Trigger Warning: This is an honest and unbridled post about my experience with mental health disorders and anxiety. Please do not read this if you feel uncomfortable or as though it may trigger you.
A uni housemate once described me as “the most anxious person I know”, and I wasn’t surprised to hear her say that. Since childhood I’ve always been the quiet, anxious and shy child that sat in the corner of the classroom, afraid to put her hand up and wouldn’t ask the other children to play with her. I was forced into activities and presentations that made my heart palpitate and my eyes water. Sometimes I couldn’t even breathe. Fast forward to age 21, and I’m still that quiet, shy, anxious girl that doesn’t like being forced to speak and only bares her soul to other kindred spirits.
It’s not uncommon for young people to be burdened with the heavy weight of anxiety. You’ve probably seen that statistic that says many US-based high school students have the same levels of anxiety that people were hospitalised for in the 1950s – I’m not surprised. We’re all under so much pressure to be better than ever. We have to achieve more than we ever thought we could in less time than we imagined we’d have and reach ridiculously high standards. It’s an impossible task.
Anxiety can manifest itself in different ways. I’m not the kind of sufferer that has raging panic attacks and crying fits; my symptoms are so specific and silent that for years I didn’t even realise they were symptoms and I thought I was making it all up. I didn’t realise I had severe anxiety when I would excuse myself from class and run into the bathroom unable to breathe, or when I would become paralysed with fear whenever I was forced into public speaking. It could be 10 people, it could be 110: I would still feel that same petrifying paralysis spread through my bones, choking my voice box and flitting through my fuzzy head.
The shock that spread across the faces of people when I told them I was going travelling alone last year did not surprise me. When I told my housemates that I was going to the USA for a month by myself and would be doing most of it in a group of people I had never met before, they told me that I was brave. I was brave. I made myself be brave. I never thought that I would be travelling alone (mainly because while growing up I always presumed that by the time I was 20 I would find my tribe – I was wrong about that), and I never thought that I would actually survive the journey and come out the other side feeling braver, stronger and more at peace with my anxiety.
I surprised myself.
I never dreamed that I would one day take myself off to America and do two solo city breaks either side of a three week trek with 13 people I’d never met before. It was scary. The morning that I left I cried to my mum. I cried in the airport. I cried four times on the flight. It was scary; I was terrified of something happening to me and having no one in the whole country even notice I was gone. My weekend in New York was amazing but nerve-wracking. I cried in the street. I cried on FaceTime to my parents. I cried on the beach at Coney Island. I forgot to eat for four days. I was so anxious and nervous that I spent a lot of time wrapped up in those emotions but I managed to battle through.
To help any of you that suffer with the same issues that I do, here are a few tips that I find helpful when I travel by myself. You can get through it. You are brave.
Plan & Prepare
Get yourself sorted before you go by researching and planning your trip. Find out the main attractions, tourist spots and must-dos, and make a list of everything you want to visit/see/eat/drink/watch/do during your time. Then make a simple plan of what you want to do on what day. Calculate your time and figure out how best to maximise it.
My plan for NYC was: Saturday – walking tour to LES, Battery Park, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown + a gig ; Sunday – Central Park, Natural History Museum, 5th Avenue, Times Square + movie; Monday – Coney Island + Washington Sq Park area; Tuesday – Central Park, The Met, travel to New Jersey. Sorted.
I obviously had time for any extra things I found or thought of while I was there, but having a rough itinerary for every single day made sure that I always had something to get up and do every morning, and didn’t leave me wandering around panicking.
Having an escape plan for situations where you feel you are about to have a panic attack or
Develop Coping Mechanisms
When you’re travelling, you need to keep in mind the coping mechanisms that you use when you’re at home to keep your anxiety from becoming overwhelming. Writing, reading, drawing, listening to music, watching Netflix and having a nap are all equally valid ways of bringing yourself back to your core. Whatever is it that keeps you grounded and in control of your anxiety, make sure you use it while you’re travelling, so you can enjoy yourself to the max.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt from Parks & Rec, it’s that it’s always time to #treatyoself. When you’re feeling down and anxious and worried, sometimes the only way to stop those feelings for a while is to treat yourself and do something just for you. See a good movie, have an outrageous and delicious dinner, buy yourself a present or just have that nap you’ve been wanting to take for the past three days. You’ve got to look after yourself, and that means giving yourself the things you really need. Sometimes that thing is a new lipstick form a brand you can’t get in your country or a trip to a nearby tropical island.
There’s nothing worse than wasting your time curled up in a hostel bed when you know that you could be out exploring the world. If you find yourself feeling trapped and anxious and unsure of what to do, get out your plan and just pick a thing that you had wanted to do before you came. Then do the thing. You’ll feel so much better for having gone out there and done something that your anxiety will retreat into the back of your mind.
Know You Can Always Change Your Mind
If travelling alone really gets too much, you can always change your mind and go home. No one will blame you, be angry at you and say you didn’t “travel right”. Well, some might, but they aren’t the people you want to be around. You need to be honest with yourself when you’re out there. If you aren’t having a good time, don’t try and pretend you are, because that just makes it even worse. When you start to feel down and anxious, think about the good things that have happened while you’re been there; if these things don’t make you feel that this journey is worth it, and it will cause you more pain and anxiety that it’s worth, then you should seriously think about dropping it for now. You can always go back.