I’m gripping on tightly to my water bottle and staring fixedly ahead at the blur of headlights and streetlamps. The air inside the taxi is stifling and I can feel my scalp prickling with heat. There is a deep, burning knot in my chest that as I begin to panic, only tightens. A cold, tingling sensation floods my limbs and rushes through my veins, as my heart pounds loudly in my ears. My muscles feel heavy, yet primed to run a marathon. I’m on the edge of tears, but also paralysed by an overwhelming sense of fear.
The taxi driver turns cheerfully to me and asks where I’m going. I turn to look at him and smile broadly, replying that I’m going to Greece, before telling him in detail about my plans for the trip and how much I’m looking forward to it.
Except, I’m not. I’m having a panic attack and I want to go home.
This situation isn’t unusual. From standing, frozen, in the middle of Central Park, feeling the sky above me spinning; to shutting myself in an airplane toilet, as I tried to subdue the panic overwhelming me. I’ve cried on the top of the French Alps, trembling from an unshakeable fear of avalanches; and I’ve gripped tablecloths in restaurants in Budapest, as a sickening feeling of doom has hit me. I’ve been to Paris and barely eaten for three days, sitting down at every opportunity to rest my shaking legs. I’ve lay in bed in the Maldives, unable to relax due to an irrational fear of a tsunami; imagining waking up to scenes of towering, deadly waves and screaming crowds. I’ve experienced paradise, whilst also experiencing real fear.
Anxiety, you see, doesn’t care if you’re taking a holiday. It’s not something you can leave at home; like your hairbrush or that second bottle of after-sun lotion. Anxiety wouldn’t want to miss out. With new countries, new towns and cities, and of course, air travel, comes a wealth of new dangers, threats and uncertainties. Anxiety is in its element.
Perhaps then, given my close relationship with anxiety, it’s strange that I decided to start a travel blog. As is obvious, travel isn’t something that comes that naturally to me. I excitedly book a trip, only to be stood over my suitcase the day before I travel, feeling sick and wondering what I’ve done. I’ve doubted myself on numerous occasions, worried that I am a fraud. How can I be a ‘real’ travel blogger, if it fills me with so much anxiety and unease? Maybe I should throw in the towel and blog about cats and recipes for cupcakes, instead?
Yet the answer is always, ‘no’. However bad I have felt, however anxious I have become, I’ve never let it stop me from travelling. I may be gritting my teeth, practicing my deep breathing exercises in a public toilet, or contemplating crawling through a crowded airport (it seems safer, somehow?), I will, nonetheless, always get on that plane and go.
Why? Because whilst travel can induce my anxiety, it is also its cure: the one thing that will most certainly quash it.
As anyone who has experienced anxiety will tell you (and that’s 1 in 4 of us Brits), it’s a liar. It’ll convince you that the world is out to get you and the safest place to be is in your house, or wherever is familiar. Your life shrinks and the walls close in. The result? You become more anxious, as the world outside becomes more threatening. You’ll become less confident in your ability to look after yourself (which, I promise, you can) and increasingly fearful. I understand this; I went though a stage of being unable to step inside John Lewis (for non-UK readers, this is a very lovely department store). It was simultaneously both ridiculous and terrifying. Yet the only solution was to tackle the fear head on. I visited every day for a week, walking around and around that store until my panic began to subside and I was no longer stood in the corner, gripping the hand of a mannequin (yes, that happened).
The idea behind my travels is much the same. If I feel scared of going away, the worst thing I can do is to listen to that feeling (it’s a liar, too). Instead, I’ll run madly, albeit a little nervously, towards it, waving my arms around and yelling. Yes, it might feel horrible at times (see above!) but that is one short moment, that will always pass. Keep running, through all the smoke and mirrors, and you’ll find yourself on the other side, realising there was nothing to be scared of. This has always been my experience of travel. Once I let my moment of anxiety pass, I realise that I’m not only fine, but in an incredible new country, with so much to enjoy and experience.
Another thing that has truly helped is my travel photography. Mindfulness is the buzzword within mental health at the moment. If you can stay mindful, you can stay sane, apparently. Whilst I’m not sure it is the cure-all formula that it’s been labelled as, it’s certainly important. Photography is my form of mindfulness. As I look through my viewfinder, taking in all the new sights and scenes in front of me, I’m completely absorbed. Thinking only of framing, exposure and focus, I completely forget to think about anxiety. I’m being mindful, people. And it works.
Over the years, I’ve got much better at managing my anxiety. Once an alien condition that seemed to hit me from nowhere, I understand it much more now for what it really is: a false alarm. Just like when you’re cooking a yummy meal in your kitchen and your fire alarm goes off – warning you of a raging fire that doesn’t exist – so it’s the same for anxiety. It’s just an alarm that’s being a little over-eager.
So, as I am walking through the streets of a new city and feel that little alarm bell begin to ring, I let it. It’ll soon quieten down and the smoke will clear. I promise there is nothing waiting for you on the other side and certainly no terrible fire. Travel has genuinely helped me with this realisation, forcing me out of my comfort zone and into new places and experiences that have proven I’m capable, confident and independent. In short, everything anxiety made me feel that I wasn’t.
If you do suffer from anxiety and feel that you can’t travel because of it, then don’t listen to it. You can. The more you prove to yourself that the world out there is a place that you can enjoy and engage with, the quieter your anxiety will become. And so what if you panic a little? I’ve told an air stewardess, very seriously, that the airplane needed to land so I could get off (over the Atlantic ocean) and I’ve walked through the bursting medinas of Morocco counting loudly up to 10 to calm myself down. Yet, who cares! Your panic will pass quickly and you’ll have only one option left: to enjoy yourself and explore the brilliant world around us.
So long, anxiety. You were a rubbish friend anyway.