Before I start the beautiful pictures you will see in this post were done by my friend Bridget, if you would like to see her other work check out her website https://www.bridget-smith.com.
This post is going to be slightly different from the ones I have made in the past. This post isn’t about a specific place; it is more about my experience traveling with an anxiety disorder and how I try to limit what makes me anxious. I will first tell you all about my anxiety and where it stems from, and then I will go into detail about tips I have to make traveling with anxiety a little easier. My anxiety and general mental health issues started my senior year of high school though I didn’t know it at the time. It was routed in multiple life events that all seemed to come together to make the perfect storm of anxiety. I can get more into detail if people are interested in hearing about it, but long story short, I was taking medication my senior year that caused me to get sick every time I ate. That lead to me becoming anxious about being close to a bathroom since if I wasn’t and I got sick, it would cause an inconvenience or could be embarrassing. My anxiety began to grow when I had a few episodes where I almost threw up at a meeting or had to leave because I felt sick, which lead to me becoming scared to leave places I felt comfortable like my house or somewhere I knew I could quickly get to a bathroom. I began getting anxious in the car and on planes. Going on hikes or spending time outdoors when there wasn’t a nearby bathroom became out of the question. I stopped taking trips and doing the things I loved to do. That mixed with the added stress of having eating restrictions led to my first trip to Europe, consisting of me eating only Nature Valley bars and having a panic attack every time we left the hotel.
My mental health issues only escalated freshman year of college, where I would leave my dorm for food and class and nothing else. It wasn’t until I got in a fight with my then-boyfriend that I finally went to therapy for the first time. From there, I began seeing a therapist regularly every week and working on my anxiety. After about nine months of therapy, I decided to add an anti-anxiety medication to my routine. After finding the right one, which took a while, I finally was feeling back to normal again and able to enjoy traveling again.
I still have anxiety if I feel like I won’t have access to a bathroom while traveling, but other than that things, for the most part, have gotten a lot better. I was able to work with my therapist on exit strategies if I did start feeling sick and ways to relax until things went wrong, not jumping to the conclusion that it would for no reason. This year I was able to do a lot of things that I would have never imagined doing before. Things like going on long hikes in New Zealand and Iceland, going on a helicopter ride in Hawaii, going on an 8-hour boat ride in Australia. Activities that two years ago, the thought of alone would have given me a panic attack. These things still make me anxious, it’s not like I am 100% cured, I was just able to come up with ways to work around it so that I could still see and do the things I wanted. Here are some of my tips for how to do that (I understand this might apply to me but if you face anxiety when travel’s involved like I do you should try to mold them to your needs as well):
1. Know where your comfort zone is and slowly work your way outside of it.
Knowing the limits of your comfort zone is essential. You want to make sure that you aren’t going leaps and bounds outside of your comfort zone because, at least for me, that usually leads to a bad experience which makes me less likely to try again at least for the rest of that trip and I am unable to do the things that I want to. For example, when I am traveling, the idea of sitting on a bus for hours is far out of my comfort zone, whereas going on an hour-long hike is a little less so. On a hike, I know I can always turn back, or worse comes to worst, I could duck behind a tree. On a bus with no bathroom, the only option for leaving the bus is disturbing everyone on the bus and possibly making everyone miss their excursion. For me, it is more manageable to go on a hike, so that is what I do. Sometimes that means I miss out on something since I won’t go far out of my comfort zone, but I always reassure myself that maybe if I make it back there again, I will step a little further out of my comfort zone and do what I missed.
There was one time this year I pushed myself too far outside of my comfort zone by going on a helicopter ride when I was in Hawaii. Even though I was happy that I did it once we landed, I was anxious the entire time we were in the air, and I ended up counting down the minutes until I was able to get off the helicopter to calm myself down. Seriously I didn’t take my eyes off the clock it was okay 10 minutes down, 40 minutes to go, now 20 minutes down, etc. It ended up not even being worth it for me. I got some great pictures from the air and saw some things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise but being so panicked for that hour was such a bad experience I didn’t want to do anything else the rest of that trip that was stressful and ended up pushing myself too far.
2. Bend plans when you can to make yourself more comfortable.
When possible bending plans to make yourself more comfortable works wonders and opens you up for being able to move out of your comfort zone for other more important things. I will give a few examples of this. First, if it is something like me and you aren’t coWhen possible, bending plans to make yourself more comfortable works wonders and opens you up for being able to move out of your comfort zone for other more important things. I will give a few examples of this. First, if it is something like me and you aren’t comfortable somewhere like a bus, try to find alternate ways to get there. I usually opt for renting a car instead of taking the train because at least trains have bathrooms and if you rent a car you can pull over. That is important to me, even if it ends up being more money. I would rather pay more money and be comfortable during all of the driving portions of the trip than be always anxious and not willing to do anything else since I am too worn out from all of the energy I wasted being so stressed.
Another way that I bend the plans to make myself more comfortable is by going to restaurants I feel are less likely to make me sick and keep me from being anxious about what I am eating. Since my anxiety largely stems from stomach issues, usually having control over the food that I am eating makes me feel a lot more comfortable. I do this by going to restaurants that have vegan options, staying somewhere with a kitchen so we can cook our food (which is also money efficient), or going to restaurants that I know don’t typically use milk products in their cooking. This makes me feel 100 times more comfortable since I don’t have to worry about if I will get sick after eating or inspecting my food to see if it looks like there could be cream or cheese or butter in it, which adds a whole new level of worrying for me.
3. Coping mechanisms are your best friend for situations you can’t avoid.
Traveling can be anxiety-provoking, and some triggers and situations can be unavoidable, so it is good to have some coping mechanisms in your back pocket to calm you down if you need them. For me, these were important when I first boarded the plane when I was unable to distract myself with a movie or show. I need to figure out something to calm me down or distract myself until I feel more comfortable. Here are some that have worked for me (these can vary based on if you have access to these things or can become focused on something else):
- Listening to music
- Deep breathing (I usually go with 5 in – hold for 7 – 5 out)
- Listening to a podcast
- Reading a magazine or book
- Talking to a friend or the person next to you
- Watching a movie
- Watching a video
- Walking around the block (if possible)
- People watching
- Just focusing on something other than your anxiety in general something that takes your full concentration – could be as simple as counting the number of cars passing
4. Have a plan and a routine, so you feel prepared when you feel anxious.
It can help to have a routine for when you start to feel more in control when things feel so It can help to have a routine for when you start to feel more in control when things feel so out of control. For me, when I start feeling anxious, I begin to make myself sick, so there are small things I always do to help. I usually get warm when I am anxious, so I start by trying to cool myself down first by taking off my jacket or rolling up my sleeves, I then put up my hair, and if that doesn’t make me feel better I drink some water. Drinking water always makes me feel better for reasons unknown to me, so I always make sure to have water on hand at all times. Small things like these can make you feel better when things feel like they aren’t in your control.
5. If the people you are traveling with don’t understand they are not your real friends.
This is something that I had to learn the hard way more than once. If mental health or dietary restrictions are something that majorly affects your life and minorly affects their lives, they shouldn’t make you feel bad about that. If there is something they want to do and you decide to do your own thing, it is not okay for them to make you feel like you missed out or make you feel guilty. If they do, they are not your friends or at the least not worth traveling with again. If someone cares about you, they will understand and make sure you feel comfortable even if that means they have to eat vegan food. Last summer, I traveled with a few friends from my study abroad program. I asked to take a ten-minute detour to pick up some food since I was hungry and hadn’t eaten since that morning (I don’t eat food in the airport out of anxiety, I will get sick on the plane). They told me that taking that time would mean they would have to wait too long to go to the bars and we would miss out on drinking time so they said no. I ended up having to wait until we left the bars and until after they got food and ate it in front of me to get something I could eat. At that point I was so hungry I felt like I was going to pass out. That ended up being the first sign that trip that they didn’t have my back (the second being a lot more dangerous) I learned the hard way that them not letting me feel comfortable so they could drink sooner was a sign that they weren’t real friends and if I had known that it could have saved me one of the worst trips of my life (a story I plan to tell later, includes sexual assault).
Traveling is something that can be made a lot more difficult when anxiety is something you struggle with. I am not saying doing these things will make dealing with anxiety any easier, and you should definitely get help if you need it, but as far as traveling goes, these are the things that have made me feel more in control. It is essential to know that mental health is an ongoing process, but it is important to make an effort to do the things you love when you feel up to it. For me the thing I love to do most in the world is travel so it is important that I found a way to still do that while feeling in control.
Disclaimer: I do not in anyway claim to be an expert on this topic it is just something that I have experienced frequently while traveling. If you feel like you need help, please talk to someone about it! Talking to a mental health professional can make worlds of difference, it doesn’t need to be the end of the world to speak to someone whether it is stress at work or needing to talk to your relationship talking to someone can change your life.
If you are in need of immediate help, please look up mental health or suicide hotlines or seek advice in your area from a mental health professional!