A few years ago, I found myself lying in a hospital bed in a small beach town on the Southern coast of Haiti, hooked up to an IV. Trying to use my basic French to figure out what was wrong with me, I came to the panic-induced conclusion that I might die. A touch dramatic, I know. Jumping to that conclusion is very typical of me, whether I’m in a faraway country or sitting on my own living room couch. Chest discomfort caused by indigestion after eating some pizza? I’m convinced I’m having a heart attack. Sharp pain in my head? My mind immediately jumps to “stroke.”
As you can imagine, this irrational (yet entirely all-consuming) anxiety makes being in foreign countries, far away from hospitals I’m familiar with – and without insurance – panic-inducing. As someone riddled with anxiety and prone to panic attacks, I of course know the exact distance each hospital and urgent care is from my home and work and could probably tell you how many minutes it takes to get to each. In another country, especially one where I don’t speak the language, the fear of the unknown takes on an entirely different meaning for me. But here’s the thing: I refuse to let it stop me from traveling.
Travel is so important to me, and I have no intentions of letting my mental health stop me from doing what I love.
For the record, I didn’t die in Haiti, nor was I about to. I had a brush with what was essentially food poisoning (something I’m unfortunately quite familiar with in the States, too). I was very dehydrated, so I drank a lot of water and ate a ton of delicious plantains and plain rice (not complaining one bit here!) and lived to tell the tale. Because I was fine. However, convincing someone with anxiety that they are “fine” is nearly impossible. Whether it’s when I’m 3.7 minutes away from the nearest medical facility and completely unraveling inside the comfort of my own home in San Francisco, or whether it’s in Northern Thailand when I’m completely alone and puking my guts out in a hotel room (seriously, I get food poisoning a lot – it’s a thing), getting a handle on my anxiety is of the utmost importance to me primarily because travel is so important to me, and I have no intentions of letting my mental health stop me from doing what I love.
So if you love to travel but suffer from anxiety, what do you do?
How do those who truly believe they will go down in a plane get on their flight? If you break down in the middle of a crowded street in Europe, shaking with panic and alone – what happens?
It’s easy in theory, harder in practice, but I believe the secret is this simple: keep traveling. I know, as if we needed another reason to plan a trip. But I mean it. I recognize that travel is a luxury, and I am so grateful for every opportunity I have to experience it, no matter what shape or form. So in response to your anxiety threatening to push your down and keep you from doing what you love, you have to push back – harder. Weeks leading up to a 15-day trip to Europe I’d been looking forward to for months, my anxiety reached heights I never knew existed. I was in the emergency room just days before we were scheduled to depart, and for a moment I was convinced that I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get on that plane, I couldn’t be far away from my comfort zone, I couldn’t. Except, I could. And I did.
In response to your anxiety threatening to push your down and keep you from doing what you love, you have to push back – harder.
I took away my option of saying no (not throwing my already-spent money down the drain was a nice incentive, too). Instead of allowing myself to entertain the idea of not going, I just went (albeit with sweaty hands and a racing heart). And you’ll be not-so-surprised to learn that I was OK. Yes, there are times that a panic attack threatened to choke me and where I felt myself sinking into that familiar feeling of terror, but I forced myself to do things like float down a canal in Amsterdam and take in the charm of a city I almost didn’t get to see because of my anxiety. I took deep breaths. I talked out loud about how I was feeling. I focused on the beauty of travel instead of the ugliness of my anxieties.
The more experiences (good and bad) that you have and overcome, the more doable any future hypothetical situation will seem. I also suggest talking to your doctor about ways to help ease your anxiety while abroad or away from home – there are so many helpful tips and tricks.
The bottom line is, doing what you love – whatever that may be – is worth it. Travel, to me, is worth it. Anxiety wants you to believe that you can’t do something, but damn it, you can. Traveling more is a reminder of why you do it in the first place; it’s a reinforcement and a reassurance. If you love to travel but deal with anxiety, you come up with worst-case scenarios in your head. But if you get on that plane and make it to where you really want to be (despite what your anxiety is telling you), you realize that those “worst-case scenarios” don’t play out. There may be bumps along the road (travel isn’t always perfect or easy!), but if you follow your heart, and your heart is telling you to go see the world, then you can and should work to tell your mind to shut the f*ck up and let you fulfill that wanderlust inside of you.