Anxiety. It started when I was young. The constant worrying, the self-consciousness, the compulsive thoughts, the perfectionist ways, it was all there. Where it came from, who knows. And truly, who cares. It was there regardless. And I didn’t need to know why because I learned and continue to learn how to live with it.
In my early twenties, it hit me like a ton of bricks flying a thousand miles an hour straight to the face. My mind was flooded with an array of ‘what-if’ questions. Questions that terrified me to the point of complete and utter exhaustion. Each conversation I had with someone I would take home with me, think it through, re-analyze it, and wonder if I said the wrong thing, or if they hated me, or if I did something awkward. I didn’t want to leave the house, I made excuses to get out of social events. And my stomach turned day and night along with each and every racing heartbeat. I felt trapped in a cluster of negative thoughts. I felt crazy.
Eventually, we all find out what it is, in our own way. Some might find the answer through a friend, some through the internet, in my case, it was a therapist. Pure OCD and Anxiety became my diagnosis.
It became my diagnosis, but it wouldn’t become my life.
We all want to dig deep into the reasons why something like this happens. What is the root cause? Why is it happening to me? What happened in my life to cause this? What happened to that little girl? The truth is, it doesn’t need a root cause. Some may find theirs and some may not. I have yet to find mine. Regardless, anxiety is hardwired into all of us through our flight-fight response to a certain extent. It’s unavoidable. And I had to accept that mine was overactive.
My therapist worked with me to open me up to my fears, face them head-on. I refused to go on medication because of the fear of it changing who I was and potentially who I wanted to be.
It wasn’t easy. Talking about the deepest darkest parts of yourself and your deepest darkest fears is rarely fun or easy. Facing those fears head on and admitting they are real. But slowly we made progress. I learned calming techniques, I learned to accept it for what it was, and I realized it didn’t have to dictate my life. Having just met Andrew while I was going through this process, I couldn’t do anything without him, he was my rock. Thank goodness he was so understanding about everything and remains that way.
But he had a month long trip coming up, what was I supposed to do without him there?
Somehow though, he convinced me to take a month long trip at the same time as him to keep me occupied. I’m still not 100% sure how he managed to convince me. But I quickly booked it, paid for it and accepted that I couldn’t undo it. I booked it and paid before I even had a chance to realize what I had done. No matter what I was about to spend a month in Europe with a group of 50 strangers going to places I had only dreamed of going to.
I’ve always been addicted to the idea of exploring the globe. Dreaming about setting off to a new destination and experiencing a new country, its culture, its people, its food.
My love for travel officially started in high school when I took my first trip abroad on a Seniors trip to Europe. Looking back now I realize my anxiety was smack-dab in my face during that trip and I didn’t even know it. I remember halfway through the trip, sitting in a stairwell by myself on the phone with my mother, crying and begging her to book me a flight home. I felt like I didn’t fit in, that no one liked me, and that I was going to be alone the entire trip. My mother convinced me it was going to be fine and that I just needed to ride it out. She forced me to become the master of my own situation, whether I was comfortable doing it or not.
It ended up being one of the most rewarding trips of my life.
Why? Because after that minor panic-attack, I just tried to make the most of it. Slowly I forgot about my need to feel accepted. I learned I could cope in a foreign country on my own and I didn’t need a safety net to catch me. I was physically and mentally forced out of my comfort zone and was becoming okay with it. It wasn’t even half as scary as I thought it was.
So when I booked a trip to Europe on a whim due to a little pressure, I reminded myself of that small stairwell in Greece. I thought about how that trip re-enforced my love of travel and adventure, how strong I was in that moment, how I just accepted my surroundings and let things just be and I thought about how that small little stairwell taught me that no matter what, I was going to be okay.
I can’t tell you how many times I thought about canceling that trip. It would be my first ‘solo’ trip. How was I suppose to meet new people and deal with all of these compulsive thoughts alone in a foreign country? I’ll tell you though when I boarded that plane to London…none of those thoughts were there. The only thing that raced through my mind was seeing the calm waters of Lake Bled, eating gelato in front of the Pantheon in Rome, standing below the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, riding through the canals of Venice in a gondola, and paying respect to the people who were lost in Auschwitz.
For that one month, I forgot that my anxiety had once ruled my life.
Why? Because I didn’t have a reason to think about it. I was so occupied living my life to the fullest that any of those ‘what-if’ questions didn’t have time to manifest themselves. I even met one of my best friends on that trip, and to this day we remain close.
Fast-forward two years. Andrew and I are getting ready to leave Canada for a whirlwind trip to New Zealand. A trip that lasted almost six months. Where we would be living in a van. I won’t be living in a house, I don’t know anyone in the country, I won’t be working, which means no money and I won’t have easy access to resources or my family. And I certainly won’t be in Canada anymore (Wizard of Oz reference…anyone…anyone?) and certainly won’t be in any sort of comfort zone.
I’d be lying if I said anxious thoughts and feelings weren’t intertwined with my feelings of excitement.
What happens the second I step foot on that plane? Every worry, fear, and anxious thought fades away. What replaces them? Excitement for the future and only the fear of not being able to see everything I possibly can.
I thought a lot about why travel seemed to erase my fears in life when really it should almost amplify them. It wasn’t easy but it was well worth the time and really made me realize that these are things I can implement into my everyday life to manage my anxiety. I may always live with anxiety and OCD but they don’t have to control me. Here are a few reasons why I believe travel helped me manage my anxiety:
1) You’re out of your element
You can only grow if you first become uncomfortable. And that’s sort of what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy does (which is what I went through in therapy and you can read about it here). Stepping outside of your comfort zone allows you to learn new skills, experience new things, and just live. It also causes you to make split decisions on a whim, whereas in your normal routine those decisions might come with a lot more thought. These split decisions don’t give you time to beat yourself up over the results and generate a plethora of ‘what-ifs.’ Your mind starts operating in the present moment instead of the past or future, which for me has been one of the best things for my anxious mind.
2) You can’t see or know the end result
Bad things and good things alike happen in the world. But you NEVER know what is going to happen. It could start out terribly and end spectacularly, or vice versa. Tolkien wrote in his Lord of the Rings series, ‘Even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ And it’s true. You can sit there and constantly worry about the and’s, if’s, or but’s but you can’t change any of those things. You can think about a thousand what-if’s but at the end of the day, 99% of them aren’t going to happen. If they do, then you deal with it. But worrying about something that could potentially not even happen…is useless. Travel allows you to just live in the moment and experience it for what it is. You have the ability to soak up your surroundings and just be present.
3) No one actually cares
I get very nervous and anxious about what people think of me, sure I pass it off as the opposite, but deep down I worry about it nearly every second of every day. Do people like me? Did I say the wrong thing? Do I fit into the crowd? Do these people care about what I say, dress, or drive? When I’m traveling, no one cares, and honestly, I don’t care either. No one cares about your past when your traveling because it doesn’t matter! What happened to you ten years ago, doesn’t matter. What happened to you six months ago, doesn’t matter. All they care about is what is happening in the present. How you are treating them at that moment, how you are interacting with them and accepting them in that moment.
Why? Because they know you are just going to be passing through and you likely won’t see each other again. So they’re not invested in you as much as your long-term friends at home (who already accept you). At the same time, it makes you realize that even back home a lot of the things you worry about don’t matter either. Most people judge others based on their own insecurities, so if you can get over yours and accept your own, no one can use ammo ‘against’ you to dictate how you feel.
4) Constantly have something to look forward to
They say as you get older the reason time feels like it speeds up is that as adults nothing is new to us anymore. Whereas children, we are constantly experiencing and seeing new things making it seem like everything is extended. When I am traveling, everything is new again. The sights, the sounds, the food, the people, all of it. It helps to not only give me perspective, but it causes me to slow things down and look forward to the next place. I get to take the time to absorb my surroundings which allows me to look forward to the next place where I can compare, examine and just plain ol’ enjoy life.
5) You find yourself
It’s cliche, I get it. But there really is something about travel and exploration that allows you to find something within yourself you never knew was there. I found a lot of strength and resilience within myself (among a ton of other things). When I’m abroad I can unforgivably be myself, no one knows me and like I said…no one cares. No one knows where I came from, what I’ve been through, who I’ve dated, what kind of car I drive, what my bullies called me in sixth grade. All they know is I am a traveler looking to expand my mind and be introduced to everything the world has to offer.
When you introduce yourself to all of these new things it’s almost like all those anxious thoughts get pushed out and replaced with positive ones. Huffington post even states going on an adventure as one of their ways to find yourself. I just found a new me, I learned what I liked what I didn’t, how I interacted with people, the list is endless and goes on seemingly forever.
So, why am I even telling you all of this?
Because I want you to know that even if you suffer from anxiety, depression, OCD, or any other mental illness, you CAN travel the world. If I can, you can. And it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done and continues to be.
I was constantly terrified that if I stepped outside of that comfortable place I knew and loved my anxiety and OCD would spiral out of control. When in reality living in that safety net was the reason why my anxiety was given its power. Being afraid all the time meant my anxiety was constantly being fed, like the monster it is.
This ‘regular’ routine that I had built my entire life around back home was supposed to curb my anxiety, when in reality it was causing it.
I was causing my own panic-attacks with my carefully curated life. Had I not taken that solo trip to Europe, I’m not sure I would have learned that.
Traveling took me right out of my comfort zone and threw me into some of the situations I had avoided my entire life. I met new people from across the globe, I had no permanent home and was moving from place to place every night, I navigated foreign streets with no sense of the language or direction and found my way, I tried new foods, and I found pieces of myself I never knew existed – an independent piece. One that didn’t need to answer any ‘what-if’ questions. One that didn’t need someone to constantly hold my hand through every situation and one that was resilient and strong. And most importantly, one that was capable of loving itself in its entirety, anxiety and all.
Travel truly did change my life.
Now by no means am I saying this is a method that works for everyone. Everyone is different and I am not a doctor. But this is my story, and perhaps one person out there one day will read this, and it will make a difference. What do I do when I’m not abroad and have an attack? I practice Yoga or I exercise, I meditate, and I attempt to stay as present as possible.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you have anxiety and has travel had an effect on this?
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