Many report getting anxiety while flying or in dealing with the logistical aspects of travel. This piece encompasses that but also the wider breadth of anxiety experienced while traveling. Some of the worst anxiety I’ve ever experienced was while on the road. My first panic attack walloped me when I was 16 on a city bus in Munich after a 13 hour overnight flight. The terrible anxiety and sea sickness I experienced on a carnival cruise marked the beginning of my descent into the depression that nearly did me in. When I moved to New Orleans at 19, I was so wrought with overwhelming panic that I literally did not leave my room for a week.
Sometimes long car and train rides induce in me a sensation of utter peace and contentment. Sometimes they leave me shaking, restless, riddled with anxiety, typically followed by a severely depressed mood. When I went with my best friend to Mammoth Caves during the summer, I spent one of the afternoons shaking and sobbing in the bathroom for no discernible reason. On the car ride home, Linda politely pretended not to notice that as I was laying down in the passengers seat facing the window, I was trembling and crying halfway home.
So here we are. I unquestionably love and benefit from travel same as most. I’ve had some of my best times on trips far away from home. I adore sinking my heels into the soil of a place, getting to understand its history, its culture, its people, character, and art.
Traveling for me can often be both the best of and the worst of times.
I’m going to make some guesses off-the-cuff here about all this. And y’all let me know if you experience this too.
We have all been told to travel if we can to ‘expand our horizons’ and ‘broaden our perspectives,’ and with good reason. Travel is good for the brain. It shakes up our routines, our habits, and because we are situating ourself in an unfamiliar environment, the brain must take in everything with newness. With what the Buddhists refer to as a ‘don’t-know-mind,’ The brain looks for patterns and familiarity so it can gloss over information and work less and respond to less external stimulus. But when we are in a new environment, everything is new, everything is unknown, which is exciting and creatively stimulating. However, the familiar grooves we swim down in our minds are being challenged, we’re being challenged to not just examine and take in new surroundings, but ourselves in relation to them. When I experience anxiety and depression at home, even when it defeats me it does feel familiar. I can sort of wrap myself around the dimensions of the demon I am dealing with. I, albeit sadly, understand how it all fits into my life when I am sitting in my room.
When I experience my illness on the road, my mind is already in overdrive, trying to make sense of its environment, and the beast feels different. Horribly, terrifyingly different. I speak a lot in metaphor, but when it gets me on the road I do not live in metaphor. I think my anxiety is going to kill me. I think the tension pressing in on my brain is constricting my mind into oblivion. I think and feel and believe that the darkness engulfing me will never, ever release me. Truly, depression and anxiety while traveling feels like I am trapped within the muscled coils of a powerful boa constrictor— slowly wrapping and tightening itself around my poor, helpless body. I am left only to pant and weep and gasp desperately for my last few breaths while the mouth of the beast yawns and stretches open, patiently waiting for the perfect moment when I am but a noodle, to engulf and swallow me whole.
Shortly after my panic attack on that bus in Germany, I met two of my dearest friends, Linda and Jeff. On that trip I remember one of the few moments in which I was once, blissfully happy. While we all sat together on an evening dinner cruise in Naples–a soft breeze caressed my skin. The weather was beyond perfect. The lights of the city were glorious. The water glittered like the night sky. I was sitting with my friends. My friends! OMG I had friends!! Whom I already felt deeply close to over only two short weeks. They liked me and wanted me near them! I realized suddenly that I had not a worry in the world. That I wouldn’t change anything about this moment. I was at peace.
I remember thinking to myself, my already severely depressed self, “Oh my God! I’m happy! I’m actually happy! Oh my God!!” It felt like such a gift. I had to glance away for a moment to discretely wipe away a soft rim of tears of gratitude.
While traveling I’ve been privileged to see some staggering sights. To meet magnificent people. To stand under a waterfall in Cambodia, contemplate the remains of the Minotaurs maze in Crete, wander in wonder about the tight, magnificent streets of Santorini, revel in the vast austerity of the Badlands, dance in the streets of the French Quarter, explore caves in Kentucky, hike up a mountain in the Rockies… these experiences have contributed unimaginable richness and texture to my life. I would give them away for nothing. I have decided I would endure 100 panic attacks to see Santorini again, explore Tokyo, go on an Antarctica cruise, pray in Tibet, trek the jungle in Taman Negara, get lost in the chaos of Cairo.. walk the labyrinth of Chartres, smell the lavender in Croatia, check out that wild-ass salt mine in Transylvania thats been converted to a theme park…. I would do it all. Come hell or high water.
But it is hard to accept. It terrifies me beyond words to wonder what I’m potentially exposing myself to when I put myself out there in the world to experience new things and ‘broaden my horizons’. I’m only just beginning to understand that this mental expansion everyone refers to of your regular human experiences and emotions is in actuality, an internal expansion. It is an expansion of your regular human experiences and emotions as well as your knowledge of a place. You experience more awe, more wonder, and thus, often experience more creative insight. More openness and love as you search to connect to new places and people. You also experience more fear. More uncertainty, more potential unknown threats, more self consciousness. It is not worth staying hidden at home for, but the pain is meaty, and has left me permanently morphed as a result of all the times my mind has fired itself into overdrive in new places.
But think of this. In zen practice there is what is referred to as ‘don’t know mind’, and i’ve been trying to implement this at home. It’s a wonderfully deep and inspiring teaching, but for our purposes I’m going to limit it to the experience of anticipation of anxiety and depression. For a long time, simply sitting at my desk ruptured my mind into an anxiety attack. I avoided doing so for months. I still feel queasy writing this at my desk. This is hard for me. Just take my word for it.
But because we are creatures of habit, we begin to anticipate experiences like this in environments where those experiences have happened before. Before I knew it, the anticipation of sitting at my desk gave me anxiety because i was convinced that sitting at my desk would give me anxiety.
These days I ask myself—and if I didn’t, i wouldn’t be able to work up the nerve to sit here and try to start this damn blog that I don’t know if anybody is going to read or care about— “Do you know that, I mean, do you really, truly, 100% know that the act of sitting at your desk is going to give you an anxiety attack?” Typically, my monkey mind responds with, “Fucking duh. It’s happened nearly every time I’ve done it.”
Nearly every time. Even when we think we are certain–we are not certain. Embrace this uncertainty when you travel and have problems with panic and depression. Do you know that you will have an episode on your trip? Do you really, really know?? It may be probable, but is it written in stone? We may very well be 99% sure. But that 1% is where we have the space to grasp courage. And courage… is where our life begins outside of our illnesses, I believe. And if you take a step outside, or you walk into an elevator, or step onto an airplane, or travel across the globe, and the unthinkable happens… you will endure it, you still have that string of courage you grasped onto to step into this situation. And you know what? You have begun to change that probabilities of your certainty. Even if the panic keeps happening. Hang onto your don’t-know-mind. There is now 98% certainty of collapse. And there is a 2% window for courage. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Expand that window.
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