A Nervous Life on the Road: Traveling with Anxiety
Anxiety isn’t just about feeling nervous. Most people experience some kind of nerves when they first embark on a trip, and even as they continue to navigate a new destination. For those who have suffered, you will understand the complex and often daunting feelings that come with anxiety. You feel lost, helpless, completely alone yet totally trapped. Too exhausted to wrap your head around the simplest of questions, but too irritable to let things lie. Anxiety is a huge juxtaposition of emotions, working against each other, trying to break you down.
Still, many people with serious anxiety love to travel – another conflicting idea – and I’m one of them. Although my anxiety is much better now, and I rarely suffer with the same trepidations I once did when traveling, I did most of my trips abroad whilst at my worst. Why? How could the people around me understand this urge to travel despite my ‘nervous condition’?
The biggest lesson I learned from that trip was to not feel guilty about needing more time to recover.
I must admit, traveling with anxiety hasn’t always paid off. I’d love to say ‘just go, forget your worries and go see the world’, but in reality that isn’t always going to work out. There were trips where I was stuck in a hotel room because I was too terrified to leave, where even a visit to the supermarket would leave me in tears. Not only did this affect me, but it affected the loved ones I traveled with, too. It’s horrible to know how completely helpless you are to help someone with anxiety, as their greatest obstacle (and also asset) is themselves.
At times when I have lost days and ruined the experience for myself, I often knew in my heart of hearts that I shouldn’t have gone in the first place, or at least not with the initial plans I had. For example, when I studied abroad in Australia my anxiety was at its worst. Day to day, I functioned. I had my own room, came to know the area I was living in well, and accepted the limits I had set myself – no big crowds, go to bed to early, that kind of thing. Yet after I finished studying, my boyfriend and I decided to go on a backpacking trip down the East Coast (I was based in Sydney), flying up to Cairns and ending in Brisbane. It was an organised yet self-guided tour, where all our hostels/buses/activities were pre-booked and we just needed to go. I was getting better, and this tour took out the hassle that comes with planning a backpacking route. However, I was still nervous. I was so comfortable with my new life in Sydney and had finally started to feel myself again. I was scared about going on quite a big adventure so soon. But of course, we didn’t want to waste our time in Australia and wanted to see as much of the country as possible. So we went.
In short, the trip was good. However, the middle section was extremely stressful and we did lose days where I was just too anxious to travel or do an activity. Hostel hopping every few days drained me, especially at a time when I desperately needed alone time and an early, peaceful sleep… not something commonly found in the hostels of Australia! Although we had a good time and did manage to do some amazing things (like snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef), I know we both would have had an amazing time if we had waited a little bit longer, until I was fully better.
I understand how to handle my anxiety abroad, and find that travel actually relaxes me more than it used to.
The biggest lesson I learned from that trip was to not feel guilty about needing more time to recover, or feel guilty about admitting that I couldn’t handle the hostel vibe at that time. Indeed, the nights when we cancelled our hostel reservations and went for a budget hotel instead, I was far calmer and less anxious. I can’t help thinking that if the whole trip had been done in this style, we would have had an even better experience.
I still occasionally suffer from anxiety now, yet I don’t let it stop me traveling. I understand how to handle my anxiety abroad, and find that travel actually relaxes me more than it used to; I’ve just come back from an amazing trip to Bali and Kuala Lumpur, and will soon be off to Vietnam for five months. Traveling with anxiety can be done, you just need to find what’s best for you and listen to your mind and body.
Now when I travel, I prefer to stay in a destination for longer, as it enables me to familiarise myself with my surroundings and feel more at ease. I don’t mind the odd city break, but I can’t see myself going on a hostel-hopping adventure anytime soon. However, different things work for different people, and those who travel with anxiety all have different experiences.
Anxiety affects more travellers than people initially think, and it’s amazing to hear of so many of us still fighting the condition and continuing regardless. Traveling may work out to be a cure for anxiety, rather than a hindrance, in the long run for many people.