My first couple weeks in India, I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed, door locked. Sometimes I had power, sometimes the fan would slowly revolve to a stop and the heat of the day would wrap itself around me like a thick, stifling blanket. I slept a lot. Went out only long enough to get food. Ignored well-meaning people knocking on my door.
When I got to Peru, a similar thing happened.
The same thing happened when I lived in Washington.
It wasn’t the travel that assaulted me, though being in a new place, with strange customs and a painful distance from friends and family, did contribute to my feelings. What is unchanged in all of these scenarios is me. Sometimes, the only viable option is to stay in bed, shades drawn, quietly pretending like I don’t exist. Not even to myself. Because the reality of existence weighs too much, and I’m not always strong.
It reminds me of physical exercise, in a way. Some days I work out hard, really pushing myself, for a few days stretch. By day four or five my arms are shaking, my legs feel like bruised rubber, and the thought of a push-up is enough to start the waterworks. Emotions are like that, too. Carry around that heavy stuff for too long, and fatigue sets in.
Except, it’s harder to put down emotions than a free weight, and, when travelling, taking that day (or three) to sit in the dark and recharge doesn’t seem like an option. There are places to go! Food to eat! Adventures to be had!
All of which can be loosely translated as: If I’m not out there DOING, I’m wasting my time, wasting my opportunities.
It’s a hard balance to strike. I knew I didn’t want to go home and say, yeah, I spent all my time looking at the ceiling. However, I knew that pushing myself too hard would just whip around and smack me in the face. So I figured out some things that helped, even a little, and started from there. Maybe they can help you, too. Whether you’re darting around SE Asia, or studying at university, or moving through daily life in your hometown, taking care of yourself is always a priority.
The single most important factor in feeling okay with the world has been music. When I was in Rishikesh, I could not stand walking through the bustling streets with all the people and the noise and the vendors shouting at me. I told myself I had to do it that way, or else I wasn’t really experiencing the city. Which, I had a point, but it was making it so I didn’t go out at all. Then, I plugged in my headphones. Instantly, the world became a whole lot easier to tackle. Find something that feeds your positive emotions. As tempting as a good Bright Eyes marathon might be, see if you can resonate with an artist who sings about beauty, truth, and love. Not just heartache.
Yoga has served as a major sustaining practice in my life. Through a divorce, being fired for the first time, losing one of my cats, and on and on, yoga has been a place I can turn to when the noise of the world gets too loud. It is a home that I can take everywhere with me. Developing some kind of mindful movement practice can help you settle more deeply into your body, and in this present moment. I’ve found that when I am truly focused on right now, the fact that I am alive and breathing and in no imminent danger, helps to make those clamouring sirens of oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-this fade away a bit.
Asking For Help
I’ve never been great at making friends, and keeping them has been challenging, too. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself. My first night in Delhi, I had a meltdown. When I took to Facebook and posted a plea for help, I was surprised at the response I got. Not my boyfriend, not my family, not the friends I thought I’d grown close to before I left. Almost immediately I received a message from a guy I’d met at a festival, weeks earlier. He became my lifeline that night, and many more times in the following months. Reach out. Keep reaching out, especially when it hurts. Love comes from directions you may never expect.
Take excellent care of yourselves. Be kind. Be soft. Be love.
Anxiety is really hard to write about, as everyone has a different experience. It’s one of those things which can be so subtle that nobody notices until you’re completely overwhelmed, and is also something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their life. I’ve always been an anxious person. Some of my earliest memories I have are of a 3-5 year old me, worrying about something she said or did to upset someone, even if that person never noticed. When I look back at my life, my strongest memories are the fears, the worries, and existential crises which still keep me up at night if I let them. It’s strange then that now, I am capable of catching 9 hour flights and 16 hour bus journeys alone, with only my own mind for company, even if it’s still hard.
Sometimes my anxiety disappears. It will hide itself under the surface for weeks or months at a time, and slowly I begin to feel like a real person again. Other times, my anxiety is so bad it makes me throw up, scream at someone I love, or quite literally hide myself so no one can find me. A single word will reduce me to tears, or a bad attitude will leave me aggressive and looking for a fight. I remember in an old house I used to share with a friend and my boyfriend, there was a huge cupboard, quite capable of hiding a fully grown woman inside covered in coats. It became my refuge when things were too hard. Nobody knew. Sometimes you need to hide from the world, and that’s okay.
Often my friends ask me why I’m shaking. I do it a lot, so much that I usually don’t even notice. During a bad phase I will spend hours of the day quivering like a leaf, whilst on a good day it will only last maybe half an hour and then I’ll be fine. When it first started, maybe at age 14, I had no idea that it could be a symptom of anxiety and instead assumed I was chronically ill. Added to this, certain foods would make me feel so sick to my stomach that I could not keep them down. Many blood tests later, there is nothing wrong with me, at least physically.
When I started to travel, the anxiety was extreme. Although I would always be having a good time on the surface, underneath guilt, fear, and trepidation were bubbling away quietly, threatening to boil over and destroy the facade I had made for myself. Over time, it got easier. On my first real travelling experience, six months of backpacking and volunteering around Europe, I had my boyfriend with me, and he made everything okay. Although there would still be days where I found it impossible to get out of bed and face a constantly changing life, and I would still be a shaking mess whilst waiting at the airport or train station to move on somewhere new, having that support with me, constantly at my side, holding my hand and telling me -“Fuck it, you’re strong enough, you can do this” – made every day that much easier. We’re no longer together, but his voice of wisdom still lives on every day in my head.
Next, I worked in Rome, alone. Although that time realistically can only be described as the best and most rewarding time of my life, within 2 months of being there I had lost more than 30 lbs. 22lbs in a single month, the first month. I was scared every day. Alone every evening. Lost. Guilty about rewarding a body which my anxiety told me did not deserve the love and care it needed to survive. I worried everyone hated me, I worried that my relationship would fail, and I worried about what the hell I was doing there anyway.
I gave up. I came home. Abandoning what was suppose to be a year of work after only four months, terrified that if I stayed, I might actually die.
So trust me when I tell you this. Anxiety is the evil monster under the bed. Anxiety is the bad man walking towards you on a darkened street. Anxiety is with me, every single day, every single minute of my life, even now, and even tomorrow. And still I continue.
So how can you cope, when you feel like everything is falling to pieces before your eyes, and you’re a world away from everyone you love? I want to try help, I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still travelling.
Build a support network
One of my problems originally, was that when I left the country alone, I felt like that meant I had to be truly alone. I would put off calling my family for weeks, thinking that if I called, that meant admitting weakness. How silly does that sound? Now when I travel, I have my list of helpers who I know will always be there for me if I’m in trouble. Even if it’s just skyping your grandma to find out what’s going on in her life, having regular contact with the people back home helps you to stay grounded. Calling your best friend just to have a chat about some silly thing you did reminds you that people do love you, people do care. I’ve even found that staying in hostels or couchsurfing rather than hotels or Airbnb makes it easy, as you have automatic friends there who just want you to have a good time with them.
Take a moment
When we travel, we rush around the place, trying to cram in as many perfect memories as we can into one day. This is great, but it can leave you exhausted and craving peace and quiet. Just taking five minutes alone every morning can make that much difference. Some people call it meditation, but I just see it as grounding myself in my place in the world, acknowledging my own fears and desires, and slowly letting them go. Another way to look at this could be the opposite, essentially. One of the best tips I got from a therapist was to set out a certain time every day where I was allowed to worry and fret as much as I desire. The hard bit, if anxiety were to surface at another time, you have to write it down, remember it for your later worry session, then cast it from your mind. Harder than it sounds.
Make a list
First I have to admit something. I’m a huge fan of lists. On any given day I have several lists I work from, things I want to do, things I need to think about, things I want to stop and appreciate, or even things I just love so damn much. On a bad day my lists can be pretty negative, but on a good day they give me hope and inspire me to be the person I want to be. Having a list will let you get that little bit of routine back into your life, which although I claim to hate, I secretly crave.
Although travelling without a plan is great for some, I personally couldn’t do it. Finding accommodation for my trips is usually the first thing I do, because as well as giving you the best price at the cheapest hostels, it gives you a little sense of security that if all else fails, you’ll have a bed that night. I’ve met people before whilst travelling who never book a bed until they arrive in the town. I could never do that. I would be worrying constantly that I’d be spending yet another night sleeping in an airport. Before I travel I know where I’m staying, what the place is like, how I need to get there, what time the desk is open, and how much every step of the journey will cost me. If I don’t, I probably wouldn’t catch the flight.
Look after yourself
This is an easy one in theory, although a lot harder in practise. Healthy body, healthy mind, so the saying goes. I’ve found it to be true. Even if you can’t, eat well everyday. Even if you can’t, sleep well every night. Even if you can’t, wash everyday, even if it’s only with a wet wipe. If it makes you feel better, put on some make-up, dress up nice, or wear your impractical high heels for a historic town tour. Do what makes you feel most comfortable, nobody is judging you, and if they are, who needs them?
On the flip side, if you need a day in bed, take a day in bed. Don’t feel bad about it, you owe nothing to anyone. On my first day in New Orleans I didn’t get up until 5pm, and then parked myself on the sofa with an aspiring actor for five hours watching NCIS and drinking cheap champagne.
Suffering from anxiety makes everything in life harder. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the world at your own pace, seeking refuge when you need and excitement when you please.
If you’re struggling, there are a lot of resources you can make use of.