The first country I ever visited that wasn’t in Europe, or with my parents was Tanzania in Eastern Africa. I went because it scared me, I was 18 and I had no idea what Africa would be like. It turned out to be an amazing experience but when I was on the plane, all I could feel waves of panic. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d eaten, drank and spent time with friends, desperately trying to distract myself from the intense fear I felt inside.
I cried for the first 2 days in Dar Es Salaam and had an intense nosebleed for 12 hours after my first bus journey on the third day. Unsurprisingly, I felt drained from homesickness, like I couldn’t cope in this country that felt so different from my own. Now, I know that nowhere is so different, but I didn’t know that then.
So I’m no self-help guru, but I felt the fear and I did it anyway, largely because I had no choice. I was part of a tour and I didn’t really know the people I was travelling with, but some of them were scared too and it brought us together. They were a distraction and I adapted, soon I was having too much fun to be scared and I even got myself a boyfriend. It was an incredible trip and I felt so in awe of the beauty around me, that I really fell in love with Tanzania.
After that, I went travelling solo and with my boyfriend around Europe and with my friend to South America. I wrote books about both these trips, but they weren’t easy. I have OCD that accompanies the anxiety, so I have visions of terrible things happening to me, and they feel so real that it’s hard to dismiss them.
There was a real fears that I’d lose an arm in South America, have a car crash in Brazil, be bitten by a monkey in South Asia, have an embolism in Nepal and get robbed in Nicaragua. Now, I don’t even like writing about these things, but they’re in the past so they can’t cause me issues in the present.
I’ve been travelling in my spare time for the past 14 years, but the anxiety hasn’t left me. Although I’ve learnt to accept it to some degree, it takes on different forms that creep up on me. I summited Everest Base Camp in 2018 and I was convinced that my body couldn’t do it. I thought I was weak and ill, I even had an EGC at my doctor’s surgery as I was getting chest pains before I left, but it was just the stress of work.
While trekking Base Camp, I had palpitations due to altitude, as well as fear, I thought my heart would give up, but it didn’t and neither did I. Completing the 14-day hike proved that my body was strong, I’d just transferred all the anxieties from my mind into it.
I don’t think there’s a magic cure for anxiety, you do have to be kind to it and yourself, but you can’t avoid it. I’ve tried avoided my fears but it only made them worse, so I faced them, and survived.
Trapped on a train
In the picture, I’m trapped in a top bunk of a train and it was awful, so I distracted myself by reading. Sometimes I watch things, like a lizard on the tree, children playing or people having a chat, and I wonder about them. It makes me aware of where I am, and that there is no inherent danger. It brings me out of my own mind.
My anxiety was so bad in the UK that I had treatment for CBT, and that helped me to deal with my anxious thoughts and I do recommend it. I’ve also read books about anxiety which also helped. I’ve talked to other people with anxiety, as it’s something that many people experience in different forms.
Anxiety is very human and it’s normal to feel anxious about things. There’s such a focus on achievement in modern society that it’s understandable to become anxious about where you are in life. When travelling, it’s easy to feel that you should do more, learn more and be more. But you don’t have to be, travelling is about doing as little or as much as you want to do. It’s difficult to avoid pressure from yourself but travelling can be relaxing and spiritual in many ways.
There’s no way to avoid stress but you can accept it, I’ve been on the road for 4 months now in Asia and my anxiety has reduced a lot. While the stress was intense at first, but I made sure to rest, read, watch programmes and eat well so I can deal with it.
The life-affirming nature of travel
Travel is so fulfilling that if you desire it, and are able then I recommend it. Despite the anxiety and the stress it brings, it still gets me misty-eyed. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn to put up with and how much you can grow. People always say travelling doesn’t make you a better person, and that’s true, but it will make you more resilient.
Resilience is the gift that every anxious person needs, and there are many roads to it, I think travel is one of them. My psychologist told me that I should always move towards my values and he’s right. Being resilient and moving towards the things you want, takes you away from the things you don’t need, like anxiety.
If you have any advice for travel anxiety and how you deal with it, then let me know in the comments below and I’ll include them (with permission) in my next article on mental health.