I adore travelling. But as someone prone to anxiety, trolling through blogs about fearless girls who travelled solo or booked a spontaneous trip serves as a reminder that many ‘bucket list’ travel experiences are so far out of my reach…
I suffer from a hybrid of agoraphobia and a deep running fear of becoming ill in an unfamiliar environment (I know it doesn’t make sense; the crux of anxiety is that it’s irrational). When discussing future plans to go away, my wave of excitement is tinged with, and sometimes even eclipsed by, paralysing anxiety. In the space between deciding to go away and actually booking the tickets, chances are that I’ve already anticipated the panic attack I’m inevitably going to have at the airport – and if it’s an airport I regularly fly from, I’ve even pinpointed where that panic attack will take place.
I should probable say at this point: I’m not someone who’s only just started travelling, or only flies once or twice a year. I’ve lived in 3 different countries. Christmases, Easters and Summers have consistently seen me fly on my own between my two families since I was 14, and I fly so frequently between Berlin and London that I could probably draw you a blueprint of Schönefeld airport from memory. I say this because travel anxiety can affect absolutely anyone, regardless of experience.
It's commonplace that on a flight I’ll grab the person next to me during turbulence, to have them chuckle and say “Aww! Is this your first time flying?” to which I gingerly reply “This is my 8th flight this year.”
Anyone who deals with anxiety or is agoraphobic like me, knows just how debilitating it can be. At best, it will leave you hunched in a toilet playing candy crush on your phone until the feeling passes, and at worst you will be momentarily convinced that you’ll be dead within the hour. On a good day, I’ll experience nausea maybe once or twice, swiftly countered by a mint tea or a distracting conversation – and on a bad day I’ll be physically unable to walk out of my door. Sometimes, no matter how much fun I’m having, it will hit me, and I’ll find myself thinking “Really? I was fine a second ago, nothing’s even happened…are you really going to do this to me now?”.
The physical symptoms you experience with anxiety are very real. Countless times I’ve run to the toilet convinced I got a stomach bug from the sandwich I just ate, only to later discover that I was completely fine. Another common feeling is derealisation, where you suddenly disconnect from your surroundings and start to feel like you’re in a virtual reality. These symptoms can be exasperated when you’re abroad in an unfamiliar environment or eating unfamiliar food – or even if you’re in a hotter/colder climate than you’re used to. Bringing one or two edible items from home that you usually use to settle your stomach, like your favourite tea or biscuits, can be a good solution.
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The best coping mechanism I’ve developed to deal with my anxiety is meticulous planning. Train and plane seats are booked as close to the toilets as possible. Apps, playlists and entertainnment are pre-downloaded so I’m never left without a distraction. In extreme cases, I’ll flag up my anxiety with the flight attendant before the plane takes off, and I’m rarely seen without a bag full of anti-panic essentials, complete with ginger chews, rescue remedy, mint tea bags and lavender oil.
When flying, one thing I say to myself whenever I hear a weird sound, or experience turbulence is “don’t panic until someone tells you to panic.” The wording is silly, I know – considering no well trained flight attendant is going to grab you and shriek “PANIC!” into your face no matter what the situation, but the point is that anxious people have a tendency to overanalyse different sounds as cues to panic. In a flight, there’s absolutely no need to think something’s wrong until it’s…well, been announced that something’s wrong!
By the time I've actually arrived at my destination, I’m so thankful that the journey is behind me that I’m able to leave my anxiety at the airport and power through an awesome holiday with positive thoughts.
On my trips I exude a “don’t push yourself” attitude – which usually means I’ll skip out on at least one activity if it feels like too much, without plummeting into guilt or self-loathing. Frustratingly though, towards the end of the trip, I’ll struggle to ignore the impending difficulty of the journey home.
For me, being this anxious means that solo travel is out of the question – at least for now. My anxiety seems to be much easier to control when I’m travelling with a friend, or in a group. Not only are they a welcome distraction from the hyper awareness of your surroundings, but you won’t feel so vulnerable if you have company should a wobbly feeling occur.
Despite my struggles, I’ve never once allowed my anxiety to physically stop me from boarding a plane. Rather, I’ve learned to work with it by recognising what my triggers are, and coming prepared. It’s better to recognise when you’re feeling anxious and go through your list of coping mechanisms before you all-out panic.
I can only hope that one day my anxiety will be a thing of the past; but for now, every small step is a huge victory – and no one can take that sense of pride away from me.