Dear Brain: Anxiety Won’t Stop You From Traveling

Travel Anxiety

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Dear Brain,

You’re only trying to protect me. You sense danger, and then trigger physical and emotional symptoms to stop misfortune. Staying in a happy, warm, safe cocoon at home would relax you. All those chemicals – which make my stomach knotty and my palms sweaty – would vanish if I played the game of life abiding your cautious rules.

Your warnings happen at least once a day.

This swollen lymph node means cancer. Go to the doctor.

Don’t drive into Philadelphia. Definitely don’t take a road trip across the United States. Construction or floods will detour you through an unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhood, or some lunatic will slam into the side of your car. Then you’d have to pay for damages because what if said-lunatic has no insurance?

Don’t eat this spinach. It expired two days ago. What if you get salmonella? Maybe this hummus is okay, but do you remember how long ago you bought it?  Hmm.

Rachel, don’t board this plane. You’ll hit lots of bumps. You’re trapped in a tube. I know it’s impossible for the exit door to open mid-flight but what if science is wrong? Oh, and you’re 30,000 feet above a massive ocean. You’re gonna crash. You’re definitely gonna crash. You don’t know the pilot. 

Jeez, Brain, I understand your instincts are meant to protect me. It’s biological for all of us, I suppose, or maybe I inherited a wonky gene from my family. I’m still not entirely sure of the cause.

But I’m sorry. Anxiety won’t stop me from traveling.

Anxiety Brain
Is that a cliff? Am I gonna fall? [Aran Islands, Ireland]
Brain, I hate to tell you this, but you need to accept that not having control is an essential part of the human experience. Ouch. Truth hurts, doesn’t it?

Sure, I may fall ill if I eat yogurt on my camping trip, but I’m hungry and love yogurt. Why take all these preventive measures on a food borne illness that probably won’t even happen? And if I do spend a day or two throwing up, so what? I’m not gonna die. Many travelers get sick, recover, and move on. Brain, you’ve never been too good at predicting the future, anyway. Apparently, my doctor still hasn’t discovered all those rare cancers you’re convinced run rampant through my body.

Oh, and I know you especially hate flying. Nothing forces you to relinquish control like an anonymous figure, piloting an enclosed tube thousands of feet in the air, does. Well, my fearful flying tips will have to reassure you, because as much as you want to protect me, I’m fighting back now.

Travel shuts you up for five minutes. In a new place, you’re forced to face the present rather than contemplate fictional possibilities lingering in a near fictional future. You need energy to combat jetlag and navigate public transportation so we can find our hostel. Otherwise? We’d have nowhere to sleep. You need to eat that crazy-looking meat sandwich in the local market, because the alternative means munching on stale granola bars. You need to whitewater raft through that wild river or gaze off that cliff edge to see puffins, because we’ve already spent thousands of dollars to seize those moments, and a refund is out of the question.

So, Brain, I can cope with your warning signals. But expect my curiosity and wanderlust to hit back 100 times stronger.


The Blond Wayfarer

I’m smiling because I do what I love on my own terms [Brussels, Belgium].

Tips For Anxious Travelers

  • If you suffer from anxiety and think you cannot possibly travel, either solo or with someone else, I politely ask you to reconsider your choice. My friends and family think I’m a fearless gal who doesn’t bat an eyelash in a foreign place. Yet I’ve almost cancelled upcoming trips more than once due to anxiety’s tall tales. Hell, I nearly left my Paris bound plane because of a mechanical problem on board. I force myself to ignore those nagging thoughts and explore, explore, explore.
  • Baby steps. If you have a severe anxiety disorder, hopping on a flight from New York City to Melbourne with a long layover in San Francisco may not be an awesome idea. Travel locally. Your confidence will improve with each trip. Yes, I can venture to Europe solo from North America, but I don’t except everyone to be able to do so. Every accomplishment is an amazing step in a better direction.
  • Use distractions. It was a gorgeous sunny day in Vancouver and as I sunbathed in Stanley Park, I noticed a fatty lump on my calf. Immediately, I wanted to google the symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma (don’t look it up); however, rather than let my brain ruin my day, I immediately gathered my stuff and explored the seawall for two hours. Keep yourself distracted. The busier you are, the less time your brain has to create absolute nonsense scenarios.
  • Talk to your doctor. My family doctor and I have discussed anxiety and travel. He’s been a wonderful resource for me. I understand most people would rather not talk about mental illness. However, nothing good can come from being secretive around your doctor. In particular, my doctor’s appointments have improved my flying phobia.
  • Tough love. I have to repeat a variation of the following phrase to myself: Buck up. Everyone dies. You better die doing something you love rather than the ceiling caving in your bedroom. Bad stuff happens in the comfort of your own home. I don’t wanna live so cautiously that I waste precious time never enjoying the vibrancy our planet offers us.
  • Remember: Travel forces you to face fears. For me, roaming new countries has encouraged me to finally look behind the curtain and see anxiety in its realness: an annoying little mosquito that likes to pretend its a great white shark.

2 thoughts on “Dear Brain: Anxiety Won’t Stop You From Traveling

  1. Megan Funck says:

    Dude, I could have written the same thing!! I have really bad anxiety sometimes. Also am hypochondriac. I’m getting ready for my first solo travels in a couple weeks to the Philippines, and I’m pretty freaked out about it. But- my desire to travel outweighs my fears. I also have fears of just staying home out of fear and not doing what I want in life. So, im going to go for it!!!

    • Rachel Elizabeth says:

      Being a hypochondriac sucks! People joke about it, but having a “health anxiety” moment isn’t fun. At all.

      I am SO glad you’re heading to the Philippines and refusing to let your anxiety define you! I definitely wanna read all about your trip. Wishing you a lot of luck and happy travels!

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