I wanted to share this story early on, because it has deeply affected my feelings about and approach to traveling. That being said, I have a problem with anxiety. It’s been much worse in the past, but it has been something that I have struggled with since I was young.
Most people could tell you that I worry in excess about insignificant things. If they are being less polite, they tend to use the word “obsessive.” I realized in the last two years that while some people are predisposed to worry as a personality trait, my own anxiety was actually impeding my ability to really engage in my own life in ways that mattered.
I would tell myself repeatedly that once object causing me anxiety at that moment (paper/exam/presentation/etc.) had come and gone, I would be more relaxed and feel “normal” again. The problem being that “normal” never quite happened. I would immediately pick up on something else to worry myself sick over. For example:
Were those spots on my bathroom wall mold? The landlord will kick me out. Did I lock the door to the apartment? Maybe not—better go back up the stairs and do it again. There, I’ve touched it, so I definitely remember doing it – but perhaps I imagined remembering to test it, so to make myself feel secure I’d better check it one more time.
Barring all else, I would pick at and peel the skin around my cuticles until my fingers bled. I would sometimes have to wear bandages so holding a pen wasn’t painful.
So how does this tie into traveling and writing about it? Because I was convinced up until a few years ago that getting on a plane, let alone going on a four-month journey alone, was even possible for me.
The first time I had a full panic attack was when I was eleven years old, and just boarding a flight. My mind was racing, I could not get myself to calm down or think rationally, and I felt not at all in physical control of my body: I broke out in a cold sweat, felt chills, and the immediate and alarming urge to escape.
From the first attack, I began to be afraid of air travel. I wasn’t afraid of the plane crashing, but I had an almost constant fear that if I had to fly, I would have the same horrifying experience as that first panic attack and not have a way to get away from that feeling. That was what made me most anxious—that I would feel afraid and sick and out of control when I felt I had no way to escape. After the first attack, a wide variety of similar situations created the same feeling—movie theaters, intercity bus rides, and eating out.
This presented a problem to my parents, because I can imagine having an 11 year-old who already needs to see a therapist isn’t exactly fun. But I had a supportive family and a doctor who simply refused to let me shut myself in with my fear, though it seemed like forsaking airplanes and all other things that scared me was the easiest thing to do at the time. A few years passed, and I began to feel anxious about flying less and less.
The turning point came in the form of a three-week trip to the UK and France with my Dad in summer 2007. Somehow, I had successfully flown to Canada to see family the previous August. However, I had one of the worst panic attacks in years before the return flight, sent me spiraling back down into almost constant anxiety about the simple possibility of flying. As soon as I returned home, my first thought was “how am I going to make it to Europe next year?” And worse, “even if I get there, I’m going to have to come back the same way.” Both of these thoughts just increased the level of anxiety.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Almost inarticulate fear about going to Europe dominated almost every thought I had over the next eleven months. I could sometimes forget what I was afraid of for stretches of a few hours. Other days, it was my first thought rising out of bed in the morning.
I went back to therapy for most of that year to try and prepare, because it was made clear that refusing to go wasn’t an option. By this point, I was fourteen and just started my first year of high school.
In the end, I made it to Europe, and it was this trip that made me more confident in my ability to handle myself. I not only got there, but I was able to think myself down from a panic attack while traveling, and didn’t immediately feel anxious about the return journey. I remember thinking to myself, “If you got yourself here, you can get yourself home,” and that seemed to be enough. When we returned to the U.S., I stopped regular therapy.
Five years later, in January of 2013, I flew halfway across the world on my own to study in Egypt for a semester. During those five months, I flew several times, alone and with friends, without experience a full attack. In between were all manner of trains, buses, questionable shared taxi rides, and other things that a few years before would have caused huge distress.
I like to think that I am better than I was, but not unmarked by the anxiety. I still perform some tiny rituals to keep myself calm, despite how much I have progressed. I take my old bottle of prescribed sedatives (though I have not renewed the prescription in some years) when I fly. My quart bag of liquids and gels at airport security always has a small bottle of lavender oil, because I find the smell relaxing. I still avoid coffee while traveling, because caffeine creates the physical sensations that triggered my first panic attack. These habits that I still carry are small reminders of how far I have come, and how to care for myself. Maybe, in time, I will no longer need these rituals; the list of things that I used to feel were necessary in order to keep calm is much shorter than it was. I can now eat before flights (even right before boarding), and I can now drink black tea while traveling, which for a long time I was afraid would trigger a panic attack on account of the caffeine.
My experiences are not universal to everyone who has had anxiety or panic attacks. They may not even resemble others’ experiences at all. If you are curious, please feel free to reach out and ask questions. But my words and accounts of my own journey with anxiety are by no means the truth for everyone who shares it. I am also not trying to say that you can defeat all forms of anxiety disorders and other mental health problems through patience and hard work. This experience is entirely anecdotal, and not intended as a guide to cure anxiety; please speak to someone who is qualified to listen and help instead of taking my advice.
The point of this story is that this long and ongoing experience with anxiety still colors the way I live and travel today, albeit not in as extreme ways as it did in years prior. Before I start recording my travel stories and recommendations, I wanted to share with you all how much it means to me that I am able to carry out my dream despite having faced internal obstacles to doing so. I still sometimes worry that I will have a panic attack. But I have pushed myself to the point where I those feelings no longer control my actions.