Anyone with anxiety will tell you that change lies at the root of most fears. That staying within the confines of a comfort zone is the best way to settle a racing heart. I was a strong believer in these principles for many years.
I avoiding new situations, which allowed me to feel safe but with every photo my friends sent of their overseas adventures, my heart ached. I was missing out on so many experiences because my brain was telling me that evading fear was more important than my own happiness. I isolated myself to feel better, but instead felt down and more anxious than ever. That is, until my friend talked me into a backpacking across Europe.
Planning our trip abroad was hugely stressful to begin with. Not because I disliked the process, but because it raised so many questions I had never let myself face before. Things like not knowing where to go at the airport or the exact mode of transport we’d use to get to our accommodation. Often I would have panic attacks after a day of researching as I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of living sporadically.
After months of trepidation, the obvious finally dawned on me: life isn’t predictable.
It can’t be narrowed down to a daily itinerary with time schedules and pre-booked events. When I came to terms with this, the planning process became much more gratifying. I was energised by the idea of buying things to take abroad and telling family about my trip became the highlight of each day. Channeling my nervous energy into preparations gave me something to focus on. It filtered through to my daily decisions too; I was venturing out of the house more and catching up with friends whenever the opportunity arose. By the time our departure date rolled around, I sensed a smidgen of excitement hidden amongst my nerves.
During our three months in Europe, we travelled eleven countries. From Greece to Spain, Wales to Iceland, the trip changed my life. As cliché as it sounds, the experience gifted me a sensation that I longed to feel: happiness. Not just in gorgeous landscapes or watching movies in our hotel room, but in the spontaneity of backpacking. In the way you could wake up prepared for a day of museum-hopping and end up on a ferry to an island in Lake Maggiore. Or how two nights in a hostel could morph into five with an unfortunate upset stomache. It takes a special kind of place for your memories to automatically be associated with the good times and erase the bad times ( e.g. travel illness).
One of my favourite memories unfolded on a pub-crawl in Madrid, when a group of strangers from all over the world became my good friends over a night of banter and grooving to Latino tunes. Photos of us salsa dancing with random Spaniards still sit proudly on my bedroom wall, years later. I didn’t know what time it was at any stage of the night, nor where I was going but I didn’t care. I had never felt so liberated by ignorance.
I began to view each new travel day as a fresh start. A change that I welcomed, rather than feared. Every morning brought with it opportunities to eat new foods, discover beauty in places I never would have thought to look and dance to songs in foreign languages.
It brought chances for me to be in control of change, rather than a victim of it. Prior to the trip, I never realised that it was possible for me to thrive off anxiety and manipulate my fear into excitement. The neural pathways in our brains that trigger fear are exercised so often that it becomes our automatic response to anything new.
What is much more challenging and more rewarding, is to take control of our reactions and view change as a positive. Travelling is the perfect way to challenge yourself mentally and push yourself personally. In Europe, I climbed an active volcano, trekked between villages in the Italian Riviera, rode a donkey in Greece and got lost in the French wine country on a rickety bike. I forced myself into new situations and I smiled more because I wanted to, not because I had to.
I’d bet that the reason many people become unhappy is as simple as stagnancy. Without change, there is no good or bad, there is just sameness. And if we don’t push ourselves past the monotony of a comfort zone, we will never know the limits of our own capabilities. Maybe the journey might even teach us that we don’t have any. That our approach to fear is the only thing holding us back from feeling happy.
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