If I got one euro every time I saw a blog post title like “how travel helped cure my anxiety” and I’d buy pizza from that money – I’d end up with more pizza than I could eat (a lot). What I’m trying to say is: Travel seems to work magic for many sufferers of anxiety, depression or whatever other mental condition. When searching the internet for contrary experiences though, there isn’t much to be found. Or there wasn’t until now.
As I’ve described in the last posts, anxiety first crept into my life when I was in my late teens. It struck me most when I was attending school so you can imagine what a relief it was to leave school after graduating. The only thing on the horizon for me these days was freedom, I had zero situations ahead to be anxious about. No classes, presentations, exams, not even a mandatory church service. Instead, I packed my bags to travel with my best friend at that time.
We were two clueless teenagers who would leave home for the first time to travel around the world for ten months – so I’m not going to pretend like there was nothing to be afraid of. There were my first long-haul flights, unknown places, cultures, people, so many challenges and unexpected turns. Of course I was nervous and of course, I was worried that shit wouldn’t work out or that I’d miss home or miss flights. I was nervous about almost everything – but I wasn’t anxious.
When we left Germany in August and wouldn’t return home until the next summer, I waved my anxiety goodbye as I left my family and friends at the airport in Frankfurt. I almost saw her standing there next to them, a greyish image of myself, pale and sulking because she had to stay behind while I was setting out, all excitement and thrill.
I remember very closely how freeing it was to be without her (my anxiety is a she now, so I’ll just stick with it). I could be lost in the wildest traffic in Delhi, sleeping under the stars in a Rajasthani dessert somewhere, be on a boat in Mumbai, on a scooter in Bali, hike National parks full of crocodiles in Australia, jump in the craziest waves in Hawaii – and she could not touch me. When after two months we made our way to Australia and settled a bit to make some money, I was expecting to meet her again, as if she’d given me some time off to have fun but was ready to take over now that I slowed down.
I looked for her behind the counter of the bakery I started working in. On the trains I took to get to Sydney that took over an hour to get there and had no toilets. I even looked for her at church where I went with my friend’s wonderful family who opened their home and hearts for us. The services lasted for hours and I even participated in some performance once, in front of everybody, like a normal person – and nothing. I wasn’t anxious. She wasn’t there.
I figured that all of these things that would have definitely had an impact on me at home didn’t bother me here because people didn’t know me. There was no pressure on me to be myself and my fullest self at any given point because they didn’t know my fullest self. The people at the bakery didn’t know that I was outgoing and talkative and really good around customers, so I didn’t fear that I’d be awkward and inappropriate and give a bad impression of myself, because even if I happened to be awkward and inappropriate they couldn’t know that I was acting strangely out of character and judge me for that because THEY DIDN’T KNOW ME. Does that make any sense to you? I’m not even sure if it does for me, but I’m pretty sure that’s what made all the difference for me. I could finally be myself because no one expected me to. It was glorious.
Apart from those three months of Sydney-bound working and family experience, we spent most of the time with very little constants. We spend no more than one week in a place and usually less. We bought and lived in a white Toyota Camry for three months. We pitched tents wherever we thought we wouldn’t be caught (but we were). We had a barbecue every other day and lived off pasta, toast and cheap wine on every other. We drove around and stopped wherever we wanted, we swam in the ocean, we hiked when we felt like it (not too often) and met people every day (some of which will be friends forever). It was utmost freedom.
There was no reason to be anxious at all.
And that was exactly the problem.
You know how they say with anxiety, the more things you stop doing because they scare you, the less you’ll find yourself able to do? It’s like you have to fight through things that scare you every day to push back the boundaries of your comfort zone, or they’ll soon come closing in on you.
When I came back home after not having felt any panic that I remembered from my school days in almost a year, I had no idea how small my comfort zone had become. I wouldn’t even call it a zone anymore, it was more of a comfort spot. A very small spot. Every time I moved towards the edges of it, my anxiety would jump at me with a new-won force. Like she’d been waiting for me to return and secretly been practising completely new ways to make my life miserable.
I reached a point where I couldn’t have dinner with my family at our dining room table because I felt so pressured from me expecting me to be me, to be normal. It was horrendous. I was feeling sick all the time. I constantly felt like people were looking at me, judging me. The fact that I’d gained almost 15 kilos while traveling didn’t help either because, OF COURSE, people were looking. I’d been away for a long time and I’d changed a lot – of course, they were looking. But I couldn’t handle any of it.
One day I walked through the city with a very close friend, one of the few people I felt comfortable around at that time. She sort of knew what was going on with me because I’d tried to explain it to her, and even though she understood none of it, she took me seriously and I’ll be forever thankful for that. We walked into a local bookshop, a long stretch of a place, I think we were there for nothing in particular, and when I reached the middle of the shop where the cash registers were, panic struck me like a brick in the face.
I couldn’t breathe properly, my sweaty hands were aimlessly running through the stacks of books and there I was, back in the old history classroom again, not knowing how to stay or how to flee. Only that now, I was in a shop and under zero pressure from anyone, free to leave whenever I wanted to. The walls were closing in on me – and I knew it.
Feeling any of this? Some tips for… traveling with anxiety:
- If you ask me: Travel is ALWAYS a good idea. So first of all, don’t hesitate to travel even when you have mental health issues and don’t let anyone discourage you from doing it (not even me and my discouraging blog post).
- Try and not leave your problems at home like I did, as it will only make them much bigger once you return. Instead, maybe try to take these issues with you and use your new perspective to learn look at them differently, too.
- If you plan on traveling for a longer period of time, make sure to challenge yourself from time to time. Travel itself is of course always a challenge, but what I mean is something more specific to what triggers your anxiety. I’m sure if I had tried to “stay in contact” with my issues more when I was abroad instead of only enjoying their absence, they would not have hit me as hard when I came back home.
This post is part of series I am writing about anxiety and the many ways it has interacted with my life so far. Anything I write here is my personal experience and thus just one little dot in the whole picture that can be painted about mental health issues. If you have any questions, concerns or personal experiences you would like to share, feel free to leave me a comment below.