I was diagnosed with a pretty serious anxiety disorder around the age of 10. It was around this same age that I had started dreaming of traveling the world. One of my teachers had told my class a story about how she had been in Africa and seen someone walking a crocodile on a leash and I just thought that was so crazy. I wanted to see things like that too, things that I could only imagine without venturing into the world. Now it doesn’t take a genius to know that travel and anxiety don’t mix well. However I have found time and time again that traveling with anxiety has helped me learn to cope in many different ways. Here is why you should still travel and how to manage panic abroad.
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I have experienced so many panic attacks in my life and yes, lots of them have occurred while traveling. One thing I often get anxious about is illness. To put it bluntly, if you plan on really traveling the world you are going to get sick and/or injured along the way. You’re also going to get better and heal and come out of everything all right. The same goes for anxiety. If you suffer from serious anxiety you are probably going to get anxious abroad. Sometimes this anxiety will be magnified by the fact that you’re far from home, you may not speak the local language or you may get lost or hurt. However it is in facing these uncertainties that I have found a strength within myself I would not have known existed had I never traveled.Chile’s Atacama Desert, 2014
In order to explain my point I am going to share a few situations I have been in while traveling in which I was extremely anxious. When I was traveling in northern Chile I was extremely anxious about getting altitude sickness. Chile’s Atacama desert is approximately 2,400 metres above sea level which is around the same height that people start to experience altitude sickness. I was particularly worried about this because I also have asthma and I really wanted to enjoy my time in the desert without getting ill.
Another time I had just landed in Bangkok with my friend and when we got to our hotel it was in such a sketchy area that our taxi driver suggested he take us elsewhere. Having heard about taxi scams before we were very unsure of what to do but decided to let him take us to a different place as the hotel basically sent chills down our spines.
In both of the aforementioned scenarios I experienced strong panic attacks. However, neither of the things I was worried about ever ended up happening. I never got altitude sickness in northern Chile and although we had to pay extra money at the hotel in Thailand, it was in a much better area. That’s the thing to remember when it comes to anxiety. Most of the things we worry about never end up happening.
Now there have also been a few times in which I worried about something that did end up happening. I have gotten lost in many cities, received a third degree burn and been hospitalized for severe food poisoning abroad. However in each of these cases I have ended up okay. I have survived, found my way and become stronger and more resilient. I find that traveling has really helped me to be able to say to myself, “You have dealt with so much worse, you can definitely handle this.” This is one of the more powerful tools that I now have to help cope with my anxiety daily.
Anxiety sucks but you definitely should not let it hold you back from experiencing life. Travel gets you out of your comfort zone which is the only place where real growth happens. Not only will you have so much fun experiencing new foods, people and cultures but you will really grow to be so much stronger than you believe possible. You may get panicky about this or that but you will most likely come out of everything alright if you travel smart.
Now, I definitely don’t want to make it sound like travel is easy all the time and that you don’t need to take precautions. Travel can be dangerous depending on where you go and how you get there, especially for women. Definitely take precautions. Go to a travel clinic before you head out and find out what vaccines you need. Get travel insurance. Do some research on the cities you plan to visit. Try to stay mostly in safe neighbourhoods or go with a friend to places you’re more concerned about. If you’re female then don’t stay out after dark alone in a country you are unfamiliar with. Use your common sense of course but also don’t let fear of the unknown stop you from experiencing the joys of traveling.
There are ways you can cope with anxiety while you are abroad. Everyone is different so these may not all work for you but here are some things I find really help me. First off is my medication. I have tried to stop taking it before and let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. The fact of the matter is that the medications I am on really help me. Before I go on a trip I always stock up on my medications and then split them evenly between my carry on and my checked luggage. This way if I lose one part of my luggage I still have half the amount I need so I can use that to get me through a few days/weeks while I figure out how to obtain more in the country I am in.
Yoga and prayer have also helped a lot with my anxiety. If you don’t believe in God or any higher being that is okay – you can still manage your anxiety. For me though, using yoga and prayer at the same time has taught me how to breathe deeply and how to bend without breaking, both physically and spiritually. Now you may get anxious and be in a situation where getting into downward dog just would not be appropriate but trying to inhale and exhale as you would while in different yogic postures can sometimes be enough to get you through. Often I find that I need to focus on my breathing before talking myself out of my worry.
After I have my breathing in check I go through a series of questions my dad taught me. I first ask myself, “What is the worst thing that could happen in this scenario?” For example the worst thing that could happen could be getting injured. Then I ask myself, “If I get injured, will I be able to handle that?” The answer is usually yes. I can usually handle whatever the worst possible scenario is even if it would be difficult. For example, even if I sustain an awful injury I will go to the hospital and end up okay in the end. The next question to ask yourself is “How likely is it that the worst possible thing that could happen – that I can deal with anyway – will happen?” Almost 99% of the things that I have spent hours worrying about have never happened to me. In reality most of the things we worry about never happen.
If talking myself out of worry this way doesn’t help me then I also have two apps on my phone that I sometimes refer to. One is called MindShift and the other is called SAM. They both have tips on talking yourself out of anxious thought patterns and I have found both to be helpful.
The last thing that helps me get through when I am anxious is support from friends and family. I’ve listed friends and family at the end because they may be hard to contact while traveling. Regardless, your people are your support system. Of course when I’m at home or traveling with someone then I have my support system close by. While traveling alone with anxiety it’s good to stay in contact with your support network. Try using WhatsApp for this. I can’t say how reassuring it has been to be able to say, “Hey I’m struggling right now, would you mind giving me a pep talk or praying for me at some point?”
My hope is that if you are resonating with this that you will know how incredibly strong you are. More often than not, the people that society sees as weak are constantly fighting battles every day that no one cares to know about. If you are anxious, you are not alone. It’s okay to not be okay. Admitting your weaknesses is a sign of strength. Taking a few days to focus on your mental health is a sign of maturity and self-love. If you are anxious but you keep pushing yourself to travel or leap out of your comfort zone (in whatever way that looks like to you) then you are brave. It’s people like you who help to end the stigma around mental illness, so thank you.
April is the founder and main author for Just Leaving Footprints. She has written for numerous blogs and publications such as Explore Magazine and Snow Pak. April loves writing about sustainable tourism, and promoting other sustainable travelers on her Facebook Group and Instagram Community, Ladies for Sustainable Travel. Currently, April is living and teaching English in Mexico City with her husband Arturo and they don’t plan on stopping their travels anytime soon.
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