My anxiety is something I typically choose not to discuss publicly. In fact, those who know me would probably be quite surprised to find that I have such a debilitating disorder. I have the ability to hide it quite well in my career and everyday life. It’s very much an inward type of struggle, which many share in and few share about. I also find that I have difficulty explaining it to those who do not experience anxiety because their replies range from “that’s a ridiculous thing to worry about” to “why don’t you just forget about it?” Anxiety is more of an ongoing feeling than a passing attack like many people think. It can intensify and trigger full on anxiety attacks, but for the most part it’s typically an ongoing uncomfortable state.
I think the best way to explain it is to imagine yourself with an enormous fear of speaking in public and having to speak publicly to a large and tremendously important crowd. My anxiety typically takes the same course of emotions throughout the day as many would likely experience in this scenario. Before you step to the podium, you feel sweaty palms and even sick as though you might vomit just thinking about it. After starting your speech, your mind runs rapidly while you’re speaking, worried you might forget your lines or commit some great social faux pas. While wrapping up your speech, you worry you have forgotten or left out something very important, something which could change the entire perception of your topic. You then mingle and speak to many listeners who all have drastically varied opinions on the topic, which makes you begin to question your own conclusions and presentation analyzing each additional point made.
After you’ve made it through the evening you go home, crawl under the covers and scrutinize each and every word, interaction and action that had taken place that day until you feel sick to your stomach again. That is what anxiety feels like from start to finish every single day. I know that might sounds dramatic or unbelievable, but just because you cannot see how someone is feeling or coping, doesn’t mean it’s not very real within them. I was worried that my anxiety would keep me from traveling or enjoying certain activities, simply because I wouldn’t be able to experience them fully.
However, to my surprise, traveling and extreme travel activities, seem to be the only time I do not feel anxiety. One might simply say that being on “vacation” and away from responsibilities is the reason for this, but I disagree. I think it’s more than that, I think there are a number of reasons why traveling quiets the anxiety and calms my emotions. Here are my top reasons for explaining this phenomenon and if anxiety or any other disorder is keeping you from traveling, I do hope you will consider these points. You may reconsider your fears and be inspired.
Be in the Now – When I’m traveling, I am fully present. Things move quickly and I have to make decisions in a split second, I don’t have time to contemplate or worry if they are the right choices. Which keeps me from beating myself up over it. Operating in the present is the best thing anyone with anxiety can do and traveling puts you right in the now.
The Worst Things DO Happen – People who don’t understand anxiety label me as a “worry wort”, someone who just worries too much about things. In its simplest definition, this is true. Obviously, there is much more to it than that, but being worried typically goes back to fearing the worst. When traveling, the worst can and will happen. I’ve missed flights, forgotten passports, got on the wrong train, got off on the wrong stop and mixed up reservations. You know what? I got through it every single time. Travel has taught me that the worst can happen and not only will it work out, but that I will work it out. This is comforting on those days when I start to feel totally overwhelmed. I remember those moments.
No One Cares – Part of my anxiety causes me to put a lot of stake into what other people think. I worry about things I’ve said or didn’t say. I worry about offending or upsetting people, I find myself explaining myself a lot. On my travels, I find that I care much less. I meet people who don’t know me in my “real” life, so they are not judging based on any past experience. I get to break free from any conclusions people in my life back home might have drawn about me. I can be totally authentic with strangers, because no one cares. They know you’re just passing through or that you likely will not see each other again for some time, they won’t invest the time to judge your actions like your long term friends and acquaintances back home. I know that sounds harsh on your friends, but it’s true. We, as human beings, judge one another very rigidly. It might not even have anything to do with you, in fact it’s typically more about their own insecurities which cause people to judge you. When you travel, you tend to care much less about this, it’s really good practice for when you get home, where this will be much harder.
Germs Are Good – In my professional role, I have to shake hands a lot. It’s something that I dread. I cannot wait to wash my hands after having to meet someone or several people in a meeting. It’s something that has developed as I’ve aged. Shaking hands is a very western way to greet, so you will not find this as much abroad, which I’m thankful for haha! However, I’ve had to learn to deal with germs on a whole new level when traveling. Eating out of street carts, trekking through jungles, riding filthy buses, using a hole in the ground for a toilet and mixing in cultures where the conservation of water is much more important than hygiene. So, you learn fast when you travel that germs are part of the deal. In fact, you may even want to get a little dirty more often. This will keep you from getting really sick in other countries and help you build your immune system. Don’t get me wrong, I still carry baby wipes and hand sanitizer, but I also do all those things listed above.
Know Thyself – Something happens when you travel. I can’t explain it well in words, but to say it in the most cliché of ways, you find yourself. I’m the most comfortable and confident with who I am when I’m traveling. You find that you are much more capable than you might have thought. You’ll meet people who will introduce you to ideas and philosophies you’d never thought of before. You quite literally expand your mind and it leaves very little space for anxious feelings. Because you’ll be so filled with curiosity and fascination.
Out Of Your Element – For me, anxiety is kind of on a loop. I’ll remember things from weeks ago that I begin to worry about or think of things happening next week which worry me. When I travel, I make it a point not to over plan. This puts me completely out of my element and keeps me on my toes. I can’t think about last week or next week because I need to think about this bus schedule and how to get to my hotel. Being totally out of my element eliminates and disrupts my typical patterns. Our patterns are the best friend of anxiety, because it’s comfortable and predictable. Leaving lots and lots of space in our minds to worry and fret as we’re especially on auto pilot in our every day life. When you’re out of your element, you simply do not have the space in your head for that.
Down Time – Meditation and yoga have really helped my anxiety in non-traveling time. However, given that I have a busy corporate job and in my free time I’m writing in this blog, I find little time for anything else. So, my meditation and yoga sometimes take a hit in favor of staying up until midnight researching my next trip or blog post. When I travel, there is plenty of forced down time. There are jungles without wifi and long long airplane rides. This gives my head time to rest and be free from its normal overstimulation. Meditating on the airplane is one of my favorite things to do, it’s quiet and you’re in the perfect seated positon. Down time is a luxery of travel.
Gratitude – We are so spoiled in the US. I’m reminded each and every time I travel that those things we take for granted here are still very far off for many countries. Every single time I come home from traveling I am thankful and grateful for all those things I normally take for granted. It really puts things into perspective and reminds me when I begin to feel anxiety just how unimportant all of those worries are. Gratitude is the cure for many things and it certainly helps with anxiety.
Awareness – When I’m working my 9-5 and wrapped up in my normal everyday life, I’m not always aware of what the root of my anxiety is. I haven’t been able to pin point any rhyme or reason for it. However, when I’m traveling I have so much more space to be aware. When feelings or fears arise, I’m able to dig deep and find the root of the feelings. This helps me to address the feelings, to bring rationale thought back into the emotions.
Something To Look Forward To – On the dark days, having my next travel destination gives me something to look forward to. It helps to know that very soon I’ll have the relief of the 9 ways above that travel helps my anxiety. Having something to look forward to in general will create something positive to point to, even when your anxiety is trying to convince you that everything is bleak. You have this ace in your pocket to point to. Travel is that for me.
While it’s still not something widely discussed in the public, mental health is a struggle many have silently every day. No matter what you might be working through on your own, I believe that traveling will equip you with the skills to overcome. Take baby steps if you need to, take the local bus or a train somewhere. Start small and do a local long weekend trip, but start. Your journey will reward you and you will find strength you never knew existed.
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