How I'm Dealing With My Anxiety While Traveling

Panic takes over. My ribs quiver with the force of my heartbeat; my eardrums throb with the sound. It’s deafening: an aggressive, quickening crescendo that demands my attention and mutes all else. I’m consumed at once with sensory overload and with numbness.

With every fiber of my being, I want to miss my flight. But if I don’t see this backpacking trip through, I fail. I’m incapable, inadequate; I’ll never overcome my fear. Or so says my anxiety – the reason I’m feeling this way in the fucking first place.

I’m embarking on this journey to prove something to myself: I am stronger than the ocean of fear in which I perpetually swim. I can battle the currents; I can ride the waves. Fuck you, anxiety. You won’t stop me.

I caught that plane.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been navigating the dark waters of anxiety and panic. It’s a constant battle between the conflicting forces of restlessness and inertia. Adrenaline courses through my veins, begging for action. It also keeps me awake and on edge until I’m too fatigued to do anything at all.

In this, I am not alone.

Around 1 in 7 people are affected by anxiety disorders in Australia — roughly double the worldwide statistic — and those are just the diagnosed cases. But alas, strength in numbers won’t deter the periodic onset of frazzled-fragility. I become unable to concentrate, think or converse. I’m a version of myself I don’t want to be. Rather, I imagine a wild-eyed, fearless me: an independent explorer, a headstrong leader, a social butterfly. I crave freedom – the opposite of what I know. I seek to feel this, to become this, through travel.

Perhaps counterintuitively, many of us who live with anxiety are drawn to adventure. We dare to provoke our neuroses, searching for relief in the depths of great discomfort. We imagine that by handling such unbelievable situations, we’ll never be afraid again.

As I write now, I’m three weeks into a daunting 10-month travel stint. In the lead-up to my arrival here in Bali, I experienced panic attacks and stomach ulcers that left me vomiting up blood and unable to eat.

young woman lying in clear ocean wearing red bathing suit

Such is life for the anxious traveler. Noisy, light polluted dorm rooms leave you sleepless. Tension and stomach ulcers exacerbate the effects of food poisoning. Muscle aches make you think twice about hiking that volcano. “Normal” situations such as communal kitchen conversation or even nursing your hangover can kickstart the panic. Cue mad scramble away from the crowd to hide the hyperventilation, trembling and tears of frustration.

We don’t endure all of this just for the Instagram photos. We want to prove we are capable of being outside our (microscopic) comfort zones. That we can make friends effortlessly, skinny dip without insecurity or bungee jump over a waterfall. Travel provides all of the necessary opportunities to prove our bravery, egging us to grab life by the balls. The only problem is, pressure is not a friend of the anxious mind.

The cruel paradox of anxiety is that it will push with all its strength to keep you from pursuing a goal, debilitating you with fear and indecision; meanwhile punishing you relentlessly for being unable to succeed.

Travel addresses both poles of the paradox.

On the road, we’re faced with tough situations. We are encouraged, or even required, to do things that make us uncomfortable. Failure to fulfill our own valiant expectations is accompanied by incessant overthinking, self-deprecation and self-doubt. Over literally anything. For example, declining an offer for a stick-and-poke tattoo from some Colombian dreadlocked hippy may seem like a sensible decision. Well, for some it can result in days of regret and self-loathing for “being so fucking uptight.”

I’ve become grateful for my daily confrontations with this disheartening internal monologue. It exhausts me. It leaves me no choice but to accept my imperfections and vulnerability. I may not always be as bold and energized as other people, and that’s OK. With that, I have begun forming relationships and having adventures of my own prerogative – not to prove myself, but to seek genuine thrill. I know the resulting challenges and triumphs will slowly settle the tumultuous oceans of my anxious mind. It’s already begun.

fisheye lens photo of woman packing up tent in sunshine

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for anxiety and there is no single solution for everyone. There is only a slow process of healing that starts with letting go of expectations and canning the negative self-talk.

So I choose to disregard the doubtful voice in my head. I’ll dance topless in the rain because I want to, not because I’m boring if I don’t join in. I’ll do it for the feeling, the genuine smile, the contagion of my laughter. From now, I’ll pay attention to my senses, not my insecurities. I’ll be patient with myself, and dare to try – dare to fail.

And sure, the challenges associated with travel can raise the tide in an anxious mind – but if you ride the waves, you’ll come out a stronger swimmer. Congratulate yourselves for each firm stroke, my friends, and rest assured that one day we will rest, our feet firmly planted on solid ground.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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