In the course of starting to write this post, I have seen a lot of articles dealing with travel anxiety. Mostly they are filled with tips and tricks to get over pre-flight nerves, or feeling anxious in a new place. There are even one or two articles describing how travel has cured a person’s anxiety, and how it can do the same for you at just $9.99…
But what I want to share isn’t quite the same as that. I want to talk about being a person with a more generalized anxiety that happens to be travelling at the moment, and how the term ‘travel anxiety’ just doesn’t cut it for me.
What does anxiety look like?
Here’s an interesting place to start! There is no one size fits all definition of what living with anxiety looks like. Because of this, people can go through their entire lives not realizing that they suffer from anxiety.
Some people suffer from panic attacks. These are sudden and intense periods of anxiety, fear, and panic that don’t seem to have an immediate cause. Panic attacks are not triggered by a current danger, although they can be in response to a past or current trauma or situation.
Panic attacks literally feel like you are dying. I suffered briefly from these in High School, and I cannot stress how serious and incapacitating they are. You feel an inexplicable sense that something terrible is just about to happen, you feel like you cannot breathe, you go into a cold sweat, heart palpitations, dizzyness, tunnel vision, etc, etc, etc.
The worst part is that these attacks don’t just happen when you are alone or with a trusted friend who knows how to help. They can happen any time, anywhere, with little or no warning. So obviously, people can feel reluctant to go out as they don’t want strangers witnessing them in the middle of an attack. Like so much of our mental health, we can begin to hide, feel shameful, and alone.
I don’t have panic attacks, what else you got?
Well anxiety can come in a variety of other less intense but still potentially debilitating forms. The Anxiety Centre lists over 100 different signs and symptoms of anxiety. Some of the less well-known symptoms include, being overly critical of others, nausea, increase in allergies, back pain or stiffness, skin sensitivity, difficulty speaking, numbness and tingling in the limbs, headaches, and even complications with hearing.
The list is so long, and yet we tend to box up anxiety into a neat little package. What happens is that certain people get diagnosed and receive treatment for their anxiety, and huge numbers of others are told to suck it up, man it up, or whatever else we tell people that we don’t know how to deal with.
Man it up!
I have seen so many men believe or be told that anxiety is only for women. This is such a toxic belief. Anyone can suffer from anxiety, there is no link to our gender or sex. The idea that men must simply shrug it off and get on with the business of being strong is such a outdated and damaging ideal.
If you have men in your life that you care about, please be the type of person that allows everyone to be vulnerable and emotional. I have so many feelings about the way society teaches men to hide their hurt, and how damaging that is for everyone, but that’s another post for another day.
My Family Anxiety
I want to spend some time being vulnerable about my own journey with anxiety, in the hopes that it allows you to do the same, or at the very least, if you identify with what I’m saying, maybe you won’t feel alone.
One of the stories my family told was the ‘waiting feeling’. This was a sense of dread or unease that one felt suddenly for no apparent reason. In true passed down through the generations style, this was the time to get in touch with loved ones or get ready for some sort of bad news in the family. At the very least, you would turn to someone in the family and ask them if they too had a waiting feeling, which invariably, they did.
What I realize now is that anxiety runs in my family. The waiting feeling was a part of our generalized anxiety, a sense of impending doom or a feeling of being unsafe. Of course the other person would feel the feeling, we were all suffering from pretty consistent level of mild anxiety!
This is why I want us to talk more about mental health. So often our families and cultures have stories to explain away our lived experiences, and for people who really suffer with these disorders or problems, professional help can be incredibly useful and supportive. I’m not saying don’t tell the stories, I know I found support from my family in our shared experience of this feeling. I’m saying interrogate what your daily experiences are.
My father struggled with generalized anxiety for nearly 50 years before he received a diagnosis. Don’t wait, don’t struggle by yourself, don’t convince yourself that your anxiety and your personality are the same thing. Anxiety is what you have, not who you are, and it shouldn’t be allowed to stop you from doing whatever the hell you want.
Personally, my anxiety manifests in a couple of ways. I tend to feel nauseous, I also pick at the skin around my fingernails and on my arms and face. I also become hyper sensitive to light and noise, and can feel claustrophobic and short of breath. I get irrationally angry with whoever is closest at the time. I also can have intrusive thoughts, like wondering if I properly locked up my office, or if I have left my wallet somewhere.
If I am anxious and not busy, I struggle with self-hate, remembering every perceived failure or missed opportunity. Because I struggle with my body image generally, anxiety heightens my feelings of being too much, or not thin/beautiful/fit enough. Sometimes I don’t even know that I’m anxious until I catch myself engaging in one of these behaviours.
This becomes all the more difficult when we add travel to the mix.
Travel plus Anxiety: a match made in purgatory
My anxiety is like an inner 5 year old that can’t stop with the questions and the criticisms. When you give her an event to focus on, she really goes to town. Think ‘are we there yet?’ but with more impending doom.
I can plan my trips down to the very last detail, months in advance, and then still obsess over how my flight is going to absolutely definitely be cancelled/delayed/filled with screaming babies and no air conditioning. I don’t believe that this is travel anxiety, this is giving my inner anxious child a lollipop and telling it not to eat before dinner.
I believe it is important to draw the distinction between simple nervous excitement before a big event, and anxiety that can hinder our enjoyment and experience of that event and others. It is like using terms such as OCD and Depression, to describe mundane everyday experiences. It devalues the lived experiences and struggles of people who legitimately suffer from these problems. If we want mental health to be taken seriously we need to change our language about it.
I get that people throw around other health terms like ‘oh you gave me a heart attack!’ for even the slightest scare or shock. But it’s much harder to ignore a heart attack with physical, immediate symptoms, than it is to ignore and brush off someone who hides their anxiety or depression away for fear of stigma.
Don’t be that person. Let’s do better. You have no idea what your friends and colleagues go through to get themselves looking professional at work, don’t dismiss what may be the fight of their lives.
I also feel like travel anxiety doesn’t really cover the expat experience. When we settle for a mid to long term stint in a new country, I think we can start to pressure ourselves to stop being anxious. This is the opposite of how anxiety works!
Living as an expat with anxiety is all of the travel anxiety on top of the general anxiety that we experience just in day to day living. We still feel anxious about being in a foreign country and not being able to necessarily access help when we need it, as well as the social anxieties of building a support system from scratch, and building a career.
If you add the fact that in Korea you can be blacklisted by employers if you visit a psychologist or are on medication, and you have the perfect anxious storm. We need to be so much kinder to ourselves as the excitement of the move wears off and we realise that this is life, just in a different space. I wrote about self-care for expats and long-term travelers here.
This is also why I am skeptical of people who claim that travel has cured their anxiety. Really cured? Like if you moved back home or settled in just one place, you still won’t get anxious? Or do you have to keep on the high of traveling in order to keep the anxious thoughts away? Because that sounds like medication to me. Medication isn’t wrong, and nor is consistent travel, just don’t claim they can do what they can’t.
Alright, stop the rant, what can we do?
Obviously I want to tell you that all your anxiety can disappear with 5 simple steps, but that would be lying. The truth is that I believe therapy and medication are extremely useful tools and can really help to improve the lives of people with moderate to severe anxiety. I’m never going to tell you that medication is for the weak or the lazy, or that you should simply get out and go for a walk, because I understand that everybody’s journey is different, and I hope you do too.
But if you are like me, with pretty mild anxiety that still manages to get in the way of what I want to do sometimes, here is what I do.
Recognize your feelings
The most important step is to acknowledge that you’re anxious. If you feel comfortable, tell your closest friends what your anxious behaviours are so that they can gently draw your attention to them. It will be uncomfortable at first, but I can’t tell you the number of times Chris has saved me from ripping my fingers to shreds just by holding my hand when he notices what I’m doing.
Refocus the energy
Once you have realised you’re experiencing anxiety, work to refocus your mind and energy onto something else. I have a lot of ‘what if’ thoughts, so I try to make a list of actual events that need to happen in the next few hours before I can rest at home. Then I tick them off.
So if, like yesterday, I was feeling really anxious on the bus ride home, I mentally made a list of all the stops in between where I was and home, and then I looked for where the stop button on nearest to me was, and visualized pushing it and getting off and walking home.
I get very nervous to do mundane things when I am anxious, so visualizing what I need to do and where I need to go really helps me. As the bus took each stop, I ticked it off in my head. It may sound simple, but it helps give my mind something to do when I can’t move.
If you can, move your body. Anxiety is energy pushed in the wrong direction. Simple, repetitive activities can help the energy refocus. So something like a yoga routine that I am used to, or folding the washing, or even setting yourself a mini workout challenge can really help your body use up energy in a more productive way.
Write a list
If I’m anxious about an upcoming event, sometimes I will write 2 lists: 1 of the things I can do nothing about, and 1 for the things I can. Then I tick off the ones I can. When I was living in Johannesburg and finishing up my Masters, I actually kept an anxiety page in my bullet journal.
Basically I wrote down the anxious thought I was having, and the name and intensity of the feeling. When the event passed, I would colour in a square depending on how it went: green represented something I hadn’t needed to worry about, yellow was so-so, and red was okay, it did actually go terribly. Everything was green. And the more green popped up, the less anxious I felt about new challenges.
Talk about it
Do you have someone online or in person that you can open up to about your anxiety? Try to find a person or group that does not judge your feelings, but rather acknowledges you and validates you for the strength that it takes to recognise and live with anxiety. If you can, be that person for someone else as well.
Help Each Other
Remember, don’t ask “what can I do?”, ask “what do you need?” The former creates pressure for the person to give you a job or help you help them, and can make the person worry that they will offend you i they really need to talk to someone else. The latter can free the person to think about self-care, self-soothing, or a variety of different options not necessarily involving the helper, guilt-free.
This post has been long and rambling, but I am not writing a self help book. I am, hopefully, creating a space that can cultivate discussions and support around mental health. Please email me or comment here, I want to hear what you do to help your anxiety, or what issues you want me to write about.
Let’s be vulnerable with each other when we can so that anxiety doesn’t have to be someone’s dirty little secret.
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