Welcome to the first of my ‘behind the scenes’ blogs – where you will see the raw stuff that goes on in the background when I am traveling – starting with explaining how I manage anxiety while I’m away.
I have always been quite open and honest with the world about my battle with anxiety, so it doesn’t surprise me when I get asked some questions about how it affects my travel plans (and it doesn’t offend me when people ask either, I would be curious too). So I’ll start by answering the most common question:
“How come you can go to the other side of the world, yet sometimes you can’t go out for dinner *or insert other ‘normal person’ activity* at home?”
This is the polite, generalised version.
I have had the occasional derogatory version which has upset me a little in the past, but I’ve learned over time that it’s important to let these comments go, because expending energy on them is a huge waste of time and only makes you more anxious. Let it go.
I have found that this is quite a difficult question to answer, because to be perfectly honest with you – I’m not actually sure! You’d be correct in saying that sometimes I can’t even manage to get out to the supermarket without it being a proper mission, so how on Earth did I manage to fly to the other side of the world and backpack for 4 weeks in Australia? Bearing in mind that I am an extremely nervous flyer (incident with a flight being hit by lightening around 10 years ago – a story for another day).
So the thing is, my anxiety is triggered by my Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Therefore, if I take care of my digestive system and my diet, I tend not to get many symptoms of IBS and in turn my anxiety is fairly settled, although this is not always the case. It starts with making sure that my nutrition is strictly regimented and planned in a way to settle my IBS before travel, which included eating bland food for 4 weeks prior to take-off. I’m always pretty careful with my nutrition, however I was meticulous with it prior to my departure for Australia in February – I had to be. I ate nothing that was a potential trigger food and ate a very boring diet leading up to The Big Day.
I’d like this blog to become a bit of a resource for those also living with anxiety who dream of travelling but can’t visualise ever being able to do it because of their condition. So I’m going to write down my top 5 tips for you that should help you start to plan your first trip:
- Be honest and open about your anxiety. This is huge for me, and something that I consider important for anybody who is considering travel (whether that be long haul or short, doesn’t matter). The people I told about my anxiety were:
- The airline and the cabin crew on my flights. They arranged bland meals for me suited to my dietary requirements and also checked in with me at regular intervals throughout the flight to make sure I was okay. On both of my outbound flights towards the end I had very small anxiety situations, so it was comforting to know that the cabin crew already knew about my condition. My anxiety used to embarrass me, but now I’m actually quite proud of it in a way so I have no qualms about telling people – even strangers.
- Friends that I was going to stay with while in Australia. I had to let the people that I was going to be living with know about my anxiety, so that they didn’t think I was being rude when I possibly turned down the opportunity to go out for a meal or out on an excursion for the day. I made it clear to them that I need to live on a day to day basis, planning my travels based on how I feel on that particular day, and that I need to have regular down time to recharge my batteries. I am very grateful to my friends for their understanding and empathy because I realise that I’m not a ‘normal’ guest, I mostly need to cook my own food to avoid the anxiety of not knowing if I may have an IBS reaction to something. Thanks for being awesome, guys!
- Myself. Yep, I had to be honest with myself and not force myself to be constantly on the go if I didn’t feel up to it. I used to beat myself up pretty badly if I had to cancel plans, but it only made my anxiety worse. Don’t fight it, roll with it and cut yourself some slack.
- Plan, plan, plan. If you’re anything like me, you will be less anxious if you plan ahead for pretty much everything – even if it’s just the night before. I flew from Manchester airport because I know it like the back of my hand – I know the procedures, the location of all the toilets, the cafes & restaurants and what I can get to eat while I’m there. I’m sure this sounds weird to the non-anxious person, but I’m sure my anxiety pals will understand where I’m coming from here. Here are some things that I plan both for the outbound and inbound journeys and also for excursions while I’m away:
- How to get there (usually I have a GPS)
- How to get back
- Does the place have toilets?
- Do the people I’m with know that I might need to leave at a moments notice?
- Where is a safe place I can go if I do happen to feel anxious? (For me, this is normally back to my car)
- Have your medication with you at all times and don’t be embarrassed about taking it. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? I hadn’t been on medication for my anxiety for almost 10 years until the end of last year when a turbulent relationship turned sour, admitting I needed help again was tough, but remembering to actually take the stuff while I was away was even tougher! Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for some ’emergency’ medication for while you’re away, it’s better to have it and not use it than to not have it and need it! I occasionally use beta-blockers to reduce the symptoms of an anxious episode (for me – nausea, sweating, shaking) and in the past have used muscle relaxant medications like Diazepam. Obviously I’m not prescribing these to you, but what I am saying is don’t be afraid to use them if you need them – you shouldn’t need to be embarrassed about it. If you had a sore head you’d take paracetamol – this is no different. I’m also a huge fan of Bach’s Rescue Remedy spray – which is handbag size and easily transportable (just don’t forget to put it in a wee plastic bag through security!). I have found that having a wee mini toilet bag with a strip of each medication I may need in my day bag at all times actually helps reduce my anxiety in the first place – I rarely need to use it. My wee bag contains Imodium, Buscopan, Propranolol (beta-blockers) and rescue remedy.
- Download a mindfulness or breathing app to your phone. I found this hugely useful, especially when on the plane. I use a guided breathing exercise for landing when I need to (as this is when I generally freak out on flights). I think I used it for a full 40 minutes whilst landing in Sydney! It helps to take your mind off the situation and really works.
- Cut yourself some slack… Yep – you’re a warrior, but sometimes you’re gonna have to take that cape off and give yourself a break. If you are traveling for quite a number of weeks or months at a time, make sure you plan in some down time. I found that I needed at least half a day (if not a full one) around every 4-5 days to recharge my batteries so that I would be ready for all the adventures that lay ahead. On these days I read my book in the sun, cooked and ate nice foods in a relaxing environment, took naps, went to the beach for a long walk and just chilled the fuck out. So whilst you are planning your itinerary, make sure you plan in 1 day every 4-5 days where you are doing very little, you’ll thank me for this I promise.
So there we have it – my 5 tips for the anxious traveler. Traveling with anxiety can be exhausting at times, but I have found that once you settle into the routine of the country you are visiting, you may be surprised that your anxiety is better or almost disappears. Relaxing away from every day life is important, and what better way to do this than to plan a trip of a lifetime? There were days where I felt pretty crappy, but they were few and far between – luckily, I barely gave it a second thought for most of my trip, because I had put plans into place to ease my mind.
I have routines and things that I do nowadays that I don’t even realise I’m doing anymore!
If you are reading this and don’t have anxiety, I hope it has helped you to understand the condition a little bit more – you never know when you might need to accompany an anxious friend or family member on a holiday or excursion. You’ll be well prepared for being supportive.
If you are reading this and do have anxiety, please reach out to me if you feel I could help you in any way – if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s dealing with anxiety whilst traveling. I ain’t gonna let it stop me from following my dreams…
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