Living with anxiety is a bit like walking a tightrope. Sure, that’s it: a tightrope; except the pit below the rope is filled with predators, both ends of the rope are on fire, and you’ve suddenly developed an inner-ear infection that is totally screwing with your balance. This analogy may seem overblown to some, but to the forty million adults living with anxiety disorders, it feels all too familiar.
Anxiety disorders affect nearly eighteen percent of the general population, and a large number of anxiety sufferers also experience some form of depression. This can be a devastating combination, with symptoms that include sleeplessness, panic attacks, and even some symptoms that may manifest as physical pain. Anxiety can cripple an individual’s motivation, challenge one’s confidence, and ultimately destroy one’s opportunity for social and professional successes.
I’ve lived with anxiety since I was a teenager. I am uncomfortable in crowds, I nearly hyperventilate in parking lots, I become nauseous in situations that require me to wait in lines, and I can’t stand to be in extremely close proximity to others. Many people in my life find these fears and triggers amusing, believing them to be irrational, but that doesn’t make my experience of the stress they cause me any less profound.
When you examine my list of fears above, it might strike you as odd that I write a travel blog. Each of my triggers is something that I most certainly encounter, usually in the extreme, while traveling. For years, I was crippled by my anxiety. My symptoms were so profound that I could not enter an occupied room without a friend or family member to accompany me. I struggled to maintain relationships with friends and colleagues, because I lacked the confidence to participate in any social circumstances. I didn’t leave my house, much less the country. Years of treatment coupled with the encouragement and support of my family have made my symptoms manageable, but I am anything but cured.
So, how did a perpetually anxious, socially awkward academic end up writing a travel blog? It was a tremendously important career opportunity that ultimately pushed me outside of my comfort zone, tested me with challenges I never thought I’d be able to conquer, and ultimately taught me that I while I may always live with anxiety, it does not define me, and I don’t have to suffer for it.
After sixteen years in the classroom, I was offered an opportunity to serve as a national consultant for an influential educational board. This position would require travel, but would also mean creating nationally recognized curriculum, facilitating professional development to colleagues all over the country, and establishing my credibility as a master teacher. I was more than honored to accept, but I’d have to learn to be comfortable traveling alone.
Examine My Triggers and Propose Strategies:
In order to determine how I might begin to work toward my goal of confident, independent travel, I first needed to decide what situations would likely cause me the most anxiety. I thought about instances wherein I had felt overly anxious or likely to panic. There was always the commonality of The Crowd. The Crowd was where I would start.
Parking Lots- I have extreme anxiety in crowded parking lots. This may seem silly, but I am constantly convinced I will be struck by an inattentive driver.
Strategies to help alleviate this problem include:
Booking a flight at an unpopular time to ensure a less crowded lot
Taking an Uber or Lyft to the airport (may cost less than parking)
Arranging for a friend or family member to drive
Lines- Even as a child, I had difficulty waiting in line. It isn’t about being impatient, but about the proximity of others to me, and the possibility that those others might “break the rules,” and “cut.”
Solutions to help alleviate this problem include:
Paying for pre-boarding (first on the plane, no line)
Getting TSA pre-approval and/or Global Entry (shorter lines)
Booking at less popular flight times
Personal Space- The paramount trigger for me, that will assuredly result in panic, is unwanted human contact. I experience this most often when I am forced into situations which require me to be seated or standing in a group. Commonly, group photos are challenging for me, and the administration at my school knows not to assign me to escort our graduating class to their tiny, tiny rows.
Solutions to help alleviate this problem include:
Paying for preferential seating (larger seats, special rows)
Always selecting an aisle seat, keeping one side open (this works for me in theaters, too)
Selecting emergency row or front row to secure most personal space
Once I had identified the source of most of my anxiety, the triggers associated with The Crowd, it wasn’t hard to plan an approach that would help me navigate the gauntlet of solo travel with more focus and confidence. Some of the strategies I proposed for myself involved shelling out a bit more money; some just meant putting in extra time to research traffic, trends, and patterns in travel schedules. As an habitual over-planner, the latter was a given for me. I was willing to do the former, if I had to.
My first solo trip was to Dallas. I had five weeks to plan, and I immediately went to work researching how to best implement my proposed stressor-alleviation strategies.
Plan the air travel-
Consider the Demands: My first step was to consider my professional obligation and determine what schedule would best suit my professional demands.
Take advantage of unpopular travel times: Once I had outlined a schedule that prioritized my professional demands, I examined it for flexibility to take advantage of less popular travel times. Did I mind a long flight time with a layover, if it meant having a row of seats to myself? Would it be convenient or advantageous to arrive at my destination early? Could I utilize downtime in an unfamiliar city for sightseeing, and catch an almost-empty red-eye home? Answering these questions would help me select the perfect flight times.
Prioritize- Having selected the perfect flight, I now had to decide whether to prioritize my comfort and well-being, or my wallet. Passengers on most airlines can pay for upgraded privileges, including select seats and pre-boarding. Paying for a premium seat and jumping the line would almost certainly secure me a spot that increased my chances of making it through the flight without a panic attack, but I hate spending money. On this trip, I decided to settle for a requested aisle seat on a flight that usually ranked at seventy-five percent full.
To the departure airport- For this trip, I decided to ask a family member who lived close to the airport if they’d mind dropping me off on their morning commute. I stayed with them the night before my flight and left my car in their very capable care for the duration of my trip. Had I not had the support of family, I’d have taken a Uber. The stress of the solo trip, coupled with Washington, DC rush hour traffic and an airport parking lot was a combination that I wasn’t yet bold enough to attempt.
From the airport to hotel (and back)- Admittedly, this was the scariest part for me. I knew I was going to be visiting an unfamiliar city, without any real knowledge of how to get around. My research suggested that the thriftiest, most convenient solution was Uber. It was time to try something new. For full disclosure, I’ve taken cabs my whole life. I’ve used, with much success, subways and metros, but it was this trip, in my thirty-sixth year of life, that I caught my first Uber. I was petrified. And then my Uber driver turned out to be from Mexico (my favorite place that I’ve visited). We talked through the whole ride from the airport and I hardly noticed that I was in the car with a stranger.
On the ground- Many thanks to Rober, my first Uber driver, for starting me off with an exceptionally pleasant ride-share experience. Had I had a difficult time with the transportation from the airport, I might have never trusted the safety or convenience of a ride-share service again. But Rober had been so kind and engaging that I felt confident I could utilize Uber to navigate the city. Thanks again, Rober, for liberating me from a week of room service.
Schedule- Evaluate for stressors (traffic, seasonal weather, leave room for delay)
Physical Environment- Secure the best appropriate option for seating; dress comfortably; pack accessibly
Cost- Analyze upgrade cost vs. benefit to my well-being
Setting out on this first solo journey in sixteen years, after more than a decade of crippling anxiety, was a huge step in my journey towards wellness. It was a transformative experience. I learned that while my fears are real, my triggers are navigable. I learned that I am capable and confident. I learned that my wellness should always have been my first priority; over convenience, over cost, over all. And I learned that no amount of planning will make my anxiety go away. I am not completely impervious to panic, but I am better armed with strategies to protect myself against it.
I don’t know if I would ever have pushed myself to learn to travel alone had I not been offered the professional opportunity. Truthfully, I’d likely still be avoiding even the most-informal of social invitations. Maybe I’d have progressed to dodging phone calls and texts. But I certainly wouldn’t have rediscovered my passion for travel.
You may experience your anxiety in a completely different manner than I do. Your triggers are almost certainly different than my own. But regardless of how your symptoms manifest I am confident that individuals like myself, living with the burden of mental illness, can utilize a step-by-step approach to identify their trigger situations, implement research to secure the best possible circumstances to avoid those triggers, and learn to prioritize themselves and the quality of life. You cannot control your anxiety, but it does not have to control you.
Living with anxiety is a bit like walking a tightrope. Except there are forty million of us, so none of us has to walk it alone.