First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your condition, and why you love to travel?
I’m Allison, a 26-year-old California native obsessed with Asian food, wine, animals, and nature. I’m originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, but I moved to New York City for college and lived there for nine years. For the last five years, I worked as a special education teacher in the public school system, which meant I had a lot of time to travel! I just quit my job to pursue my love of travel full-time and plan on traveling until my savings run out.
I honestly feel like I was born to travel. Even when I was a kid, I remember taking atlases into the corners of my day care center and dreaming of what life was like in those weirdly-spelled places like Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar I had never heard of. Once I actually began traveling, I only fell deeper and deeper in love with travel. I love the connections you’re able to make with people across linguistic and cultural barriers, the way food teaches you about the customs and history of a place, the way nature centers us all and provides peace in times of chaos.
As for my condition, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and panic disorder at age 18. Growing up, I was always an anxious person, and I remember having a few panic attacks as a teenager in response to fairly banal, non-threatening situations. Things got worse when I moved away from home. I had a nervous breakdown starting in my first year of college that was exacerbated by an ill-conceived solo volunteering trip to Ecuador. When I started my sophomore year of college, everything fell apart completely. I had chronic panic attacks, barely ate or slept, and could hardly attend classes. It was an extremely challenging period of my life. In retrospect, though, I’m grateful because that finally pushed me to get the help that I didn’t think I needed. My quality of life has greatly improved since then, even though anxiety will always be something I struggle with in my life.
How does anxiety make travel more difficult for you?
For me, my anxiety manifests in both physical and emotional ways, often without warning. For example, many mornings I’ll wake up with a feeling of constriction in my lungs, a general sense of nervousness, accelerated heart rate, and rapid breathing. These are not quite anxiety attacks, but rather a low-frequency feeling of being uneasy and uncomfortable in my skin. On those days, it’s often difficult to motivate myself to get moving and begin my day. Even though the logical part of my brain knows that getting outside and moving about is the best thing for me, it can feel terrifying and impossible.
My anxiety also manifests in emotional ways, such as overreacting to perceived threats, stresses, and conflicts. I am prone to crying and hyperventilating when I feel overwhelmed or like my expectations have been dashed. Things often feel far more catastrophic than they are, and despite being an otherwise very logical person, I often give in to feelings of hopelessness and disaster. Also, my anxiety makes some daily self-care tasks more difficult, such as feeding myself, socializing with others, leaving the house to run errands, and getting appropriate exercise.
What tips and tricks have you developed to keep the anxiety at bay?
Identify things that are triggering for you and do your best to address them. If you get pre-arrival jitters, plan out your arrival to a T. Identify multiple ways of getting from the airport to your place, write down phone numbers, screen shot maps, etc. – anything that helps you feel in control of your situation. Leave early for your flight/bus/train if that helps. Anything to make you feel more empowered and less helpless!
I also always make sure that I do something early in the day. My anxiety builds if I isolate myself from the world and stay inside late into the afternoon. Even if I want to have a more relaxing day – which I need now that I’m a full-time traveler – I try to ensure that I leave the house sometime in the morning or early afternoon, even if it’s just to get a coffee and take a 10 minute walk. Exercise and fresh air, no matter how limited, are great for combatting anxiety, which at least in my own experience feeds on stasis.
Finally, I have a few coping rituals that I use before I resort to swallowing my anti-anxiety meds. I have breathing rituals (laying face down on my stomach and deep breathing for 10 minutes – for whatever reason, that is incredibly calming for me!) and body scan meditations that I find very helpful.
I also battle anxiety, and I have definitely had some bad times with it while travelling. I’m not gonna lie – I’ve been sitting on a street corner hyperventilating and crying on more than one occasion. Have you had any experiences like this on the road? How did you deal with it?
I’ve definitely had those experiences as well. I failed miserably on my first solo travel experience to Ecuador. I had planned to volunteer in a school and do a homestay for six weeks. After getting food poisoning and witnessing some abusive practices in the school I was working in, I began having panic attacks on a nearly daily basis. I called it quits and went home early after just two weeks, with my tail between my legs. At the time, I regretted it, but now I see that it’s what led me to seek help for my anxiety disorder and ultimately empowered me to be the (mostly) confident traveler that I am today.
That’s not to say that I’m entirely cured. Especially when I’m on a difficult travel day and something goes wrong, I’m quick to turn to tears, and rapid, shallow breathing is usually not far behind. Honestly, the only way I can deal with it is to just allow myself to go through it. For me, there’s usually peace at the other end of all the tears. Fighting it only makes it worse. If I can get to a place where I can let it all out privately, I will. But sometimes I just let myself go and cry in public places. At least the good thing about traveling is that these people don’t know you, so you really have no reason to be embarrassed. People may judge you or think you’re weird or pity you, but you’ll probably never have to interact with them again.
Do you have any advice for people who don’t have anxiety, in terms of how they can help a friend (or a stranger at a hostel!) who is having an anxiety attack? From my perspective and experience, the number one thing is do not ask me what I am anxious about – it’s likely just a messed up cycle in my head, and no one will take my seriously if I say the truth – something like, “I’m panicking that I won’t wake up at the right time on Wednesday.” It sounds absurd, but oftentimes it’s little things that don’t matter, rather than the things that actually do matter, that make me anxious.
I agree – anxiety is rarely rational, and therefore can rarely be fixed through rationalization! I would go so far as to say “what’s wrong?” has a similar effect of seeming to ask you to explain yourself – which is the last thing you want to do when you’re having an anxiety attack! “Are you okay?” is also something I’m not a fan of, because clearly, no, I’m not all right, and the logical next question is my favorite, “what’s wrong?” or “why?”
Try to make sure your questions don’t burden the sufferer. For example, “do you need any help?” or “do you want to talk?” give the anxious person agency to decide whether or not they want support at that moment. It’s also quite easy for the anxious person to just say “no” if what they need is space. Every anxiety sufferer is different. Sometimes, human connection can lessen anxiety, and other times, it exacerbates it.
Another point I’d like to make is that please do not take it personally if someone who is anxious brushes you off, ignores you, or does not seem appreciative of your gesture. If you are in the midst of an anxiety attack, you don’t really have the mental capacity to engage politely or demonstrate gratitude. Even if that person brushed you off, try greeting them or talking to them after they’ve calmed down. Anxious people are often so embarrassed when others see them in meltdown mode. It can be such a relief that people still want to talk to you and know you even when they’ve seen you at your worst!
Are there certain situations while travelling that you know will lead to an anxiety attack? Do you avoid them, or change how you deal with the situation?
Most of my anxiety comes from one of two sources: the fear of being powerless and stuck in a situation and social anxiety. I try to do everything I can to prevent these former from happening. I plan a bit compulsively, finding as much information as I can about how to get from Point A to Point B, including listing all sorts of contingency plans. This helps me feel prepared and empowered to deal with potentially sticky situations. I am also willing to spend extra money if it really means I will reduce the chances of having an anxiety attack. If I need to spend money on a taxi because the public transit opportunities are complicated or will make me feel crunched for time, I’ll just spend a little more for my own wellbeing.
Social anxiety is more difficult to avoid. When solo, I try to stay in hostels and be proactive about speaking to others. I find it easier to have a few questions prepared and to continue asking follow-up questions in order to maintain conversation. Still, I often berate myself for awkwardness or silences in conversations, and once I start to feel awkward, I tend to shut down and isolate myself. This can be really detrimental to my happiness and fuels the anxiety cycle, so it’s something that I’m working on changing.
Do you find it more difficult to manage your anxiety while on the road, or is it just a matter of modifying how you do things?
My anxiety is not really better or worse on the road; it’s just different. When I lived at home, I was chronically anxious about the way I was living my life. I was frustrated with living in New York City and my job, and it gave me great anxiety to board the train, to go to work, to go to sleep anticipating the next day of the same old, same old. My anxiety while traveling is more in response to specific situations that arise: the fear of missing a plane, not knowing what to eat for dinner, feeling lonely or awkward in social situations.
I manage my anxiety on the road by trying to establish routines. I try to do a few things regularly, such as eating a proper breakfast and taking a walk early in the day. I find that these small proactive steps do wonders for reducing anxiety later in the day. I also try to move around less frequently, as travel days can cause me a lot of anxiety. This means I’m more likely to opt for day trips than move my entire self and backpack around every 2-3 days. My anxiety is much better if I settle in a place for 5+ days at a time. This also ties in with the ability to find appropriate routines. For example, I can find a coffee place that I like and go there every day for a few days. This helps me establish a positive precedent in the morning for the day to come.
What about the kindness of strangers? I mentioned my incident of sitting on the curb panicking, and people almost always come by to make sure I’m okay when it happens. Can you tell us about any experiences you’ve had where strangers helped you out on the road?
My anxiety has been largely much better lately, but I had a terrible anxiety attack in the Paris airport recently. One of my big anxiety triggers is the idea of missing my transportation. I had booked a flight with plenty of transfer time, but the company changed the flight, giving me only an hour and fifteen minutes to make an international connection. That already freaked me out, but they refused to change my flight for anything other than an outrageous fee. Well, of course – the plane was late, and I missed my connecting flight. When this happened, my anxiety went into massive overdrive because I had been anxious about this happening for weeks and sure enough, it happened.
Now, logically I knew that since they were at fault they were responsible for getting me to my destination. But when they told me that the next confirmed seat was ten hours later, I entered full-on panic mode. The idea of being trapped in the airport for ten hours was excruciating. The Air France agent telling me, “miss, crying isn’t going to help you” was supremely unhelpful. I wandered around the airport crying and hyperventilating, trying to find a private place to collect myself. I ended up locking myself in an airport bathroom until I could breathe more normally.
After that, I decided that I would try to make my situation better on my own. If I couldn’t do anything about the situation, then I’d just have to live with it. I tracked down the next flight to Madrid (my destination) and spoke directly to the gate agent about my situation. I asked if there was anyway I could be put on standby without losing my confirmed ticket – something the agent at the rebooking desk refused to do. This agent went out of his way to be kind to me, said he would do whatever he could to help, kept me updated every 5-10 minutes as the flight boarded, and smiled a big grin at me when he was able to get me on the flight. I was so grateful that he went above and beyond what his job required to help me in my time of need. It confirmed my suspicion that the universe has a way of making everything okay – if you can only bring yourself to ask people for help.
What advice would you give to someone else who battles anxiety, but wants to hit the road?
Believe in yourself – you can do it! A lot of my anxiety comes from stasis and overthinking. Traveling forces you out of your self-analyzing mode and forces your brain to be active in ways that it’s not when it’s comfortable. Travel will teach you that the worst-case scenario you imagine in your head will rarely come to pass – and that when it does, it’s usually surmountable.
That said, try to do some things to address your anxiety before you go. If you are open to the idea of medication, find medication that works for you before you travel. I personally believe strongly in anti-anxiety medication and am so grateful for finding a doctor who worked with me to find the medication solution that worked for me, but I understand everyone has their opinions and want to respect that. If you are not, try alternatives such as meditation, exercise, acupuncture, herbal remedies, etc. Travel can be stressful so make sure you have some appropriate coping mechanisms in place before you go.
Any final thoughts?
Anxiety can make travel difficult, but travel has enriched my life in so many ways that I couldn’t even imagine what my life would be like without it! I would encourage anyone with anxiety who has an interest in travel to work towards that goal. Travel won’t solve all your problems; you’ll have to be willing to do hard work on yourself, both before you leave and while you’re on the road. Still, it’s not only possible to travel with anxiety – it’s empowering, wonderful, and totally worth the hard work!
A giant thank you to Allison for sharing her battle with anxiety! You can also check out her awesome blog post on tips for traveling with anxiety disorder, or visit her website, Eternal Arrival, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest for more!
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