I am one of the 18 percent of American adults who suffer from anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder is the official clinical diagnosis, if you want to get technical about it. But I didn't want to let that stop me from fulfilling my lifelong dream of backpacking across New Zealand.
Of course, traveling is stressful at times for everyone; but for people with anxiety, it can be much more difficult. When you have anxiety issues, even the best of times can be tainted by a low level of dread lurking in the background, while the rough spots can feel emotionally crippling. This can make activities that are sometimes inherently high-stress more difficult to accomplish.
The “travel lifestyle” is so glamorized by social media that its many difficulties — and the tactics we can use to cope with them — are often obscured. But just because traveling can be harder for people with anxiety, doesn't mean we should skip out on doing it. Here are five of my personal strategies for dealing with anxiety on the road, some of which I learned on my own adventure and some of which I discussed with my therapist beforehand. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or just starting out, there's something for every anxious wanderer in the tidbits of advice below.
1. Forget “Should”
I’ve written about this before, but this philosophy is never more applicable than when you’re exploring another country. Everyone and their brother is going to tell you all the things that you “have” to do in a given location. Just do what I do: smile, nod, and then ignore the hell out of them. Unless you feel like taking their advice — in which case go for it! But remember: no matter if it’s a guidebook, a random hostel roommate you just met, or a buddy from home who traveled to the same place a year ago, you never have to follow anyone else’s recommendations. Everyone’s definition of a good time is different; you are allowed to make memories on your own terms.
And as long as you act within moral (and financial) reason, you have permission to do whatever you need to do in the moment to keep yourself healthy and happy. Sometimes that means actually climbing that epic mountain, or seeing that beautiful beach, or going to that funky museum. But sometimes that just means sitting in a cafe with your laptop all day, AKA what I’m doing right now. If you don’t want to do something, don’t let anybody tell you that you’re missing out. FOMO — like every other fear-based motivator — almost never ends up pushing you in the right direction. Which brings me to…
2. Don’t Make Big Decisions When You Are Tired, Stressed, Anxious, Or In A Bad Mood
Those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality index will know what I mean when I say that I am a hardcore “F.” For the uninitiated, the "F" stands for "feeling" — this means that I tend to make decisions using emotions and intuition. I’m actually weirdly proud of it. All of the times in which I’ve ignored my head and followed my heart — or my gut — turned out to be the best decisions I’ve ever made.
However, it’s important to recognize the difference between your intuition and your transient emotional state. If you find yourself freaking out in a foreign land — which I have many, many times over the past few months — the first step is to do what I call a "Personal Wellness Inventory" check. Ask yourself: am I operating off of enough sleep? Are there any hormonal changes going on in my body that could be affecting my mood? Have I been eating well? Hell, have I even showered lately? A lot of the times, when my anxiety was at its worst, I found that the answer to one or more of those questions was “no.” Which makes sense: you won’t have a calm, lucid, low-anxiety mind if you don’t have a well-rested, well-fed, and generally well-tended body. So, step one — before you make any drastic decisions — is to restock that P.W.I. Don’t try to plan beyond that; don’t take any other action until you truly feel better.
If you’re overwhelmingly tempted to do something drastic, just ask yourself first: would I be doing this because I want or need to, or would I be doing this out of fear? I can’t promise you much in life, but I can promise you this: Fear is a terrible, terrible decision-maker. This is a fact. And fear is at the root of anxiety. You can take fear out of the control room (Inside Out reference, what what) by taking good care of yourself physically and emotionally — and by forcing yourself to delay making decisions until you’ve had a shower, a warm meal, and a good night’s sleep.
3. Save Up An “Anxiety” Slush Fund
Okay, I’ll make you one more promise: if, in your daily life, your anxiety ever gets to the point that it totally overwhelms you, you will almost definitely experience that same phenomenon at least once during any kind of long-term traveling. One “transition” at a time is hard enough on those of us coping with anxiety. If you’re like me, anything from a new job, to a new apartment, to the end of a relationship can trigger a sense of panic and dread. And when you’re on an extended travel adventure, it can feel like you’re existing in a constant state of transition. Ever-changing temp jobs, living situations, friendships — it’s a lot to handle all at once.
While you’re planning for a big trip, there’s no harm in just assuming that you’re going to have a total emotional breakdown and/or panic attack at one point or another. So, when you're planning the finances of your trip, and setting aside your emergency money and cushion, make sure to also set aside an appropriate amount of money you can use when you get to that point where you feel overwhelmed — money you can use to go and do something soothing for yourself. Get a massage. Go to the movies. Or maybe splurge on — gasp — an actual hotel room. With room service! Woohoo (Insert 100 emoji here)!
Whatever it is that you find calming and restorative, set aside the money to do it and DO NOT TOUCH IT until that anxiety dial has gone into danger zone. Trust me on this. You’ll thank me later.
4. Write Yourself A Letter To Read When Things Get Tough
Speaking of that anxiety dial, one thing that always helps me bring it down a few notches is reading a letter that I wrote to myself before I left home. Entitled “To Read When You Start Freaking the F*** Out and Want To Give Up and Come Home,” it reminds me of my goals and why I’m doing this. It also reminds me that my home, my family, and my friends are largely going to be there when I get back; and that I have, as I wrote above, permission to do whatever I need to do in the moment to make myself feel happy and safe. And it reminds me to restock the aforementioned Personal Wellness Inventory before doing anything else.
You may not think that writing all of this down is more effective than just thinking about it, but it really is. And, in a meta way, it helps me realize that the person I was then and the person I am now are still one and the same, which helps me feel connected from afar to my former context.
I recommend writing this letter before you leave, sometime when you’re in a relatively calm and lucid emotional state. Save it on your phone if you’re liable to lose pieces of paper (which I am). And force yourself to read it when you get anxious, even if you don’t believe it’s going to help at all. I won’t promise you that it will — some people are less affected by the written word than others — but since you’re still here reading this article, I’m guessing it’ll make a positive difference for you.
5. Remember That You Can’t Always Control The Situation, But You Can Control How You React To It
Not to state the obvious, but it bears remembering that life is largely out of our control. Traveling or not, if you’re a human on this planet, you’ve found yourself in a randomly crappy situation before and you will find yourself in a randomly crappy situation again. That’s my very last promise to you: shit happens. It’s unavoidable. And when you’re on the road, sometimes the shittiest of shit happens. Sometimes you’re exhausted and can’t find anywhere to sleep. Sometimes your stuff gets lost or stolen. Sometimes you just feel trapped — especially if you’re not traveling alone and can’t forge your own path. Too much time together can erode even the strongest of friendships, and there’s nothing like interpersonal friction with someone you can’t escape to sincerely mess up your day.
Whatever it is that’s causing me anxiety, I try to remember this: personal growth lies in the reaction. I can’t undo what’s already been done, but I can choose to react in a constructive, rather than destructive, way. I can choose to react to any situation — no matter how terrible, how agonizing, how anxiety-provoking — with humor, compassion, positivity, perspective, and grace, both toward others and toward myself. After two months of some seemingly extreme ups and downs, I really firmly believe that very few things are all “good” or all “bad” in life — it’s just how we choose to frame them.
And maybe the personal growth that we’re all after — especially in those moments of hardcore decontextualization, when we’re completely lost, anxious, and overwhelmed — lies not in learning how to avoid life’s low points entirely, but in learning how to react to them with our “best” selves. At the very least, you’ll get to congratulate yourself for being bigger than whatever (or whoever) it was that was trying to bring you down. And whether you struggle with an anxiety disorder or not, that’s a major accomplishment.
Images: Jessica Hendel; Giphy (5)