Managing Anxiety on the Road
I’ve written a few posts about accessibility I saw while traveling around the globe. What I didn’t touch on in these posts was my personal experience traveling with anxiety. I left the United States with nothing more than my first two nights planned—one in an airport and one with a friend of a friend I had never met—and no return ticket home. For some people, not having a plan may be the anxiety-inducing part, but I was exhilarated. What trigged my anxiety were smaller things along the way. Mental health is often overlooked when it comes to travel challenges. Although I recognize everyone has different experiences with anxiety, I wanted to share a couple of my personal experiences and tips. Be familiar with your triggers
Being familiar with your triggers while traveling is important, but it isn’t always easy. When you are traveling, you are taken out of your daily life. Personally, travel excites me and most of the time the stress of it doesn’t bother me. This is partially because I am prepared for it—I expect there to be stress, so I am ready when it hits. At home, my anxiety is mostly triggered by work and trying to figure out what I’ll be doing in 5 years. When I was on the road, those things didn’t exist. I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t care too much about the future because I was living in the moment.
While on a road trip in Namibia I almost drowned my rental car three times. My first week on the road I got lost wandering the streets in Santiago without a map or cell service and ended up in a bad neighborhood. Over my nine months of travel I had to sleep in a rental car on more than one occasion. Did those things give me panic attacks? Nope. But paying $6 for a taxi that I thought would cost $3 made me break down in tears. I found myself gasping for breath because booking a cruise to Antarctica wasn’t as easy (or cheap) as I expected, and my hostel was further away than I realized (and all uphill) and I was exhausted and demoralized after a full day of bus travel. I woke up one day feeling dissociated from my body and unhappy after a bad dream. The intense beauty of icebergs and shades of blue you’ve never seen before made me immensely happy and then crashed down into sadness and anxiety because it reminded me of people who I’d never be able to share this with. Triggers on the road are different than at home, and sometimes they are hard to predict.
Have management techniques ready
So, what do you do when anxiety strikes on the road? At home, I manage my anxiety through regular exercise. Although it doesn’t help everyone, many people use exercise as a way to ease symptoms. While traveling I was constantly walking, so I didn’t prioritize dedicated exercise time as much as I could have. The shared quarters of hostels didn’t lend themselves to exercising, either. However, exercise is a great way to reduce stress, and if it works for you then I recommend making time for it during your travels. One of my other comforts is music. I almost always had my headphones on me while traveling, and if I found my anxiety building, I would listen to music that reminded me of home and comforted me. Sometimes I would even sneak off somewhere quiet and sing—the combination of music and forcing myself to focus on my breath helped me re-center myself.
My last technique was one of the most useful ones: five senses grounding or the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding method. Grounding, in this context, refers to a coping strategy in which you connect with the present moment and your senses. There are variations of this, but what I do is open one of my hands and bring one finger in at a time, thinking through each of the senses until I’ve made a fist. I like this one because you can do it anytime and anywhere. You focus on what you smell, see, hear, taste, and feel. I repeat it as many times as I need until I feel grounded again. Take time for yourself
Lastly, remember to take time for yourself. It can be easy to get caught up in what you are “supposed” to do while traveling. You may have a laundry list of sites to visit or recommendations coming at you from every direction. Remind yourself that it’s ok if you don’t see the top 10 sites. Everyone has different priorities, and you should base your trip on what you want to experience, not on what other people think you should experience. I also got stressed about my budget. I had spent two years saving and saw my bank account balance disappearing as I traveled. A friend I met on the road gave me wonderful advice: “You aren’t traveling to save money.” Remind yourself that it is ok to treat yourself to a nice meal or splurge on that hiking tour. Allow yourself to enjoy your travel without guilt, even if that means splurging on a fancy meal or skipping a popular “must-see” site.