Posted Date: February 4, 2021
I have been a bit hesitant to write my story about traveling with anxiety. I still struggle with being vulnerable, and it’s hard sharing something so personal with people other than close family and friends.
But, anytime I talk about my struggles with anxiety, people seem to be grateful to know that someone else is going through the same thing. In an effort to normalize talking about anxiety, I want to share my own experience with it to raise awareness of the realities and the struggles of someone who has anxiety. I also feel like it’s important to share my story so that if you are experiencing what I went through, you can know that you are not alone.
I have had anxiety my entire life.
Growing up, I particularly had an irrational fear of natural disasters. I am from Utah, and there is always speculation about when the next “big one” will happen – meaning the next big earthquake. If it were to happen, it could be very destructive and cause a lot of damage and harm. I don’t know when I found out about this possibility of an earthquake, but the news of it stuck itself at the forefront of my subconscious thoughts during my entire childhood. I always wondered and worried when it would happen. I was constantly coming up with escape routes and thinking about how my family would drink water if the water lines were damaged.
Tsunamis are another fear, even today. I am always paying attention to the water to see if it gets pulled out to the ocean – a sign of a potential tsunami. You can always ask me what road is the tsunami escape route – I pay attention to these signs anytime we are near the water.
I also obsessively worried about safety in the house when I was younger. I had to double-check that all of the doors were locked before I could sleep. The toaster had to be unplugged in order to prevent a fire from potentially happening. The windows had to be locked so nobody could sneak in and kidnap me or my sisters.
Ever since I can remember, I have been a hypochondriac. One summer, when I was in Junior High School, I discovered WebMD. I had a few red spots show up overnight on my stomach and was convinced that it was some rare disease that would be the end of me. So I went to our family desktop computer and diagnosed myself with every potential disease or a rare form of cancer. Like most things, the spots went away and it ended up being nothing harmful. However, this was the beginning of my unhealthy relationship with WebMD – relying on it whenever I noticed any ache, bump, or “irregularity” on my body.
I thought everyone thought this way. I never questioned it and just went about my life while living with these constant fearful thoughts.
In my mid-20’s, I started to notice that my anxiety was no longer just a thought that made me feel nervous – it started to manifest itself physically.
The first time it occurred to me that I was struggling with anxiety was when I was driving to work (a stressful job), and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I started to sweat and panic and thought I was going to faint. Luckily, I made it to work, but it made me wonder why this was happening to me. Of course, I went to WebMD and learned that I was having a panic attack.
Another time, Colin and I were driving home to Utah after watching the solar eclipse in Idaho, and I had to pull over because I almost blacked out. It was the same thing – I couldn’t breathe, nor could I focus on the road. This moment really frightened me – what if I actually had blacked out on the road?
I decided to open up to Colin and tell him about what I was experiencing. We both decided that I should keep track of these panic attacks and if they kept happening I should look into getting some help.
Over time, I noticed these panic attacks happened mostly at work, driving, eating a meal, and at night when my mind is buzzing with thoughts. They started to happen more and more frequently – at least twice a month.
My mom and Colin encouraged me to go see a therapist but I wouldn’t. I’ve thought about it since then, and I think I didn’t want to see a therapist because I was embarrassed to admit that I was suffering from anxiety. I didn’t want to have anxiety. I wanted to be like “everyone else.” So I continued to deal with these random panic attacks like they were normal and went on with my life.
Traveling With Anxiety
Fast-forward to January 2019. Colin and I embarked on our year-long journey around the world and arrived at our first destination – Bangkok, Thailand. Going on this trip was a huge accomplishment for me, but I had also been feeling nervous about traveling for a year – mainly nervous about something terrible happening or getting a serious illness – the usual fearful thoughts I have when I’m feeling anxious.
We arrived at our Airbnb in the afternoon. This Airbnb was located on a small, dusty street far away from any of the main streets or attractions in Bangkok – I didn’t realize how inconvenient of a location it was when I booked it. Later that day, after a walk around the city, we asked a taxi driver to drive us back to our place, and he said he couldn’t because he didn’t know where it was. This sparked my first bout of anxiety. “Where were we staying? Is it a safe neighborhood? Are we far from hospitals? No one will know how to get to us.”
Looking back, the culture shock was definitely settling in at this point. But I was used to culture shock. By this point in my life, I had traveled solo and had been to 20+ countries. I knew that my anxiety would pass in a couple of days.
This time was different though. I was already feeling nervous. This was my first time in Southeast Asia. It was hot. People were everywhere, the streets were busy, and new smells bombarded me at every turn. I was exhausted from the flight. Everything was unfamiliar and I felt overwhelmed.
My fears started to dominate my thoughts, and I didn’t know how to stop them. What if I get food poisoning and have to go to the hospital and then it’s so bad that I die? What if I get a heat stroke because it is so hot outside? What are we doing? Traveling for a year without jobs? Am I ruining my career? What if something terrible happens like a natural disaster and we never see our families again? Is our Airbnb safe?
All of the thoughts came rushing into my head at once, and I had a panic attack our first night in Bangkok. It was the worst panic attack I had ever experienced up to that point in my life.
I started shaking. My mind was dizzy. I couldn’t breathe. I was sweating and dry heaving over the toilet. I thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die.
Neither of us really knew what was going on. I had never experienced a panic attack so all-encompassing. Colin did a bunch of research, and we came to the conclusion that I was indeed having a terrible panic attack.
Despite this knowledge, I was still convinced that I was dying and kept asking Colin if we needed to go to the hospital.
You have to understand, when you are feeling anxious or are in the middle of a panic attack, your mind thinks differently. You don’t think straight at all, and you become completely engulfed with fear. It’s easy to forget how to reason with yourself.
Eventually, after hours of Colin and my mom (via Facetime) helping me to control my breath, I calmed down around 3 am and went to bed.
The next morning, I was feeling good but also a bit shook by the events of the previous night. I decided to try to stay positive, and we went about our day like normal – almost as if the panic attack never happened.
I thought maybe this was like all of the times before – it happens and then goes away for a while.
I was wrong.
That evening the same thing happened – I had a huge panic attack and I was one click away from buying a ticket home. Thank goodness Colin was with me because he helped talk me through it.
After three long nights of anxiety, I finally mustered the courage to adventure out of my comfort zone and explore the city. On the fourth night, our friends flew into Bangkok and we had the next two weeks planned with them – and then the following two weeks with Colin’s brother. We met up with them and things went well for the next month.
I think the familiarity of friends and family helped to distract my mind from anxious thoughts during this time. I still had nights here and there where I couldn’t sleep because I was worried about something. Overall, though, I was able to thoroughly enjoy our time in Thailand.
Our month in Thailand came to an end, and we were off to our next destination – Laos. I was mentally preparing myself for culture shock, by this time I knew what to expect from a panic attack. Or at least I thought I knew.
A few days after arriving in Luang Prabang, we took a packed minibus to Vang Vieng, a small resort town about 5-hours away. To paint a picture, Vang Vieng is located in central Laos and is situated next to a river surrounded by jagged mountains jetting out from the flat, farmed land below. It is one of the most breathtaking places in the world.
Sadly, this is where my anxiety started to get really bad. I learned that there wasn’t a hospital in the town and being a hypochondriac, this was the worst news to me. What if something bad happens? How will I get help? What if my anxiety gets to the point where I need to go to the doctor? There will be no one here.
My mind was once again encompassed with complete and utter fear.
This was the catalyst to a 4-day, seemingly never-ending panic attack and the most horrible 4-days I’ve ever experienced in my life.
We left Vang Vieng early and went back to Luang Prabang thinking that would help – it didn’t. The rest of our time in Laos was spent in the hotel room while I tried to calm down, control my breathing, and pull myself together enough to go outside. I didn’t eat. I lost my voice. I had no energy to walk. I lost all sense of reason.
This was a stressful time for both Colin and me. Colin was so good at trying to help me. He was constantly doing research and helping me with breathwork exercises. I am forever grateful that he was there with me to help me through all of this.
Even with Colin’s help though, I still had panic attacks all day. One would end and another one would start an hour later. My anxiety had become debilitating.
Vietnam was the next country on our list. I thought it would be a fresh start, but as I’m sure you’ve guessed, it was the same story.
I went to a doctor in Hanoi, Vietnam on our first day there – he told me I needed to calm down and that I was suffering from insomnia. I knew that it was much more than that. I also knew that I needed to get help to get my mind back into a stable condition or else our entire year abroad would be a stressful experience for both of us.
So I bought a ticket home and left on our first day in Vietnam. I felt like a complete failure. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t handle even 6-weeks on the road full-time. I cried a lot and had a panic attack the entire flight home. I remember desperately asking the flight attendants if there was anything they could do to help me, and they didn’t know what to do. They were really kind and checked up on me the entire flight though. I felt defeated when I arrived home.
At home, I thought I would immediately go back to feeling like my usual self, but that wasn’t the case. I went to the doctor right away to get some help with my anxiety. My doctor prescribed me some medicine to help with my panic attacks, but she also took a blood test to make sure everything else was okay. I wanted to double-check that I didn’t get some weird parasite while in the Asian jungle (I’m a hypochondriac, remember?).
The blood test showed that everything was normal except that I had mono. Yay, mono and anxiety. Oh, and I had also lost a ton of weight and only weighed 98 pounds. I hadn’t even noticed the weight loss because I was completely lost in my mind.
Being at home wasn’t as easy I thought it would be. I didn’t sleep most nights and I had no appetite for the first couple of weeks. What a great combo considering my situation. I needed to get a lot of sleep to recover from mono and I wasn’t sleeping. I also needed to eat to gain weight and one of the side effects of mono is lack of appetite. It took me almost 2 hours to eat one meal for the first week or so. I never really slept well during my time at home, but I eventually got my appetite back and gained enough pounds to feel like I had enough energy to travel again.
Things Started To Look Up Again
After feeling helpless and hopeless for weeks, things finally started to look up again. I conquered my fear of being vulnerable and went to see a therapist. This was one of the best things I could have done. The therapist helped me to realize that what I was experiencing was culture shock over and over again, but also helped to surface a few other personal issues I was battling internally. I had feared opening up and being vulnerable for so long that I was holding in so much pain and fear.
After seeing the therapist, I felt okay opening up to other people about anxiety. I learned that anxiety is something I will deal with for the rest of my life and I no longer felt ashamed of it. I started talking to friends and family about it and realized that a lot of people suffer from the same fears that I do. I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
I made a conscious decision at this time to stop using WebMD, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited the site since then. It has helped immensely to improve my worries about health issues. Although, COVID has been a huge struggle for me. But that has nothing to do with WebMD!
I began meditating more regularly and creating a routine so that I knew what to do if I felt the possibility of a panic attack coming on. After 5 weeks of familiarity and comfort, I started to feel somewhat better. My mind was in a much calmer mental state and the mono still lingered, but I wasn’t as exhausted as I had been when I first returned home.
It’s important to note that my anxiety was not magically cured during these 5 weeks at home. I wish that were the case. I still struggle with it almost every single day, but it is not nearly as bad as it was at the beginning of 2019. I feel stronger and more confident mentally than I did then. I have also learned to practice coping mechanisms to help deal with it in a much more productive way.
Back on the Road
In March of 2019, after 5 weeks at home, I set off from Salt Lake City, Utah to Auckland, New Zealand where I met up with Colin again. He had been traveling around Thailand and Vietnam while I was at home, and we decided to “start over” in a place with a culture that was a little more familiar to help me ease into being on the road again.
I still felt nervous and had worries – this is something that I just had to deal with regularly. However, I also felt motivated to combat my anxiety and to get better. I was determined to never have to buy a ticket home again because of my fear and anxiety.
I decided that if I was faced with something that scared me, I was going to try it. That was the only way forward. I had to face my fears. Whether that was snorkeling in big waves or eating raw vegetables in Asia (from worry about food-borne illnesses) or visiting places that didn’t have the best healthcare system, I was going to do it. These all sound irrational and a bit silly now, but those were my worries and I was able to conquer them while traveling.
I didn’t experience a panic attack the rest of our trip. Not one. I had anxiety but nothing as bad as before.
It may not seem like it, but in the end, traveling the world truly helped me to improve my anxiety. I was able to face a lot of my fears head-on, and I came out stronger because of it. Nothing seems like it can be as bad as those 4-days in Laos when I had a never-ending panic attack. I feel like I can make it through anything after that.
Looking back, I wish I would have asked for help sooner. I would have gone to see a therapist before our trip because I would have been able to work through a lot of my fears instead of letting them build up inside of me over time. But, I didn’t, and that’s okay.
I used to tear up from talking about this experience because it brought back so much pain and grief from all of the darkness I felt during that time. But two years later, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that this is just part of my story, and I can now use my story to hopefully help other people with their anxiety.
When I first opened up about my experience of traveling with anxiety, I wrote ” I guess what I’ve learned is that life can get better – no matter what you’re going through.” Life can get better. Even if it may feel impossible right now. I am living proof that it can get better if you are willing to open up and work hard to improve your mental wellbeing.
Don’t let anxiety stop you from seeing the world. Traveling with anxiety may not be easy but it can be an incredible healing experience and opportunity to face your fears. I, for one, am grateful that I got back on the road and conquered mine.