Travel is amazing. It’s enjoyable, life changing, confidence building, and most importantly, it gives you cool stories to tell at parties.
It also tests you, which is exactly as it should be. You can’t grow unless you’re a wee bit out of your depth. When teachers take an Educational Psychology class, they learn Vygotsky’s theory of scaffolding, which says that learning can only happen when the brain is faced with a problem that is a little more difficult than everything it already knows how to do. This could reasonably be applied to almost any experience or area of life.
However, the challenges of travel can be especially trying for those who already have anxious tendencies. Diagnosed or not, you know who you are, and you know how hard it can be.
What does anxiety look like when you take it on the road? Here are some examples.
Procrastination – putting off the planning stage and avoiding details like booking a hotel or buying your tickets. (I book flights close to time to leave, instead of buying them earlier and saving potentially hundreds of dollars. )
Unable to sleep the night before leaving. Or maybe several nights.
Dread and a churning stomach, along with other physical symptoms of anxiety, when you think of the upcoming change.
Phobias being set off as your mind races of all the things that could go wrong.
Intrusive, recurring thoughts about something horrible happening. (I knew someone who was surprised to learn that her friends were concerned about her violent nightmares; she had no idea that they weren’t normal.)
A feeling of loss and danger when you think about being out of your comfort zone.
Mourning the end of a brief, newfound attachment to an area, people, favorite spot, or even hotel. Change is hard, after all, and you feel like part of your own self was attached. Perhaps that’s because it was such a feat for you to settle in and felt at ease in your new surroundings in the first place, and now those roots are being torn up. Your heart is reaching out its arms to anything that feels like home, like P.D. Eastman’s book about the little bird asking “Are you my mother?” to everyone he meets.
Feeling like you’re never going to get anything else as good as this, that no experience will top it, that the best times are behind you.
Or, if it goes badly, worrying that all travel will be this dangerous/disappointing/stressful. What’s the point, there’s no use, etc, etc. Fear of failure.
Guilt over anything that goes wrong – I’m a bad person for missing my flight, I’m irresponsible for not bringing enough cash, I should have studied the language more, I should have seen and done more, lost or stolen belongings are some kind of punishment, I’m not experienced enough, I’m not doing this right.
Hiding from planning, details, and arrangements. More than just procrastination, full-on avoidance. (I can barely bring myself to get online and purchase my flights, and I stay zen by staying in denial of my to-do list. As a result, I always end up with a nearly-empty itinerary.)
Or, hyper planning and obsessing over all the details. Any gap in the timeline, any activity not fully researched, booked, and paid for with receipts, will gnaw at you until it’s done.
If you travel with your partner, collegues, family, or friends, you don’t trust them to do anything ahead of time without clearing everything with you. You double check everything just to be sure, and you have to know all the details of all the arrangements ahead of time.
If you live as an expat, perhaps for study or work, culture shock might look less like “I hate this stupid culture/food/weather” and more like “I’m so down/overwhelmed/depressed, I can barely function. It’s all I can do to go through the motions each day.”
We all fight our own fight, so stop with the guilt tripping! This is how you’re wired; it’s what you face, so don’t bother acting like the fact that it’s “in your head” makes it somehow less real. You genuinely experience life differently than others do, so don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re defective, lame, unmotivated, or lazy. Lots of people can confirm what this feeling feels like. It’s not your fault!
(If meds help, then I hope you find a good one, that your insurance covers it, and that you stay on it till the day you die if necessary. There’s NO shame in medically filling in a missing part of your brain chemistry that other people produce naturally. Do anything and everything possible to care for your mental health. Just remember that medication is only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a very important one. It helps. It can make a whole world of difference and give you back the reins of your life, but it is NOT a cure. Use it as a tool and don’t ask it to make you something you’re not.)
Give yourself some grace and go easy on yourself. Do whatever you can to avoid thinking too much when things go badly. Be gentle in the way you talk to yourself – that might be the biggest tip I can offer. Just ignore or argue back with the inner critic, and that voice will start to fade. Give yourself credit for successfully navigating challenging situations, and then reward yourself afterwards.
Don’t, for the love of Pete, tell yourself over and over to “calm down”, or say unhelpful things like “everything’s fine”. Focus on a long-term definition of fine – you will almost certainly live to tell this tale, so the details between here and there don’t really matter. You are statistically unlikely to end up homeless under a bridge, in jail, dead, starving, or permanently stranded as a result of whatever stressful situation you find yourself in. How will you ever find your luggage that’s gotten mixed up? Who knows, but you’re not going to have to go nude, this town has stores where you can buy things, and 10 years from now it won’t matter at all because that wardrobe needed updating anyway.
I wish I could give you a long list of secret life-hacks to make the yucky feelings go away, but I can’t. We are all so different and we have to work things out our own way.
That’s it, by the way. That’s the secret, if there was one.
That’s what opened all the doors for me – I stopped measuring myself by the “right” way, the neurotypical way, the Type-A way that I was taught to do everything. I let go and just went with the flow, and for me, it was liberating and empowering. The Hakuna Matata philosophy is what I’m all about, and those “Bare Necessities” from the Jungle Book. For you, it might be the opposite – buy all the planners and color-coded markers the store has to offer, and find joy in taking control and making order out of chaos. Do it your way, as Frank Sinatra sang.
There is no one right way to do life.
I remember how proud and emotional I was (and still am) every single time I learned that my own way could work for me. Look ma – no hands! The world’s most successful people face some of the same personal and mental challenges that you and I do – and it’s no easier for them. Some models have terrible body image issues. Some Oscar-winning actors get horribly nervous before performances, and they never cure it.
There Is. No. Cure. You don’t need one.
Like Po in Kung Fu Panda, who sees that the scroll is blank, please understand that there is nothing so fundamentally wrong with you that you can’t show up as yourself and succeed.
Katy Perry, “Rise”
I won’t just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can’t write my story
I’m beyond the archetype
I won’t just conform
No matter how you shake my core
‘Cause my roots, they run deep, oh
When, when the fire’s at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They’re whispering, you’re out of time
But still, I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don’t be surprised, I will still rise