It’s no secret that I’ve been struggling with a generalized anxiety disorder for many years now – heck, I run a blog about it.
The most difficult part for me is that, because my panics seem so sudden and irrational, people tend to minimize or delegitimize my illness.
I’ve been told to “stop being so dramatic” a million times now. People have laughed and rolled their eyes at me. I’ve been told to “just be normal” and there have actually been multiple occasions when people who I considered my friends physically forced me into situations that made me experience severe panic attacks.
That’s why spreading awareness for mental health issues is so important to me. They didn’t understand why I felt and acted the way I did and it not only alienated them, it made them angry.
Travel brings its own truckload of problems for travelers struggling with mental illness. Especially if your illness is fear-based (as mine is), you’ll find distinct roadblocks that might turn a beautiful experience into a nightmare.
Taking public transport, sleeping in a foreign hotel, walking the streets of an unknown city and visiting countries where you don’t speak the native language especially…It can be an incredibly daunting task. Maybe you have a person in your life that supports you through your struggles. That’s amazing. But in the end, you’ll always fight this fight on your own. And you can’t depend on that support always being there.
To tell the truth, I’ve just recently lost the person that has supported me and my mental health more than anybody ever has before. They managed to reign in my anxiety and soothe me when I was close to my breaking point.
But the sad reality is: that person can leave at any time. It’s not their job to keep your mental illness in check. And even if they never leave, they can’t always be with you. You can’t ask them to put their life on hold in order to deal with your battle.
The only thing that can really help you alleviate your illness is therapy and, if needed, proper medication. But you can help yourself in small ways every day.
Here is a list of tips and strategies that help me keep my anxiety in check every day and especially while traveling solo.
1. Design an exit strategy
A lot of my panic attacks coincide with the idea of being trapped, helpless and losing control. That makes walking by myself at night, sleeping on my own and going to foreign places scary and intimidating for me.
What I have to do is try to get some control back. For example, I don’t go out at night if I don’t feel 100% safe. That does mean I miss out on nightlife while traveling, but to be real, I’m usually completely exhausted by nighttime, so I probably wouldn’t go out even if I felt comfortable with it.
In 2014, I did my first bigger solo trip to Copenhagen. My Airbnb was a little away from the city center and home to many students and small families. The apartment was spacious and pretty with a big balcony. Each evening, I’d get some snacks from the nearby convenience store and sit on the balcony with a glass of wine, watching YouTube videos. Did I miss out on going to bars after walking 24km in a day? Yes. Did I regret it? Not at all. I made my own fun, keeping my own limitations in mind. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Decide what your limits are and stick to them. Don’t ever let anybody make you feel bad about creating boundaries for yourself. If it eases your anxiety, do it.
2. Find what soothes you
If you’re not ready to use medication or need a little something “extra”: find things that relax you and make you happy. It can be anything you want and it can be as corny as it needs to be. If you want to say positive affirmations in the mirror – do it. If you want to spray essential oils – spray it. If a specific food calms you down – eat it. There’s no right or wrong answers. Find your happiness and use it when you feel like you’re falling apart.
For me, listening to familiar voices is really helpful. I’ve struggled with sleep anxiety and insomnia for the longest time, and the only thing that ever helped me fall asleep was listening to YouTube videos or podcasts for hours on end. It blocks out any sounds that might scare me, like footsteps in the hallway, loud talking or pipes going wild. Especially in hostels, when I can hear people talking or moving around me, being able to block out the noise is very helpful (and necessary!).
3. Write it down
When anxiety strikes me, I find it hard to concentrate on anything else. The only thing that can calm me down at all is to take a few deep breaths and write down what’s bothering me. I usually carry a notebook with me, but if I don’t, I use the Notes-app on my phone. I have a folder specifically for stream of consciousness writing. The words will spill out of my head without order or sense, but it gives me an opportunity to vent and concentrate on something other than my anxiety attack.
After a few minutes, I’ll usually calm down at least a little and then move to a new location. If I’m on the go, I go get something fatty and delicious to eat.
If I’m in my hotel room, I put on a podcast and take a shower or bath. When I’m done with that, I read through what I wrote and start editing myself – that means I start adding information, “filling in the blanks” now that I’m calm. This helps me not only regain some composure but understand what triggered my anxiety. If I understand it, I feel less helpless.
4. Be honest (with yourself and others)
When you experience an anxiety attack, there’s always a component of shame attached to it. And if somebody happens to see you escalate, in addition to feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, you’ll likely also be embarrassed. Be honest with the people around you. Tell them that you’re having problems. You don’t have to go into detail at all, but simply informing them that you’re feeling unwell will give them a chance to help or at least be aware that something’s happening.
In 2015, I flew to Japan for the first time. I’ve always been terrified of flying and the thought of sitting in an airplane for 12 hours with no chance of escape really freaked me out. But I also knew that I desperately wanted to visit Japan. So I trained myself: a few months before going to Japan, I went to visit my cousin in Vienna. Instead of taking the train, I flew. I was scared the whole time, recording goodbye-messages to my loved ones and crying all the way from the metal detectors. When I entered the plane, I went to one of the stewardesses and told her that I’m very scared of flying and that I’ll most likely be experiencing an anxiety attack during the flight. I explained that it was best to just let me be, that I had medication and that I would be fine. She was obviously a little confused, but she understood and during the flight, when I did have an anxiety attack, she asked if I needed anything but otherwise left me alone. Eventually, I got off the plane and was so proud of myself for doing this. I knew that I had to face my fear – I loved traveling too much to just not do it. It was hard and, being a socially nervous person, I definetly felt weird about confiding in a stranger, but it gave me the freedom to freak out without the fear of being judged. Not just by others, but also by myself. I acknowledged my illness and the difficulties that came with it. Instead of surpressing it, I tried working through it. In the end, I did get on that airplane to Japan. And I never regretted it.
These are some tips on how I personally handle my anxiety while traveling and in everyday life.
Having an anxiety disorder or suffering from a mental illness in general will always present a roadblock. Things that may be easy for others may be incredibly difficult for you. And there’s always going to be people who will try to discredit you or make you feel ashamed for your affliction. But you have nothing to prove; how severe and real and difficult to deal with your illness is, you know it better than anyone.
The only thing I ask is that you do not let your anxiety keep you from doing the things that make you happy. Don’t let your illness steal your life. You will struggle. God, sometimes you will fail miserably. You’ll want to go out there and do something and you’ll instead lay in bed, exhausted, crying and watching Netflix. That’s ok, too. All you have to do, all anybody could ever ask of you, is try.