How Travel Helped Me Overcome Anxiety And Love Life More
Looking back now as an adult I realize that my anxiety was never something that just ‘sprung up’ one day and never disappeared, it was there consistently throughout my entire life. In my early twenties though, it hit me like a ton of bricks flying a thousand miles an hour. My brain was filled with an array of questions and thoughts that would never disappear and every conversation I had with someone got brought home with me so I could over-analyze it and determine if I said the wrong thing, if they hated me, or if I did something awkward that they picked up on and were judging me for it.
It was exhausting, and it got to the point I would make up excuses to avoid social events just so that I wouldn’t have to leave my house. My stomach turned day and night with each and every racing heartbeat, I felt trapped in a cluster of negative thoughts and feelings, I felt crazy. Eventually, I sought therapy and was diagnosed with anxiety and a form of OCD.
Knowing what it was made it even easier for me to decide that I needed to overcome anxiety and find the best way to manage it on my own terms. I made the decision to avoid medication because I didn’t want to rely on something to help me overcome anxiety, I wanted to do it on my own (this decision is not for everyone though and you should speak to your doctor about your options). It wasn’t easy, talking about and opening yourself up to the deepest darkest parts of yourself and your deepest darkest fears is rarely an easy task.
After a few months of small steps towards progression my friends and family made a suggestion, why don’t you go take a long trip by yourself? At first, the thought of travelling solo while going through mental health issues was daunting, so instead, I booked a group tour through Contiki which would take me all over Europe with like-minded individuals and people around the same age. After booking it my anxious thoughts kicked in and I asked myself why I had just booked a trip with a bunch of strangers to a foreign place to ‘help’ my overcome anxiety if anything I was putting myself in my worse nightmare.
It turned out to be a complete daydream, one that would change my life and teach me how to deal with anxiety no matter what situation I’m in.
I had always loved travel, but travelling with anxiety was a whole different ballgame. My love of travel started in high school when my graduating class took a trip to Europe where we visited Italy and Greece. In hindsight, I realize this was one of the first times that I not only had a severe panic attack but it was also the first time that travel taught me how to overcome anxiety.
I was only 17 at the time, sitting in a dark damp stairwell in a hotel in Greece crying to my mother on the phone to book me a flight home, I couldn’t take it anymore, being with these people who didn’t like me. Even though it was probably 3 in the morning back home in Canada, she patiently listened to my cries and reassured me that everything was going to be fine I just needed to be there for me and no one else. With the realization that I wasn’t getting a red-eye plane ticket home I decided to become the master of my own situation and take my mother’s advice.
It ended up being one of the most rewarding trips of my entire life, even to this day ten years later.
I learned that I had to do things for myself and no one else because at the end of the day none of those people on that trip mattered to me, but me. It wasn’t about their experiences it was about mine, that was a life-changing realization. Slowly after accepting that I had to make the best out of my situation, my need to be accepted or say the right thing or do the right things faded and my hunger for adventure grew.
When I finally took the time to think back to my younger self and realize how strong that person was in that moment, my expectations and fears about my upcoming trip faded and instead I looked forward to the adventure and memories I was about to make. That small little stairway in Greece taught me that no matter what, everything was going to be okay.
Would I be lying if I told you that I didn’t once think of cancelling that trip? Yes. I was still trying to figure out how to manage anxiety at home and now I was supposed to go travelling with anxiety knowing exactly what it was and it’s power over me.
In order to overcome anxiety, I had to face it head-on. Which meant boarding that plane to London on an adventure that quite frankly scared the shit out of me. But regardless of the butterflies in my stomach and the ‘what-if’s’ racing through my head I started to think about the calm waters of Lake Bled, eating Gelato in front of the Pantheon in Rome, riding a gondola in Venice, standing beneath the Astrological Clock in Prague and just opening myself up to this crazy world we live in.
For that one month, anxiety wasn’t even a word in my dictionary. I nearly forgot I even had anxiety.
Fast-Forward two years, Andy and I decide we are ready to leave our lives in Canada behind and head to New Zealand for an undetermined amount of time. While in New Zealand we would be living in a van, we wouldn’t know absolutely anyone, we aren’t working (so no income) and we don’t have easy access to everything that makes a comfortable life back home. Que anxiety.
Questions of fear and discomfort flooded into my brain and those famous butterflies flew around in my stomach. What happens when I step foot off that plane, how will I know where to go, what to do? What if we run out of money? What if our van dies, what if we can’t even buy a campervan in New Zealand?
The moment my feet touched New Zealand soil all of my fears were erased and replaced with excitement and a sense of awe and wonder.
But all of these experiences made me question just how I was able to overcome anxiety through travel. How was I able to go travelling with anxiety and not let it hinder my experiences? It wasn’t easy all the time, trust me, but every single time it has been worth it.
Not only was I able to nearly overcome anxiety completely while on the road but it taught me a few things I could take back home to implement in my daily life on how to manage anxiety. To overcome anxiety is to overcome yourself, which is an ever-lasting conquest that unfortunately no one with anxiety will ever complete, and that’s okay.
Learn how to deal with anxiety wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a straight road no matter how I choose to tell this story. If you’re struggling through it don’t read this and think all I did was go on a trip and I managed to overcome anxiety because that’s not true. You also have to want it.
After looking back at my trips and realizing how travelling with anxiety helped me overcome anxiety I pinpointed five reasons why I thought this happened.
1) You’re Forced To Be Uncomfortable & Live In The Present
You can only grow if you first become uncomfortable. I learned through my therapist a technique known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which essentially does just that, pushes you past the post of uncomfortable in order to be comfortable. You can read more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy here.
Stepping outside of my comfort zone and going to a place where I had a thousand scary questions and absolutely no answers was terrifying, but it was also a stepping stone for me to overcome anxiety. Even though I was scared I proved to myself that I could do it, I could experience new things, see incredible places, try new foods, meet no people, and just live without these harsh restrictions I create for myself.
One thing I am infamous for is being indecisive, but travelling causes me to make decisions on a whim, decisions I would normally either not have to make or would take my sweet time making. It eliminates the anxious thought process of ‘if I do this, this will happen or this will happen, but what if this happens’ and doesn’t allow for enough time to beat yourself up over the results. Your mind starts operating in the present moment instead of the past or future, which for me has been one of the best lessons I have learned when it comes to how to deal with anxiety.
Living in the present instead of the past or the future gives me the freedom to enjoy the present and gives me the mental freedom to overcome anxiety that at times can be extremely overwhelming.
2) There Is No End Results You Can Predict
There is no doubt that no matter there are good things that happen and bad things, it’s a universal truth, although at the same time there is no way to predict if the events about to occur in your life will turn out to be good or bad. Travelling with anxiety has shown me that sometimes even when I am most anxious and scared for something to happen, it could turn out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Sure, I could sit there and constantly worry about everything that COULD happen, but I’ll never truly know what could happen unless I try it and for the most part 99% of the things you are worried about never actually do occur.
And if they do happen, you learn to deal with it on your own. When you’re travelling you have no one to rely on but yourself and a lot of strength comes from knowing that truth, knowing that you alone can create an outcome and a future and you can get yourself out of sticky situations. It’s easy when you’re at home in your comfort zone to avoid an activity because you’re worried about the outcome, but when you’re travelling sometimes you don’t have a choice.
While we were in New Zealand we decided to go mountain biking, something that quite frankly I have always been quite afraid of because I avoid any and all activities that I could potentially get seriously hurt doing. But somehow I was convinced to go even though everything in my brain was screaming no and all those what-ifs ran through my head. I ended up absolutely loving it, but guess what…the second last corner I took a corner too shallow, hit a bump, and flew over my handlebars into a bush and my bike landed on top of me (that’s a whole other story you can read here).
The exact thing I was afraid of happening…happened. But regardless of my fears coming true I still look back and can honestly say the entire bike ride (up until that moment) I thoroughly enjoyed. Would I do it again? 100% yes (although I would be a lot slower the second go around).
Could I have prevented flying over my handlebars and hurting myself by just avoiding the bike ride? Yes, I could have but I didn’t know it was going to happen I simply took the risk, had I not gone I also wouldn’t have gotten incredible views of Wanaka New Zealand and I wouldn’t have had an experience that today makes me laugh and is a great story to tell.
Travelling with anxiety has allowed me to experience everything that happens in my life simply as they are and to embrace each and every moment, even the bad ones. Because at the end of the day, I can’t control every single thing that happens to me, I don’t know and will never know the end result or any situation. In order for me to overcome anxiety I had to learn this lesson, take things as they are because as Gandalf in JRR Tolkien novels The Lord of the Rings once said, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends,”
3) No One Actually Cares
I have always been self-conscious to the point where I get extremely anxious about how other people see or view me and what they think of me. Sometimes I try and pretend that I could care less, but at the end of the day deep down, I truly do, to a fault. But when I am travelling I see that no one really cares because most of the relationships in our lives are temporary.
There is only one constant from the moment you are born to the moment you die and that’s you.
You have no one to please but yourself. Does that mean you should treat others with disrespect? No of course not, plus if travelling does anything it teaches you how to respect the others around you even more!
But for those brief moments you are interacting with another person, even when you’re nervous about how they are perceiving you, they’re probably worried about it too. The reality is, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter anyway. These are simply fleeting moments in time.
What happened six months ago, doesn’t matter. What happened yesterday doesn’t matter. Why? Because it can’t be changed or controlled, and for the most part neither can how people view you (unless you’re a mean person, which you shouldn’t be!).
It made me 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. Of all the things I learned when I was discovering how to overcome anxiety, this was arguably one of the most difficult yet rewarding things to learn.
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 are constantly experiencing and seeing new things making it seem like time lasts longer or is extended. When you’re travelling everything is new again, the sights, the sounds, the food, the people, all of it. Even if you have been to a country before and you’re visiting for the second time, those experiences are still new and different from your everyday life.
You are constantly looking forward to waking up and just living life, whether as for me I find getting stuck in my everyday routine not only do I feel like my life is passing me by but I got bogged down by the same thing over and over. Routine is great for a lot of people and there is nothing wrong with it, but for me, the excitement of doing or trying something new is a thrill in itself and helps me overcome anxiety in a way I never thought possible and isn’t the same as it would be had I been at home.
Travelling with anxiety doesn’t have to mean that you are doing this incredibly thrill-seeking activities in order to look forward to something either. It could be as simple as walking the streets of Rome, or trying the best restaurants in Queenstown New Zealand or simply driving the Icefields Parkway in Banff. No matter what you choose to do you can overcome anxiety but simply giving yourself something to look forward to.
5) You Find Yourself
It’s cliche, I know. But there is always some truth behind cliche’s and in this case, there is certainly truth in there. I found out a lot about myself and what I was capable of overcoming while travelling with anxiety.
I honestly don’t know if I could have found ways to overcome my anxiety had I not been put in situations where I was well out of my comfort zone and was able to learn exactly what I am capable of handling successfully. I found a lot of strength and resilience within myself (among a lot of other things) and I was able to be authentically myself and expand my horizons in an even more authentic way. On top of that, I learned how to deal with anxiety by being put face to face with the things that made me the most anxious, it was the most exciting (and at times scary) form of therapy I could have asked for.
I was introduced to all of these new things about myself which slowly started to replace and push out all the negative thoughts and successfully taught me how to manage anxiety by just being myself and accepting every aspect of myself. In the process of accepting every aspect of myself, it meant I had to accept that I have anxiety and it’s not going away anytime soon. It will be a lifelong struggle at times, but that’s okay because that’s just who I am.
I proved to myself that I can do anything I want regardless of my anxiety and that I am capable of overcoming my fears and facing them head-on. I was able to set aside all of these false things my brain had been telling me in order to accept all of these wonderful things and truly find myself and figure out who I wanted to be going forward.
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 and follow your dreams.
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, far beyond what I was able to handle. When in reality living in that safety net was the reason why my anxiety was given its power and part of the reason I would never be able to overcome anxiety. Being afraid all the time meant my anxiety was constantly being fed, like a monster hiding in the dark ready to pounce at any moment.
I was causing my own panic-attacks with this carefully curated life that caused me to avoid anything new that I felt could ‘trigger’ an attack, had I not taken that solo trip to Europe, I’m not sure I would have learned that. Am I saying this is something that could help everyone overcome anxiety? No, because everyone is different and there are a variety of different ways to overcome anxiety with each person having a different path to reach that destination.
Travelling took me right out of my comfort zone and threw me into some of the situations I had avoided my entire life which caused me to meet my demons head-on. I met new people from across the globe, I had no permanent home and was moving from place to place every night (and loved every minute of it), I navigated foreign streets with no sense of the language or direction and found my way, I tried new foods that I miss eating every day, and I found pieces of myself I never knew existed, pieces I needed to overcome my personal demons.
Travel truly did change my life for the better and helped me overcome anxiety, and it continues to do just that even today.