How to deal with anxiety when you’re travelling
From someone who’s been there
by Harriet King
I first realised I had anxiety in February this year, while finishing up final year. Although I’ve always been an over-organised, stress-headed clean freak, I knew my behaviour was changing drastically. By April I had stopped attending all lectures and seminars, getting a bus was impossible, and I could no longer complete daily tasks such as going to the bank or taking a book out from the library. I knew I had two choices, to sit and wallow in self-pity and move back in with my mum and hope she would let me lay in bed all day in fear of leaving the house, or go out, earn some money and book a one-way travelling trip with two of my best friends. It goes without saying; the latter was the better option.
After booking India, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia, I confidently left Heathrow airport on November 1st, convinced I was able to deal with any anxiety attack coming my way, and 100 per cent positive I was in a better head space than ever. However, the problem is, dealing with anxiety in the comfort of your own country and dealing with it abroad are two very different things. Unfortunately, no one gave me the heads up, and it took having the worst panic attack of my entire life in a backstreet hotel in New Delhi one week later to realise I needed to do things a little differently.
As much as travelling really is character building, I wish someone – who has also travelled with severe anxiety – had sat me down beforehand and said “here’s what you need to do”. Now, six weeks later, after losing a lot of money through changing flights and moving hostels, and with thanks to my two friends, I’ve found my happy balance of seeing some of the most beautiful scenery Asia has to offer and coping with a mental illness.
Always book a hostel over a hotel
It may sound crazy but people often (and very frustratingly) associate anxiety with high maintenance individuals who can’t deal with the real world so need to be in a lavish, fancy hotel in order to feel ‘calm’ and ‘at peace.’ Of course, this isn’t the case at all. The truth is, I would rather stay at a small backpacker hostel over a hotel any day – and not just because of the price.
Hostels are small, friendly and welcoming. The staff at the front desk know of everyone who passes through the front door. You’re always near an exit where you can step out for some fresh air, and there’s always someone in the common rooms to chat to and distract yourself. I often found with hotels the staff are far less accommodating and happy to dump you on the top floor at the back of the hotel next to the boiler room (a very stressful combination for anxiety sufferers who quickly convince themselves they’re dying).
Check, check and double check reviews
The worst feeling in the world is to feel unsafe when all you need is a good night sleep. Always double check reviews of a hostel before staying there, to know what you’re getting yourself in for. If a “18-25/female/England” says the security was terrible and she felt very unsafe, then try somewhere else.
HostelWorld reviews are usually fairly accurate, and give a good indication of the atmosphere at a hostel. If it means staying out of the city centre in a quieter area, do it. You have to do what suits you, and where you know you’ll get a good night sleep, as there’s no worse combination than feeling anxious on a lack of sleep – as I quickly learnt after trying to function in Agra on five hours sleep during the course of three nights.
It’s not essential to drink and party like crazy
I’ve been travelling for six weeks now and I’ve been on a “heavy night out” once, for a few hours. Although not all forms of anxiety are made worse by alcohol, it is a very common occurrence. I’ll have the odd cocktail or glass of wine here and there, but believe it or not you can still have a fun night and meet people with a bottle of water to hand. People may think it’s a little strange at first, but again, you have to do what suits you and feel no pressure to live up to any “wild and crazy” backpacker expectations.
Having a hangover, in a hot country, on little sleep, can cause all sorts of panic attacks, and I quickly learnt it’s not worth forcing tequila shots down my throat to feel like a nervous wreck the next day. I’ve still seen and done as much as anyone else, and saved a hell of a lot of money through swapping the double vodka and coke for a bottle of water.
Stick to a routine and have a plan for everyday
It’s a known fact that anxiety is worse when people are placed out of their comfort zones and lack organisation or structure in their lives. While travelling, your plans will change all of the time, but there’s no reason you can’t get into a routine. No matter how tempting it is to have a lay in after a long flight, set your alarm for 8-9am, have a shower, some breakfast and be out and about doing things by 10am.
Write down a list of things you want to do during your time in a certain area or city, so you have plenty to do and see throughout the day. If you’re like me and don’t like ‘winging it,’ then visit a travel and tour shop on your first day and start booking day trips so you know exactly what you’re doing each day. Set one day a week as a “day-off” – head out to the cinema, or go for a massage, so you still have downtime to yourself.