For as long as I can remember, my default setting has been one of anxiety — often severe and agoraphobic, wrapped in PTSD, and riddled with multiple panic attacks on the worst days. Being the product of a parent with severe mental illness, it's easy to lack a sense of safety and security with a life built on an unsteady foundation. I did not grow up with the confidence that the world was a safe place, instead shuffling between extreme uncontrolled emotions, multiple divorces, and the quiet dread of instability. Trying to find a piece of solid ground to stand was as though you are trying to find your sea legs in a storm — a great challenge, but not impossible, and a journey filled with the siren call of all the neuroses where you've grown to find comfort, trying to lure you back in.
As I progressed into adulthood, my sense of self was disorganized. I was lacking confidence in my own strengths, instead constantly questioning my place in the world. Severely depressed and unable to cope with the overwhelming anxiety of every moment, I could barely leave the house, chronically exhausted from the energy it took just to go to work. When I found photography and starting channeling my emotions in a constructive way, I learned that my anxious tendencies were a necessary product of my upbringing that were no longer needed. That's when my life changed for the better. With practice, I'm learning to go with the flow and embrace life as it comes calmly, without so much hesitation — to take a breath in and let it go in the same way that each moment passes without judgement or projection.
Though still persistent even now decades later at 30, the anxiety has decreased in such a way that allows me to push myself through most of the tough days with the mechanisms I've learned to lessen the fearful reactions. My anxiety is like an old blanket you cling to for security, worn and tattered but still I am unable to let go of the comfort that once was so important. Living with the familiarity of your default setting, especially one that was needed to cope, it's hard to challenge your own perspective, but you too can take charge of your future instead of simply treading water.
Traveling for all it's privilege, is also stressful, exhausting, and for the anxious among us, can often be an impossible task to imagine. Here are a few tricks I've used to shed the burden of extra emotional weight from severe anxiety while traveling!
IT'S OKAY TO TAKE SMALL STEPS
Due to my overwhelming anxiety, there were years of my life missed because I was too fearful to leave the house. However, feeling the pull of wanderlust since I was a young girl, that anxiety didn't stop me from the dream of packing up all my possessions and hitting the road. With dozens of scribbled pages in my journal dedicated to the hope of giving up the life I was living and having the courage to see the world. All I needed was to gain the confidence to first explore right outside my doorstep.
Starting with small steps through neighborhoods near my home, relying heavily on small patches of forest and my DSLR to find my serenity, I started to push back against my anxiety. First a few blocks at a time, then challenging myself for longer distances — taking that first plane ride, that first road trip across the country, and finally stepping foot outside the US and North America. Start small. Gain confidence. With familiarity comes calm. Take the leap of faith into the unknown and trust in yourself. You've made it this far and you can go even farther.
PREPARE. PREPARE. PREPARE.
I found the best way to keep my travel jitters at bay while I was exploring new locations is to obsessively prepare every detail in advance. Ask yourself, why do you want to take this trip? What's the worst that can happen? What is your main source of anxiety? Prepare accordingly. If I can play out scenarios in my head with the understanding that I have already put steps in place, I am better able to go with the flow.
What causes me the most stress while traveling is the idea of getting lost, so I tend to be overly meticulous when planning airport pickups, public transportation, and walking directions. I find myself downloading maps and diligently finding a strategy for which routes I would like to take. To give yourself extra support, you can even invest in a sim card with international data. For an option that's more cost effective, purchase a local sim card. For an extra sense of security I make sure to purchase travel insurance and back up all my traveling information in triplicate. I'll also bring an extra emergency credit card as a get out of town quick card. Travel smart and be prepared.
Over time, I learned that the world viewed through my anxiety filter may not be the real world I'm living in, instead one shaped by my own perceptions and misconceptions. So I try to use perspective to my advantage while using my own little feats of courage as a guide. If I can walk down the streets of my small New Hampshire town I can explore the streets of Istanbul. If I can manage the subway in New York City, I can ride the trains in London. If you've been hopelessly lost in Paris and found your way out, you can find your way out of anywhere! Take what you've learned from your experiences and grow with them.
I've also come to the understanding that humans will be humans, good and bad, no matter where you go. In all my travels I've found most people to be genuinely good, kind, and willing to help — I take that perspective with me with the understanding that we are all in this together in the human condition. If I explore with the expectation that people are generally good, but stay aware of my surroundings and mindful of each situation as it arises, I feel a lot safer.
FAKE IT UNTIL YOU MAKE IT
There have been many times when I get to the airport and psyche myself out. I can't count the opportunities I've missed because I've just been too anxious to muster the energy to leave the house. How can I possibly get on this plane by myself to a country I've never been? How can I sell myself at a big meeting when my anxiety tells me I'm not skilled enough?
The best advice I can give is to try your best to do it anyway. If you have taken the time to prepare, you are ready and you got this! Your knees may be knocking but still take that first step. You may not believe in yourself yet, but take a deep breath and walk through those doors. My aspirations are worth more to me than any anxiety may try to tell me and yours are too. You are stronger than your fears.
For those of us who find calm and serenity in your home routines, bring them on the road with you! If you have a daily yoga practice, try to find the time every day while traveling. Do you start your morning slowly with quiet meditation, tea, and reading? Maybe you use your journal to work through the problems of each day. Why not try to start or end your day abroad the same way?
When I'm feeling the pull of the stress of a new location, I look to my routines, specifically meditation and yoga, to bring me peace.
PACK MEANINGFUL ITEMS
When I travel, I always find the room in my luggage for a few little personal treasures to take with me. I believe it's important to have something meaningful from home that grounds me back into the present moment. In my wallet I keep photos of my sister and grandmother. I fill the pockets of my backpack with worry stones I've found in my adventures. I bring calming essential oils of lavender and eucalyptus that are used in my diffusers for sleep. I never leave home without my journal. Do you have that one big sweater you wear to sink into and find comfort? Do you have a stuffed animal you cuddle to sleep?
Find the things that are important to you and make enough room to bring them. Although it may not be practical, any steps to lessen anxiety are worth it.
BRING A FRIEND
As luck would have it, I was fortunate enough to be born with a built in best friend in the form of my wonderful twin sister. When I'm with her, I can accomplish anything without fear. If you are not ready to travel on your own but still want to see the world, why not bring your comfort human with you? Maybe you even have an animal companion that travels well. Happiness is multiplied when shared, and sometimes it's just easier to have someone there to help solve problems and find comfort when things become overwhelming. Find someone that understands you and is gentle with your limitations to bring along!
FIND THAT CALMING PLACE
There are so many avenues to tread to find a sense of calm among chaos. I found mine in Alan Watts lectures with the volume turned all the way up and noise canceling headphones. If you are on a group road trip with not a lot of space or alone time, I can't recommend noise canceling headphones enough. Do you have a mantra? Do you use books to lose yourself? Do you find yourself sketching in notebooks to find serenity? You can bring your calming place with you!
HAVE A MEANS OF ESCAPE
For the introverted or socially anxious among us, sometimes it is best to keep an escape route ready. Be it bringing your own vehicle, traveling via road trips with a loose schedule, or even going alone to events instead of with a friend that wants to stay later, it's good to have a way out to rest and recharge. I also use photography in my tool belt of ways to escape. If my focus is on getting that perfect shot, I'm tuned out to the looped negative voice in my head, and I have not as many problems interacting with people. Given something to do and a camera in hand, I'm usually pretty good about navigating emotionally stressful situations.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Life doesn't happen to you or for you. Life happens with you, at the same pace, unfolding together in the present moment as if reading chapters of a book. Try to learn to let go of your expectations and know your own limits before you reach them.
There is something to be said about trying to let go of your default setting while pushing back against your comfort zone because with practice, everything becomes a bit easier. But after 30 years, I know myself, I know when I've reached maximum capacity, and sometimes when I'm done, I'm done. When it's time for me to leave, I say my goodbyes without guilt, take pride in pushing my boundaries, and make peace with my own limitations. The more you do it the easier it gets. You and your health are your first priority.
I know my anxiety will probably never go away entirely, instead ebbing and flowing with my stress levels, but equipped with the learned tools to soften the edges, I know how to give myself the space and acceptance to be me in all my uneasy panicky glory. Some days I wish I could leave the house without all the worries. Some days my anxiety exhausts me before I can even manage the energy to leave the house. But if I wake each morning with the intention to do the best I can - well, there isn't much more I can ask for.