I’d woken, early. Earlier than I needed to, but that wasn’t unusual for me. My brain is now hard wired to give me way more time than I need to get anywhere. I’m a chronically early person. Embarrassingly so. The person that has to walk around the block for an hour before job interviews or sit in a cafe wordlessly waiting for a friend.
I rolled over and tentatively placed my feet on the floor, drawing my body upright even though it was stiff. Stiff from sleep, but stiff too from a creeping sense of dread washing over me. I padded across the room quietly, blinking into the darkness and making my way downstairs. Coffee. Coffee would calm my frazzled nerves.
It never does.
It was 4am. Nothing good happens at 4am. I sat silently on my sofa, clutching at my coffee taking in deep lungfuls of dry air. Or trying to at least. The dread was coming faster now and I couldn’t get that air into my body quick enough. I placed my coffee down carefully, trying hard not to panic, to just let the rasping breaths happen, to let the tears roll down my cheek.
And the tears came. Faster now, pouring over my face and down my neck, disappearing into my dressing gown as quick as they’d left my eyes. I clutched my hands together tightly. I concentrated on the whitening of my knuckles, the sensation of holding on.
Eventually, it passed. My breathing returned to normal, the tears stopped falling and my hands unwound themselves from each other. It was just a Tuesday. A normal, cold and wet, Tuesday.
If you too suffer from anxiety, or a general panic disorder you’ll be well familiar with those feelings. Inexplicable fear that can grab you at any time of the day, at any place. I’ve had panic attacks since my second year at university, and I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. Perhaps my brain has been wired this way. Sometimes if I’m in situations of continued high stress it gets worse. Most of all it’s just something that happens.
But if it is just something that happens, that can strike at any time, how can I live my life in the way I’m desperate to? And most importantly, how can I manage my unknown fears when I’m so far from home?
One of my biggest passions in life is coming in to land in a new country or city and having a whole chunk of time dedicated to exploring somewhere new. The idea that the world at that moment is quite literally my oyster – that I can go to places and eat new things and stroll into the sunset on my own terms and in my own way. Soaking up the smell, watching the residents go about their lives while I slip unnoticed in between them.
But one of the biggest triggers of my feelings of anxiety is, ironically, being in new and unknown situations. Unless I travel to the same place, in the same way every trip I take, balancing travel and anxiety is something I have to live with. I sit on planes, fidgety with worry – about nothing in particular at all. I plan and then plan again every last second of our journey from landing to our accommodation so there are no surprises.
There are always surprises. I grip more tightly on public transport and try to hide my shallow breathing.
I have to draw in every bit of courage and strength I have to stride in to a restaurant or a shop and make an order in an unfamiliar language, and I’m sure I’ve missed out of seeing places on my travels because I’ve been afraid to take the first steps towards it.
But, I hide it all well. And I’m determined not to let anxiety overtake me.
Travel and anxiety do not make good bedfellows. They are incompatible. But so often I’ve found that going somewhere new has immeasurably improved my wellbeing. It’s a complicated mix of overthinking it all, a sense of panic piercing through at any moment and epic happiness wrapped into a package I can’t explain. But that’s me. And really that’s probably all of us – our thoughts and fears and emotions are not one dimensional.
But life has taught me that I can overcome anything I set my mind to. I travelled solo for the first time last year, despite my major reservations. I’ve ordered coffee in more countries than I can count on one hand. I’ve travelled with total strangers and not only survived but loved every second of it. And I overcame a specific fear of flying to take over 18 flights in the last two years.
Sometimes I might have to stop and take a breath. Sometimes I might have to wake up early and panic for no reason. But in the case of travel and anxiety I’m not going to let it stop me.
And neither should you.