situations.

Find out what works for you. But, most importantly, don’t give up. Don’t let anxiety keep you from doing what you want to do and traveling where you want to go. You have options and resources. Have fun traveling!

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Thinkstock photo via YakobchukOlena

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When My Anxiety Makes Me Come Across as 'Unfriendly'

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Having dealt with anxiety for nearly my entire life, there are many things that I have come to accept because of it. For example, I can accept that I can’t handle being in loud crowds for a long period of time, or that I will have problems sleeping the night before a big exam or presentation. One thing that has been hard for me to accept with my anxiety, however, is that I often feel like I’m unfriendly when interacting with others.

I’ve always been an extreme introvert and my severe social anxiety definitely contributes to this. However, I do love people. I’m a very compassionate person and my biggest goal in life is to make a difference in the lives of others. But because of my anxiety, it’s difficult for me to interact with others the way I would like to or the way I see others interacting. When I’m about to have a conversation or interaction with someone, I always plan out in my head exactly what I’m going to say. When I’m in the moment, my anxiety makes me forget what I was going to say. It makes me start worrying excessively about if what I will say will be sufficient or if it will make others dislike me. So, oftentimes, I don’t say anything. This is extremely frustrating because there are things I want to say, but I worry so much about if what I will say will be adequate, so in my head I believe that it’s best not to say anything.

This issue happens to me when interacting with many different people, including teachers, bosses, friends, family and strangers. I recently got a job at a retail clothing store, which is my first job interacting with customers. I see my co-workers and managers interacting with each other and with customers like it comes so naturally. For me, I plan in my head what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it before each customer comes up, and many times, I still end up saying nothing because I’m too nervous and anxious to even interact with them.

A customer recently complained to my manager about me, saying that I acted “unfriendly” when checking out her purchases. My manager told me to, “Try interacting more with customers.” At the time, I nodded and apologized, but right after my shift, I came home and cried. Since I had gotten the job, I had been pushing myself to interact with others, so hearing someone say this was very upsetting for me. It is always a top priority of mine to try to be friendly with everyone, but with my anxiety, this has become increasingly difficult. I’m constantly having to push myself to carry out even a simple interaction with someone. Trying to act friendly and personable is very difficult.

I do believe that introverts have many skills and talents that others might not, and I do believe that I can still positively influence others despite, and actually because of, my introverted and anxious tendencies. However, it is still very difficult not to get frustrated or upset when I see friends interacting with others in a way that I wish I could. Feeling unfriendly or having difficulties interacting with others is a symptom of anxiety I think we don’t talk enough about because for me, it is one of the most difficult symptoms to handle.

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Why My Love-Hate Relationship With Anxiety Makes Me Human

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I have an anxiety disorder. It has taken me months to speak those words and now that I have finally accepted reality, I think it is going to be a whole lot easier to work through it.

I’ve always been an “uptight” person, Type-A, perfectionist, whatever you want to call it. I always called it that and never “anxiety” because I didn’t even know what that was for a long time. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I’ve had this problem for a lot longer than I thought. It might not have manifested itself as severely, but I can definitely see how anxiety has shaped my life.

I always got stressed about school and that was normal. I have been obsessed with perfect grades since sometime in middle school and I doubt that will ever go away. My mind always blew friend problems out of proportion and I always ended up questioning things I did at a sleepover two months ago. It didn’t really affect me in huge ways, but I know that I am who I am because of what I can now call anxiety.

I have a love-hate relationship with my anxiety.

It is hate when my breathing becomes labored and I feel a panic attack start to bubble over inside me. When I cry myself to sleep because everything just hurts so much. When I send someone a bunch of texts and then they don’t respond and I am forced to question every interaction we ever had to see what I did wrong. When everything seems to be my fault.

It is love when I overachieve. When I push myself to the limit and accomplish great things. When a good day rolls around and I finally feel in control. When I am able to see how much my friends care for me on a daily basis. When I try and I fail and I keep trying because I can’t stop until I succeed.

Despite the bad days, the anxiety and panic attacks, the overwhelming doubt and uncertainty, this is who I am. I am an overachiever, perfectionist, Type-A, uptight, anxious person. I am not saying I want to have anxiety attacks every day. I do not mean to say that my anxiety can control me forever.

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I am only saying that sometimes, my anxiety makes me smile. Sometimes, my anxiety reminds me how lucky I am to be alive. Sometimes, I let myself feel anxious and terrible because I am allowed to not be OK. Sometimes, I remember that God gave me this for a reason and despite all I go through, I will make it to tomorrow.

So, I have an anxiety disorder. I am not perfect, as much as I try to be. I am broken. I am full of irrational thoughts and all the worst eventualities. But that does not make me any less. In fact, I think it makes me more human, more me.

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The 'Small' Thing That Gives Me Anxiety When I'm Grocery Shopping

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A while back I was doing my weekly grocery shop. I was in a place that already gives me mild anxiety — the supermarket. Bright lights, noise, crammed spaces, lots of people. These are things I have ways of dealing with and can usually manage OK even though I don’t like any of it. But this can all change rather suddenly and can be triggered by the smallest thing. This time it was that the normal brand of sliced cheese I buy wasn’t there. Not only was it not there, it appears to have been removed from stock completely. The little space on the shelf where it normally sits was now filled with other things.

This one small thing caused my anxiety to jump up several notches. When I shop, I have a list so I know exactly what I have to buy. I follow a certain path through the supermarket so I can get in and out as quick as possible. I buy the same things and the same brand every time. I like my routine. So when something changes, I start to panic a little and even though I know logically it’s not a big deal and I should just choose something else, it doesn’t stop my thoughts from racing.

What went through my head when the cheese I normally buy wasn’t there?

Maybe they’ve just moved it, but I can’t see it. Have they changed the packaging? It’s not here. Do I need cheese? I have to get cheese. What about these other brands? This one is different to the one I normally get, it doesn’t have the plastic wrap around the individual slices. Do I need plastic wrap? I could just put it in a container. What about this one? Is this one is expensive? This one is too small. Will my boys like this one?

Then my thoughts move on.

People are looking at me. I’m getting in people’s way. It shouldn’t be this hard to make a decision. Why isn’t the normal cheese here? I have to choose, what if I get the wrong one? Will they bring back the other cheese or is it gone forever? Someone else is trying to get something. The trolley is in the way. Pick something and move the trolley. People are still looking at me. I need to move, I need to get out of here.

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By now, I’m starting to feel my heartrate go up. I’m getting fidgety and I start crunching up the shopping list, rolling it over and over in my hand. I’m trying to take deep breaths to calm myself but in a subtle way that others won’t notice. I’m looking around, not only at the various types of cheese, but at the other people around me. I’m wishing the floor would just open up and swallow me.

All of this happened in a matter of a few minutes but honestly it felt like forever. I’m left feeling agitated and disappointed in myself for not being able to make a simple decision like a “normal” person.

It happened again last week. This time I was getting some feminine hygiene products. They didn’t have my normal product of choice so I was left standing there staring at rows of pads and tampons, not knowing what to do. For some reason I get embarrassed buying these things. I normally rush past scooping what I need of the shelf as quick as possible. I don’t know why it’s like this. I mean, it’s a natural part of life that women have to deal with. But now I’m standing here reading labels hoping no one is watching while I try and pick my second best option with a whole new set of irrational thoughts going through my head.

This is part of my social anxiety. I guess it’s a fear of having to “perform” in front of others when the reality is other people are probably so involved in their own thing that they don’t even notice me standing there staring at packets of cheese or whatever else it is that I can make a decision on. Logically, I know this. Why didn’t that other part of my brain get the memo?

Follow this journey here.

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7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started College as Someone With Anxiety

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When I told my therapist in the winter of my senior year of high school that I was following through on my plan to go to college halfway across the country, I couldn’t tell whether she was thrilled that I was refusing to let my social anxiety hold me back or terrified that I wasn’t ready to handle it. I was mostly terrified, to the point I became suicidal a few weeks before I was supposed to move because of how stuck I felt. I went between feeling like there was no way I couldn’t go and no way I could go. Thankfully, however, I worked through that stage, packed up my things, hugged my family and my dog goodbye and moved 1500 miles away from the place I’d spent my entire life to attend my dream school.

To my surprise, I made some incredible progress with my social anxiety at school and there were so many moments when I had to stop and marvel at how grateful I was that I ended up coming. There were, however, a lot of difficult times throughout the year. After some serious trial and error, I figured out a few things I feel anyone moving to college with an anxiety disorder should know, because I wish I’d known them before I began.

1. It’s OK to be honest with your professors. 

I had to take days off a few times because of my anxiety and I had no idea what to tell my professors at first. I didn’t want them to think I was using anxiety as an excuse to skip their class, but I also couldn’t think of anything else to say that didn’t sound flimsy. To my surprise, every single one of them was extremely understanding when I sent emails explaining that I was struggling with my anxiety and couldn’t attend class that day. They all kindly encouraged me to take care of myself and let them know if I needed anything.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

I didn’t have any special accommodations to help me with my mental health last year, but I am looking forward to the next one because I reached out to disability resources to get some assistance, such as a single room instead of sharing with a roommate. It’s not an accommodation that’s absolutely necessary for me to function, but they understood it would make so many things in my life easier and were happy to help.

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3. Utilize on-campus counseling, if provided.

Most colleges have counselors as a part of their health services, and it’s great to be able to see someone right on campus when you need to — and at most schools, the cost is included in your tuition.

4. Being honest with your friends lessens anxiety in the long run.

At first, I tried to hide my anxiety from my friends, as I’d done with most people in my life before moving to college. After about a month, the truth slipped out while a friend was asking me to join them at a football game. “I have problems with social anxiety and crowds like that are hard for me,” I said. To my amazement that was that. “Oh OK, I understand,” my friend said. “Do you want to meet us for dinner after or are you staying in tonight?”

My other friends have also accepted and understood whenever I’ve explained something is difficult for me because of my anxiety and having them support me when I struggle with something has made facing anxiety-inducing situations much easier. It took a huge weight off my chest when I wasn’t worried about feeling anxious and hiding it from the people around me.

5. Remember you can’t succeed in school without being mentally healthy.

If you have a big paper due and feel like you’re on the verge of an anxiety attack, take a step back and do what you need to do to calm yourself before tackling the assignment — it will come out better even if it takes a little longer to get done. Take a mental health day if going to class is too much and it’s a day you can skip. Set aside time for self-care during busy weeks. Your grades will thank you.

6. Don’t feel pressured to put yourself in anxiety-inducing situations.

College is often viewed as a time not just to learn, but I believe it’s also a time to let loose and go a little wild. As someone with social anxiety, there was a ton of stress accompanying the idea that I’d be expected to socialize more than I wanted to or — God forbid — party. Some social situations were unavoidable and some weren’t. Some of the avoidable ones I put myself into anyway, because I wanted to or because I knew it would be good for me. But I also knew my limits, and while I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone a lot last year (and am happy I did so), I learned that looking after myself is more important than doing something I feel expected to do.

7. Bring at least a few things that are familiar and comforting to school. 

I know — dorm shopping is awesome and planning out your new room can be really fun. And who doesn’t love brand new things for a brand-new stage in your life? But it can be helpful, for times when you’re feeling anxious, to have something that reminds you of home. Bring a treasured stuffed animal, a favorite book, photos of people you love or your favorite blanket. Having something to hold or hug or just look at when the strangeness of the new situations starts to get to you can help with your anxiety and make you feel like you belong in your new home.

To anyone headed to college next year — good luck! These really can be the best years of your life and if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, you’re incredibly brave for going. Your anxiety isn’t going to hold you back from succeeding, though. Have fun, study hard and most importantly, take care of yourself. You’ve got this.

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The 4 Steps I Took to Beat Anxiety So I Could Travel With My Wife

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I was always a worry wart. I remember it vividly from childhood to my current middle age. But I never understood what it was about. Then there was the bullying, followed by years of low self-esteem, self-doubt and finally, the stress that led to anxiety and then depression. What I didn’t know and needed to learn was that I was a highly sensitive person and that the feelings I was dealing with were not that easy to fix.

By far, the anxiety that made me doubt my life would ever be the same was the agoraphobia that stopped me in my tracks from being able to travel. When I say travel, I mean even to the store down the street. Panic attacks were my new, daily friend and it was all I could do to even get through a day at work. How could I have gone from someone who enjoyed traveling the world to a person who couldn’t even leave his house without feeling sick?

Over the next two years, I learned about complex PTSD that came from a childhood of bullying abuse that would grow and lead to my current problems so many years later. I realized I was far from alone in having these issues, but just living with a major anxiety disorder that creeped up on me. There were so many places I wanted to go, but felt that it would never happen now. As time passed, I learned how to deal with this anxiety.

So, I began the process of learning as much as I could about mindfulness and gratitude. I also wanted to learn to accept the fact that I was highly sensitive and try to make changes in my life that would be uncomfortable at first, but would hopefully help. Why did I do all this? I had promised my wife that we would travel to Europe for our 25th wedding anniversary. I didn’t know anxiety would get to me and now the anniversary date was looming closer. I had one year to get to a point of comfort. Here’s what I did:

1. Fed my brain.

I changed my diet and learned that there were mood foods that help with anxiety. I was not eating right before anxiety entered my life. It was amazing that food could have that effect on the mind. But science has proven that food and the mind are closely connected.

2. Exercised and practiced yoga.

For me, this was so hard to start. First, I wasn’t an exercise person. Second, it required me to go to the gym and fight the anxiety and my mind that kept telling me not to go. Interestingly, at the door to the gym was a sign that said, “Know that getting here was half the battle.” How did they know? Again, a discovery I wasn’t alone. Yoga helped teach me to focus my mind only on myself and the movement. Slowly, the anxiety gave up the fight the more I practiced it.

3. Learned to breathe through the anxiety.

This is a major mindfulness technique that so many people forget.

4. Did the things I didn’t want to do.

Really, it was my mind that didn’t want to do it. The more you go and experience the anxiety head on, the more it will give up the fight. Eventually, anxiety gave up on attacking me.

No, it wasn’t overnight and I had to do all the work. But I did conquer the anxiety through help from professionals as well as helping myself. As I stand now looking over the cliffs of Dover in Europe, I can enjoy myself and this trip once again. My wife has little idea of what it took for me to make this trip the dream trip we thought it would be when we married 25 years earlier. But I got here and she is standing beside me, with no idea what I did to get here.

It’s important, when the chips are down for you, that you set a goal to defeat these things. This trip gave me what I needed to get there. But I had to do the work. I had to want to get better. There was no magic trick to getting better. I wanted to do the work and I did. Today, I am breathing my full breath in Ireland, enjoying each minute of what was a dream 25 years ago. I am lucky that I made it through this battle with anxiety.

I am not naïve to believe it won’t come back. But now I have the ability and skills to fight for my life back. It was so worth it and the view I have now makes me realize how much I could have lost if I had given up. But I didn’t and that is all that matters at this moment.

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