Suffering from both anxiety and depression can oftentimes make traveling difficult.
Anxiety, for me, comes in waves.There are waves of fear and heart-thumping, breath-catching panic.
For the most part, my anxiety manifests in a whole lot of a self doubt. I often have moments of crippling self-awareness, where my anxiety makes me believe I can’t do something or that no one likes me or that I should run under the covers and hide until the world disappears. When it comes to travel, anxiety can often hinder my experiences and cause me to lose sleep the night before a flight. This is something I’ve been working on since I moved abroad and I’ve developed a few coping mechanisms that I think really help.
I know that anxiety can manifest in many different ways for different people. I know there are some people who strictly only have anxiety when it comes to flying on planes or just travel in general, to the point where their anxiety doesn’t seep in to any other part of their lives. For others, though, anxiety rules their entire existence and, in some ways, controls every decision they make. I would consider my anxiety somewhere in between these two. My therapist told me that my anxiety is “high-functioning” because I’ve found ways to hide my nerves from the outside world. However, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Regardless of how or when you feel anxiety in your life, I know that travel can be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences for the majority of people who suffer from it. So, I’d like to share my own personal tips with dealing with anxiety on the road.
Before I begin, though, I’d like to put a disclaimer here and say that everyone deals with their anxiety differently so some of my tips may not work for you. That’s okay. Never feel shame for how you choose to cope with your mental health.
Also, if you suffer from anxiety AND depression like I do, read my tips on how to travel when you’re depressed here.
Whenever my anxiety follows me like an unwanted travel companion, here is what I do to cope:
Be Prepared The Night Before
Right before I go somewhere, I always have these stress-dreams about missing my flight or train or bus, about forgetting my passport at home or forgetting to bring enough underwear. In order to make sure that none of this actually comes true, though, I always make sure that I pack everything the night before and lay out anything that I’ll need the morning of. I also double, triple, and quadruple check that I’ve put my passport or ID in my bag and that I’ve downloaded or printed my boarding passes.
I’ve also found that taking pictures of my packing process helps remind me that yes, I did bring enough underwear or pack my charger so that I’m not ripping open my suitcase in a moment of forgetful panic. For items like books, boarding passes, passports, or chargers that I may need to bring with me as a carry-on, I always make sure I lay them by the front door or on top of my suitcase so that I can’t miss them in the morning.
Though this doesn’t necessarily stop my stress dreams completely, it definitely helps and allows for a (mostly) stress-free travel day.
Ask a Friend or Family Member to Check In
If I have a super early flight, I always make sure to ask someone to hold me accountable. Though I usually travel with Michael nowadays, I still travel solo so if I have an extra early flight, I ask someone to possibly shoot me a text or give me a call if I know they’ll be up.
Though I normally set multiple alarms, I can be quite a heavy sleeper and once slept through an alarm and almost missed my flight to NYC in college, so ever since then, I get so anxious that I’m going to sleep through my flight again.
By asking someone to check in on me, I find that it helps me sleep better and usually, with this anxiety out of the way, I tend to wake up right on time without anyone’s help.
I think just knowing that there’s someone out there looking out for me can calm my anxious mind and allows me to sleep well and wake up smoothly.
So, I don’t actually have anxiety when it comes to the actual act of traveling (flying, driving, riding on a train, etc), however, I asked a few friends who do and they told me that the best way to get through an anxious flight is to bring multiple forms of entertainment on the trip with you. So, load up a playlist with all your favorite songs, bring a good book (or kindle), and download some movies or TV shows to watch.
Remember It’s Okay to Say No (Avoid Triggers That Give You Anxiety)
When I spent Christmas with my family in Cornwall this past December, they all wanted to go on a hike on a particularly rainy day. I did not bring any hiking gear because I had no idea that hiking was planned (and also I hate hiking), but my family chided me enough to the point where I said “yes” to going even though I so badly wanted to let them know I’d meet them at the local pub afterwards instead. The night before, my aunt told us that a Finnish hiker had gone missing on the very trail we were supposed to hike on because he slipped and fell off the tracks. For someone with anxiety who already hates hiking to begin with, this was enough to catapult my already anxious heart into overdrive.
However, despite my heart palpitations, I went on the hike anyway. My anxiety told me that everyone would be angry at me if I didn’t go. This resulted in me having a full blown panic attack on the hiking trail when my regular boots didn’t have enough traction and I felt myself slipping on the mud. It was one of those panic attacks that come out of nowhere and that I couldn’t control. I was screaming and crying and couldn’t breathe. I basically made an absolute fool out of myself in front of my family and other random hikers just because I chose to say “yes” when I really wanted to say “no.”
This was a valuable lesson for me because even though saying no to an experience can often lead to another kind of self doubt and anxiety, saying yes was even worse for my overall mental health.
Don’t be ashamed to say no to something that you know will trigger a panic attack.
I knew that this hike wouldn’t be good for me or my mental health, so I should have said no. Realizing that saying no is okay sometimes would have saved me a lot of trouble and embarrassment.
Take Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Though it’s always okay to say no, remember to never allow your anxiety to hinder you from having true experiences.
If I let my anxiety rule my travel, I’d probably just sit in my Airbnb reading all day.
Just because it’s okay to say no to something you KNOW won’t be good for you doesn’t mean you can say no to everything that might make you anxious. Don’t hinder yourself from new experiences just because your anxiety tells you to. Instead, evaluate how you’re feeling and go from there. Make sure you’re in charge if your decisions, not anyone (or anything) else.
I guess the rule of thumb here is to not be a “Yes Man” but to also make sure you’re not saying no to everything either. You know yourself better than your anxiety ever will, so just make sure you make the decisions that are right for you and no one else.
It’s all about balance.
Do Breathing Exercises to Relieve Anxiety
I know this sounds like one of those ridiculous things that people without anxiety say to people who have it, but breathing exercises have truly saved my life.
When I was 19, I started having panic attacks everyday to the point where I could barely go to class or work. Even the most minuscule, irrational fears triggered a full fledged attack and it really affected my everyday life.
After a few years of therapy and even more years of traveling, I learned how to breathe my way through an attack.
If you feel yourself starting to panic, the best thing to do is go somewhere quiet (like a bathroom stall or a hallway), close your eyes, and take five or six long, deep breaths through your mouth and out of your nose. Think of nothing but your breathing.
I actually barely have panic attacks anymore ever since I’ve learned this technique. Of course, the occasional panic episode sneaks its way into my life but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure.
Which leads me to my last step:
Never Be Ashamed Of Your Anxiety
I may have anxiety but I realized that I am NOT my anxiety. Anxiety is not who makes me who I am, but I still suffer from it and that’s okay.
Never ever be ashamed to take some time for yourself or take yourself out of a situation if you feel scared or uncomfortable.
There are some people who will never understand what you’re going through and who will tell you to “just stop thinking about it” or “just be happy” — don’t listen to those people and don’t allow their own ignorance make you feel ashamed of how you choose to handle your mental health.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Having a mental health issue does not mean you are a failure. Prioritizing your mental health does not make you a bad person.
Lean into your emotions and don’t stop yourself from doing your very best, whatever that means for you.
From one anxious person to another, I can tell you, you can travel, you can live, and you can do it all by yourself.
You are worthy. You are competent. Always remember that.
If you or someone you know are suicidal, please contact the Suicide Hotline by calling 800-273-TALK if you’re in the US or any of these numbers on this list of hotlines around the world.
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