100 Words: Travel and anxiety

In the seventh grade, I went to spend the night at my friend Robin’s house. I’d been to Robin’s lots of times. I liked her kooky down-to-earth family, her mom’s crazy red hair. It was the first house I was in that had that little embroidered adage on the wall “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.”

Just before dinner we were in the family room and the feeling began to well up in me. I can only explain at the time there was something wrong with the light in the den. It made me uneasy. I have to go home. I have to go home right now. Now. NOW. I’d never been homesick before but it didn’t make sense – seventh grade, you’re kind of over that right? Or at least you’d know you’re the homesick type. I told Robin’s mom I felt sick and my dad came to pick me up. My parents chalked it up to homesickness but that just didn’t feel right.

I’ve always been an anxious person. A worrier. Intense. But wasn’t until years later that I figured it out after reading and putting the pieces together. Panic attacks. Anxiety. The completely illogical and overwhelming onslaught of fear with no discernable source. For me, panic attacks look like homesickness or even just whininess in the morning. I cry. I can’t tell you what’s wrong but something is defnitely WRONG. I can tell you all the times it’s happened. Junior year on vacation with my best friend’s family when I hid in the basement every morning and bawled. The first two weeks of college. The first week of my trip to England.

If you don’t have panic attacks you cannot possibly imagine what it’s like. It looks different for everyone. I know a guy who will plan trips, need to travel for work, get to the airport and turn around at the gate. I know a woman who says time speeds up for her during her anxiety. I can’t tell you why it happens to me, but I can tell you what helps me get through it.

It’s always connected to travel.  If you know me, you might be surprised because I travel like someone who doesn’t have this problem.  Or you might remember that time I was so upset and you thought I was homesick, or crazy, or tired. Or all three.

In grad school, I went to see a counselor about it. “I have panic attacks when I travel. I’m going to India in four months and I don’t want this to happen.”

“Well, there are some really good medications available right now, ” she said.

That was the last time I saw her. Don’t misunderstand – I believe in better living through chemicals. But I wanted to do this myself.

So I flew to the other side of the world by myself to my friend’s wedding.  

Nothing happened. Except that I got to go to India and see my friend get married.

I read up on it. Without getting too technicaly, you can actually short circuit your body’s panic response. I was on the plane on the way to Amsterdam, waiting for it. “Where is the panic? Where is the crying?” I thought. It never came. Zap. No panic.

I still get anxious. Husband understands when I say, “I feel out of sorts.” But I have not had one of the ferocious exhausting attacks like those first ones in a long while. During one of the worst panic attacks, I was in a hostel in Scotland. Unable to sleep, anxiety wrapped around me, I sat in the lobby and read the books other travelers had left behind. “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” one title said. That’s what I do. I know this happens. I know how to deal with it. And it’s not going to stop me from going to British Columbia next week, or to Italy some day when I can afford it.



    • You’ll find something to help you. You’ll find a book or a technique and you’ll be fine. The advice I’d offer, even though you didn’t ask, is to try your best not to let the anxiety stop you from doing stuff. I have definitely let it do that, especially in situations before I really understood it, and it’s disappointing later to know I missed out. Good thoughts for you from me.

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