You may have noticed that I’ve been writing a little less about anxiety lately, and a little more about travel. I believe that there’s a direct reason for this: namely, that travelling more is decreasing my anxiety. It’s been quite a sudden transformation, but I’ve definitely noticed a change, and one that I hope is permanent.
I’ve gone from dreading flying, from B.A. Baracus-style “I ain’t gettin’ on no plane!” moments at the airport and having to prise my fingernails out of the seat at the end of the flight (sorry, various airlines), to looking up at the sky and actually longing to be there. The trip itself used to have to be planned to perfection, every moment mapped out in order to retain control of the situation; I arrived in Italy last month with nothing planned at all. And I had a blast.
So, how has this apparent miracle – as anyone who’s ever witnessed one of my half-marathon walks around an airport terminal, trying to build up the courage to go through security, will testify to – actually come about?
Simple. The act of getting out there, and travelling.
And it’s not just helped with travel anxiety, but the anxiety that was pervading my entire life. Everything.
I’d like to encourage you to do the same; maybe take some of the same steps I did. Because they definitely work.
You can keep that anxiety under control. And you can travel the world.
You Need The Anxiety Lows To Experience The Highs
Anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog (and if you’re not, that’s okay, and I am totally not side-eyeing you right now) will know that I’ve had a fair few travel fails. And these were not the interesting kind of fail, such as accidentally navigating a rental car into piranha-infested waters, although I have no doubt that I’ll probably do that sometime.
No. These were travel fails when I ended up not doing any travelling at all, because my anxiety got the better of me. These involved cancelling a £1500 trip the week before departure, and being too scared to go and see a victory parade or any of the games when my beloved football team, whom I’ve supported for over twenty years, pulled off a once-in-a-lifetime legit sporting miracle. These are quite big things to miss out on.
And they were utterly demoralising. Given that I used to be quite the happy, confident traveller who did solo trips to the USA, it was a real shock to the system to think that I had this anxiety within me which wasn’t going to allow me to do the things I loved anymore. I quickly got to the point where I thought that there would be no more trips anywhere. Trips outside of my house became a big deal, a headache, something I didn’t really want to do.
In retrospect, and I know it sounds cliche, you do need those lows in order to push on, and get the highs again. You need that mental kick in the teeth, the sting to your pride. It hurts, but it does give you a stubborn will to prove yourself wrong. If you don’t have that pride-wounding boot to the face, you just coast on, content in your diminishing horizons.
At this point, I was low but primed to rise – I didn’t feel able to travel myself yet, but I had a desire to. I still wanted to see the world, but I thought that I’d have to do it vicariously through other people.
One book proved to me that wasn’t the case. And a tragic incident in London proved to me that you have to go out and grab life while you can.
As part of my vicarious-travel program, I devoured everything I could which had any remote connection to seeing the globe.
I’ve always been like this. As a child, I terrorised my local travel agent by going in and coming out with armfuls of brochures. I read them from cover to cover, longing to go to places that my family couldn’t possibly afford to go to, forging a lifelong desire to visit them (hello, St Lucia!). When I’d read them, I resorted to making my own by cutting out the pictures and pasting them into a notebook which was dedicated to the fictional travel-planet of “Saffron”. No, I don’t know why I chose that name, either. I wrote descriptions for hotels which didn’t exist.
As I got older, I branched out into maps and books. I still haven’t stopped with that obsession. I have a vast collection of Lonely Planet guides, and an even vaster collection of travel writing – books which took me away from where I was, to places I thought I’d never go to. Books by Bill Bryson, William Dalrymple, Michael Palin; they were all eagerly consumed.
One day, I was preparing for a train journey to go and visit my boyfriend (or as regular readers will know him, The Otter) and at the last minute, I popped on to Amazon for a browse through their Kindle store. There I found a book that I hadn’t heard of – How Not To Travel The World by Lauren Juliff. It had great reviews, so I downloaded on a whim and resolved to read it on the train.
Well, it was outstanding. I don’t think I’ve ever connected with a book as much as I did with HNTTTW. It follows Lauren’s story as she goes from being almost housebound with anxiety, to quitting her job and travelling the world. And it was open and honest – not everything went perfectly. She had plenty of misadventures, which made her anxiety threaten to get on top of her, but she pushed through strongly and dealt with it all. She became a full-time traveller, whilst journaling her travels on her blog.
This was a revelation. Here was someone who’d had similar problems, but similar dreams, and she’d gone out and done it. It was possible! And a blog sounded like an awesome way to not only record travels for posterity and my own reminiscing, but motivate myself to keep pushing onwards. I finished reading Lauren’s book on 2nd June 2017.
The next day, The Otter and I decided to go and spend the day in London – no set plans, just a general wander as I was too nervous to go anywhere via the Underground. We ended up spending the day at Borough Market, exploring all the stalls and making a full day of it, checking out all the shops in the area around London Bridge. We briefly considered staying in the area for the night in order to watch the Champions League final, but decided on home and a takeaway curry instead.
That was the evening that terrorists attacked, killed, and injured many on London Bridge and in Borough Market. We’d missed it by a couple of hours. Whilst it would be a gross overstatement to say that “we survived the attack” or some-such – when it did occur, we were nowhere near the area – it definitely shook us to see somewhere we’d been just a couple of hours before on the news, police lights flashing, victims terrified and dying.
I passed through London again a couple of days later, and was standing on Blackfriars Bridge looking backward towards London Bridge. It occurred to me how everything in your life can change in an instant, and that there are no guarantees – I was seemingly no safer here than if I travelled elsewhere. It was a choice between staying at home forever, or taking steps to living life the way I wanted to,armed now with the knowledge that it could actually be done.
So I booked a trip to Italy.
I love Italy. I’ve always loved Italy. I was going to an area that I was already familiar with (less nerve-wracking!) and had no doubt whatsoever that I’d have an amazing time exploring, eating, and getting hopelessly lost. There would undoubtedly be moments filled with anxiety, but I speak Italian, and Italy has a way of looking after me.
But first, I had to get there.
One of the worst things about anxiety is that you can have a grain of doubt, a germ of unease, and it’ll grow in your mind. It’s like a sticky ball rolling down a hill, and picking up every last shred of worry on the way. My doubts about my Italy trip came into being about a week before I left; the night before, I was a shivering wreck. I didn’t think I could do it. I would’ve happily cancelled it. And it was completely down to a vague, anxious feeling of “but what if…?”
Anxiety, as any sufferer will tell you, is a total bastard for this. It’ll take something that you’ve been really looking forward to, and corrupt it like a rotten apple. The fact that you’ve been looking forward to it becomes completely irrelevant, and it probably seems completely illogical to the friends and family who’ve been watching you excitedly babble on about it. It makes you actively dread whatever it was that you were about to enjoy.
Luckily, I’d prepared for anxiety’s dastardly antics this time.
As I’d been reading Lauren’s blog in preparation for my new life of travelling (and because it’s an awesome blog!), I was aware that she’d written a course aimed at people like me, who wanted to overcome travel anxiety. It was perfect, and was quite genuinely responsible for getting me on the plane that day. I’m not sure I would’ve made it otherwise. You can check out the course here, and it was another valuable lesson – courses such as this do work. They will help you, reassure you, get you to push yourself. Lauren’s course has not only helped with travel anxiety but the everyday variety of anxiety too. I’ve had so much great support from the course, and the private group chat which accompanies it.
I made it to Italy fine, although still fearful of flying. But the anxiety felt manageable, for the first time in years.
Online courses such as Lauren’s are invaluable for giving you a voice of experience and reassurance, and a group of friends who’ll support you. Whether it’s travel anxiety or general anxiety, it really does work.
Starting To Fly
I was so much more relaxed about travel now, though I did still feel the need to over-plan everything. Planning what you’re going to do while you’re away is great, and it helps us folks with anxiety retain some form of control in a situation which can feel out of control, but over-planning can strangle the spontaneity out of a trip. My next journey was to a country new to me, namely The Netherlands, and my copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Amsterdam had so many Post-It markers sticking out of it that it resembled a hashtag.
But my biggest concern was still flying.
On my pathetically-short flight from London Southend to Amsterdam, I was all set to be a nervous wreck again, until I discovered the SkyGuru app (you can read my review of it here). This taught me another lesson: in these times when we walk around with mini computers masquerading as phones in our pockets, we have so many tools for keeping the anxiety at bay. SkyGuru walked me through the flight and set my mind completely at ease; other apps such as Google Maps or Moovit assist you to navigate around somewhere you’ve never been with the least amount of fear. The amount of resources available to us is pretty stunning, and it’s all able to be carried in your pocket. Another step for the anxious: embrace technology.
I got off the plane from Amsterdam craving another trip, and – surprisingly – craving another flight. A major hurdle had been conquered, and one that I never expected to get under control.
It was time to do something a bit more spontaneous. It was time to go to Germany and Austria.
The Merry Merry Month Of May
May 2018 was a game changer. I wasn’t in one country for longer than a week at a time. And I loved every minute of it.
I’d never visited Germany or Austria before and I threw myself headlong into both of them, alongside The Otter. My Lonely Planet had no Post-It notes at all. I didn’t plan anything, in reaction to the over-scheduling which had been quite exhausting in Amsterdam. This led to the Otter and I being completely unprepared at Munich airport, trying to find a train to the city centre at 11pm on a public holiday, and spending at least three-quarters of the journey worrying that we were going in the wrong direction. So okay, some planning is still good.
But we had the time of our lives. We went up a church tower which invoked panic attacks in both of us. I had a German lady inspecting my boobs as I tried on a dirndl. I ate foods which I’d always been deeply suspicious of (sauerkraut), or which I had no idea what it was (a mysteriously stuffed pretzel). We arrived in Salzburg with no plans of what we were going to do, and only a vague idea of how to get to our hotel.
A week later, I was in Italy again. No plans. I explored Pompeii and Ischia, and finally put my feet up and relaxed for a bit.
And I felt completely free of anxiety.
I genuinely believe that travel is the best form of treatment for anxiety. I’ve said before that it forces you to live in the here and now, but it also makes you learn lessons.
In all the things I’ve described above, there has been a lesson learnt. They’ve taught me about life, anxiety, travel… but they’ve also taught me a lot about myself. Going away takes you out of your comfort zone, plops you somewhere unfamiliar in an uncertain situation, and forces you to deal with it. Problems can’t be ignored; they’re dealt with straight away. It teaches you to cope with things that are out of your control, by controlling yourself. That’s the main thing you need for helping your anxiety.
And above all, it gives me a sense of pure joy and wonder, of seeing and experiencing new cultures, new foods, new adventures. I have so many more travels planned; in fact, the only thing giving me anxiety right now is the thought that I might not be able to visit all of them. Travel makes me feel alive.
That is worth beating anxiety for.
Got any awesome tips for travel anxiety, or anxiety in general? Does travel make you feel a similar way? Let me know in the comments!
Please note that this article may contain affiliate links – these incur no extra cost to you. Also, I don’t affiliate with anything I haven’t tried myself, or anything that I don’t completely recommend – I’m much more interested in helping other people than anything else!