One of the worst aspects of anxiety is the ability to take something seemingly innocuous and make it exceedingly more complex and fear-inducing than at all reasonable.
Talking to strangers or calling to set up appointments can lead to sweating, heart palpitations and nausea. Leaving the house?
An opportunity to get lost in a downward spiral of fearful thinking. What if you get locked out? What if you run into someone you know and he invites you to attend a social engagement?
What if you get lost? Maybe it’s better to just stay at home…
Going out to dinner allows for the chance to choke in public (or worse, go into anaphylaxis if you suffer food allergies). Clothes shopping means making decisions about what you’ll be wearing for the next however long.
Going to concerts opens the door for a seizure by strobe lights (even if you have no history of epilepsy, why risk finding out?!).
Dating leads to having to regularly call or text people back, express vulnerability and make definite plans involving others. What if your date becomes stalker or is a psycho killer? What if your heart gets broken?
Exercise can lead to sprained ligaments and other sports-related injuries, but not exercising can lead to heart disease and a number of other ailments.
Ultimately everything is dangerous, and everything is terrifying.
As a child, my parents bought us the Kevin Henkes book, "Wemberly Worried," possibly hoping to ease my unease. However, instead of reading it, I washed it for fear of allergy-inducing cat dander.
I was more willing to have a water-stained and warped book than one our cat had sat on. I constantly self-diagnosed the need for an appendectomy, found concerning flaws in our house’s structural integrity and deduced that our neighbors were potential kidnappers.
I hid my most prized possessions behind dressers in case our house was robbed while I was at school. I couldn’t wear shirts buttoned fully in case they got caught on swings and lead to strangulation and quadruple knotted my shoelaces. I was a mess.
While things calmed over the years, I was hardly stress-free. I’d leave the house with a change of clothes (What if I spilled? What if I was dressed wrong for the occasion?), a phone charger, a book in case of downtime, a flashlight (never know when the power will be out), a snack, water bottle, etc.
I would get ready to go out with friends, but would sometimes cancel last minute due to inexplicable illness. I never slept before exams because I was too worried of oversleeping, and by result, would end up miserable during every finals week.
Afraid of food poisoning, I often wasted leftovers, and with stress, I perpetually had terrific migraines and tension headaches. The overall result? I was self-loathing and miserable.
Today, though, having collectively spent several years living on foreign soil and doing activities that could give even the most level-headed person an anxiety attack, I am often asked (especially by my parents) how I possibly survive while traveling.
The honest answer? It is terrifying.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” If you’ve ever read this quote and thought, 'Where on earth am I going to find so many scary things?' you should probably travel more.
Traveling takes courage, and not just for those of us who need a valium before public speaking.
It frequently has physical demands (When was the last time at home you lugged a 50 lb suitcase for miles over cobblestone?), calls for expert planning (Yes, visas are often necessary, and no, saying “I’ll see when I get there” is not always an option).
Most of all, travel throws you curve balls right and left, and you frequently have no choice but to swing the bat.
While these reasons makes travel stressful, it can make it all the more necessary, especially for those of us who anxiously look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What the holy heck is thamatta’ with you?”
Here are four reasons why travel just might help people cope with anxiety:
1. The Planning
Planning is both a friend and foe to the anxious being. We feel security in creating directions and a goal, laying detailed plans and having solutions to problems no one has yet considered.
The setback? We consider problems that no one has yet considered. While life has a tendency to set fire to well-laid plans, travel certainly demands a degree of planning, and with that, any number of lists and charts you feel so inspired to make.
In everyday life, when others see my planner (color coded, labeled, checked off) they often laugh.
But during travel, when our hostel reservations are apparently double-booked, the rental car has broken down or someone has acquired a new parasite, I’m the new best friend, guidebook and all.
Planning goes beyond simply laying clothing out or scheduling transportation. In planning, we can research where we are going. What can we expect? What do we do? It’s the list-lover’s dream.
Likewise, we are given a venue in which our flow charts have a purpose, which for me, allows me to feel a little saner in the pre-trip frenzy.
2. Loosening The Reigns
Let’s be real: John Lennon was pretty spot on in saying, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” Few activities support this better than the act of travel.
Missed flights, lost luggage, sudden illness, separation from travel mates, museum closure -- do not pass go and do not collect 200 dollars. Sometimes travel has a dark side that likes to play with matches in your paper house of false security.
While this sounds terrifying, it gives you a chance to learn the hard lesson that sometimes, it’s easier to roll with the punches. Life is complex and laden with difficulties, many of which are seemingly unavoidable.
The difference, therefore, lies not within constantly avoiding incidents, but rather, dealing with them.
In travel, I was forced to stop white-knuckling through every struggle I came upon, and found that while some worry is inevitable, working toward acceptance allows for more comfort in the end.
You can devote your energy to fear, or devote your energy to positive thinking and problem solving.
The same attitude that allowed me to survive a week awaiting my missing suitcase, or deal with a surprise trip to a foreign emergency room, now allows me to take every day in stride.
Sometimes you have to shrug and say, “Well, this is sh*t, so what am I going to do about it?”
3. Saying “Yes” To New Things
While the Danny Wallace memoir, "Yes Man," took things to a level of extreme, there is value in the author’s year of accepting everything he came upon. One of the hardest things to do in a state of anxiety is say "yes" and move forward.
Worry prevents chance encounters, experiences and opportunities; by never leaving the harbor, you will never see the sea.
While this is not a call for you to immediately accept an offer for peyote, sell one of your kidneys or join a circus (unless of course, you want to do all these things), it’s a call to recognize what you wish could be doing and then make an effort to do it.
Work to overcome excuses and, instead, focus on the potential benefit in acceptances.
4. Recognizing Your Rate Of Survival
In pulling through even the stickiest of situations, I can now look back and recognize that while I would never again like to rock climb that multi-pitch tower in a lightning storm, I did it and somehow pulled through.
Sometimes, the breath of relief afterwards is the best part. Traveling makes me better appreciate the perceived safety and comfort in being home.
In feeling anxious, I have often looked down upon myself with judgment, frustrated by my own apprehension. When on the outside looking in by no other’s choice than my own, it is hard not to.
After travel, I now see every bout of dread as another level of challenge, a potential for further self-improvement. The postcards, foreign coins and stamps in my passport are more than simple souvenirs of time well spent, they are a testament to conquering fear.
Finding the Balance
While “just travel” cannot be a solution to every problem encountered in life, it certainly is not a terrible place to start. However, for those with a crippling fear of flying, simply boarding a plane is not so easy.
Are you afraid of wild animals? An African safari may be a bad choice as to where to start your whirlwind adventure. That being said, sometimes it is better to make a leap.
If allowed, fear can shape us in ways that render us unrecognizable, so making an effort to act in spite of fear can be one of the best things we can do.
Take steps, make waves and open yourself to experiences. You may just surprise yourself with how adept you are to survival, and how much better you feel as a result.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It