Travelling with anxiety

Travelling can become difficult when you have anxiety.

Over packing. Under packing. Throwing caution to the wind (then chasing after the wind as if you’ve just thrown away your passport). Not being able to sleep the night before a flight. Constantly waking up and checking that you’ve got the essentials. Being worried about not having your normal support network. Wondering if you should just stay home. The highs of elation! The depths of depression. Not knowing where you’re going ends up being something that could potentially keep you in your room and away from exploration for a couple of days… and then a few days after that you think about all the time that you wasted. You can’t win!

Sometimes I can appear outwardly confident yet be inwardly terrified or incredibly upset. But I try not to let that show because… well, I don’t want to upset other people.

I’ll repeat it: travelling can become difficult when you have anxiety.

I am a fairly extroverted person. I enjoy meeting people, experiencing new things, challenging myself, and I relish human connection. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that I live with depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Funnily enough, these conditions aren’t just reserved for introverts. (Please sense the sarcasm there.) Sometimes I can appear outwardly confident yet be inwardly terrified or incredibly upset. But I try not to let that show because… well, I don’t want to upset other people.

When I booked my Peru & Bolivia trip, I knew that I was setting myself a huge challenge. While I was going on an organised tour, I was still going by myself. That meant no one knew who I was, no one knew my background, and no one knew I had problems with my mental health. I was excited for the tour because I was doing something adventurous and new, but I was also very scared.

It was challenging, to say the least. The Inca Trail is physically hard, but I found it even harder mentally. To be battling altitude sickness and trying to face an extreme physical challenge made me doubt my fitness and start bullying myself. ‘If I’d just done more exercise, I would be fine. But I didn’t. And now I’m struggling. Idiot.’ That bullying led to a downward spiral in mood – I wasn’t keeping up with the 20 year olds and beat myself up about it. I was suffering from altitude sickness so I beat myself up about it. I was tired so I beat myself up about it. You can see the pattern.

While I had some friends I’d made on the tour, it’s hard to open up about mental illness when there is so much stigma still around it. I had mentioned it, but unfortunately in such a physically demanding activity I kind of needed my support crew who know me inside out. I got through it, but accomplishing the Trail seemed less sweet by myself – especially when I saw best friends and couples celebrating the feat together.

Those who don’t suffer from depression and anxiety might not see the big deal – you’re probably thinking ‘Woooo – you did it! Just concentrate on that!’ Unfortunately, that’s not how it works when you have these mental conditions. Having a support network is really important when dealing with these conditions and travelling without that support network makes life infinitely harder.

Rowie standing at the top of Dead Woman's Pass, the hardest part of the Inca Trail
Standing at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail. I had spent most of that morning beating myself up for not being good enough. Image taken by one of our guides, Bruce, on my GoPro.

In fact, travelling still presents its challenges even when you do have that support network. Unfamiliar places and uncharted territories are stumbling blocks and things as simple as a bike ride around a small portion of the coast of Oahu, Hawai’i can leave a traveller (me) in tears. “Where are we going? Where are we? How are we going to get back? I can’t ride a bike on a motorway! How far are we even riding anyway?!” (This event actually took place. Poor babs had no idea what was going on.)

The main point I want to make is that it is better to be prepared for your anxiety and be able to deal with it than to not even give it any thought before going travelling. We’re all in this together – there will be people to support you. But you also need to remember that it’s okay. It’s okay to be anxious. The fact that you’ve decided to go travelling anyway is admirable. Take one day at a time; one breath at a time if needed. You’ll be okay.

Some tips

For those with anxiety: if you are not already familiar with breathing exercises, become very familiar with them before travelling. They will be your saviour. Consider making friends with people on tour, or in hostels. Chances are someone will have the same condition or they will know how to support you. Do not ever feel like you are a burden.

For those who do not have anxiety: if someone looks like they’re about to freak out, ask them if they’re okay. Listen to them if they want to talk. Let them know they’re not a burden and that it’s okay to be anxious when you’re in such unfamiliar territory. Smile.

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