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When Anxiety Follows You on Vacation

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When I come home, I’ll tell stories from my three-month vacation in Europe. I’ll talk about the food I ate in Greece and the wine I tasted in France. I’ll brag about the club in Barcelona where I counted down the New Year, I’ll tell anecdotes about the people I met on a pub crawl in Amsterdam.

I will not tell the story of how my trip was overcast by a cloud of anxiety. I won’t recount the sleepless nights or the days I spent in a blur of panic. Nor will I mention my frustration, as I expected my anxiety to disappear as I flew out of Sydney airport — away from the pressures of school, work, relationships — only for it to follow me abroad. I don’t want to admit that I could have enjoyed my holiday more, if it weren’t for my own mind.

At the beginning of the trip, I felt fine as long as I was occupied. Reading, writing, sightseeing, planning, running, partying, cooking — I did anything and everything to keep up with my rapid heartbeat and racing mind. I was the first awake and the last asleep. I thought that if I ignored my anxiety it would eventually stop bothering me, but it only continued to escalate.

My anxiety peaked in the days leading up to Christmas. I spent a particularly bad day shopping at a fresh food market in the South of France — an ordinarily fun task turned overwhelming by anxiety. Amongst the crowds, the noise and my inability to speak French impeding my ability to communicate, I started to panic. I encouraged my family to stop at a café, where I excused myself to the bathroom and found the back door exit to the streets.

I leaned against the stone wall of a nearby church and slid slowly to the ground, hyperventilating. I cried, holding my head in my shaking hands. I closed my eyes and listened to my heartbeat in my ears. Pounding, increasing… finally subsiding. I stood up, used the back of my sleeve to wipe off my tears and lit a cigarette. With each inhale, my breathing slowed down. My lungs felt like mine again. I joined my family in the café, making sure to bounce my way to the table like the carefree girl they know. They asked why my hands were shaking — I blamed the cold.

I didn’t sleep for two weeks.

At night, the silence was deafening. I couldn’t turn my mind off. The thoughts came into my head and piled up so quickly that I could barely hold onto them. I didn’t know what I was thinking about, I just knew that I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t sleep. The only nights I could sleep were those when I had been drinking heavily, leaving me just as exhausted the next day. Usually talkative and energetic, I began to lose the energy to speak.

Eventually, the lack of sleep caught up with me, and I started to catch up on sleep. Slowly but surely, I felt more and more like myself. Perhaps I was just getting used to it, or maybe I was genuinely improving. Regardless, I hated myself for allowing my anxiety to disrupt my holiday so far. But then I received a message.

A friend had been traveling in Cambodia for the past week, and had spent most of that time in bed with a stomach flu. She was frustrated that she had wasted the first part of her holiday being unwell. It sounded familiar.

As we spoke, I realized that I could not control being anxious any more than she could control being sick, and neither of us could solve anything by beating ourselves up. The best next step for both of us was to take advantage of the fact that we were feeling better.

I now recognize that my anxiety may not take a holiday when I do. More importantly, I recognize that it doesn’t have to. I can get through the bad days and make the most of the good days. And when I come home, I’ll remember the panic attacks, the majestic views, the sleepless nights and the times that I laughed wholesomely and genuinely, and know that I can still experience beautiful things in the midst of my anxiety.

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Thinkstock photo via bluejayphoto

Originally published: February 24, 2017
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