My 13th birthday party was the day I had my first ever panic attack.
Maybe trying to have a party on this particular birthday was wishful thinking in the first place. After all, it had only been 20 days since my mom had passed away–a topic I’ve never before addressed on this blog, but one that has played a huge role in the story of my lifetime. Then again, it was sort of a relief to have some sort of normalcy back in my life at that point in time.
Except, of course, I didn’t feel normal at all.
After going out for dinner at Rainforest Cafe with a group of my closest friends (after all, we had to celebrate the big “one-three” in style; I was the first in my group of friends to become a teenager) we all went back to my house for a sleepover.
As we were preparing to go to sleep, I felt it: a sudden stabbing ache in my chest, right above my heart. It crept into my left shoulder and shot down my arm, towards my elbow. Every breath felt like a knife through my ribs, and the pain in my chest was so intense I couldn’t even stand up straight. My head was swimming, I felt dizzy and off-balance, my fingers were numb and shaking, and even though I was taking huge gulps of air, I felt so hopelessly out of breath.
I wasn’t getting enough air. Something was wrong. In that moment, I knew I was dying. I knew that I wouldn’t make it through the night; would I even make it through the hour? I literally felt a shadow and a darkness creeping over me from all around as I struggled to breathe and force oxygen to flow through my body.
I woke up my dad and he rushed me to the emergency room, where they did a series of tests that we both struggled to understand at the time: my blood oxygen levels were 98%–well within the normal range–and my heart was completely healthy and normal.
There was nothing wrong with me at all.
“It sounds like you had an anxiety attack,” they said.
Anxiety? What?! Just hours earlier, I was so dizzy that I couldn’t even walk down the hallway to wake my dad without holding onto the walls for stability! My chest hurt every time I inhaled! I couldn’t breathe!
Were they telling me I imagined all of that? That I made it happen to myself? I didn’t buy it, but what could I do?
“Maybe it was just a one-time thing,” I thought. “Who knows what caused it, but maybe I really am fine, and maybe it won’t happen again.”
But it did happen again. My next panic attack was just a few weeks after that first one, and the third a week or two after that. Over the next four years, I struggled with semi-regular panic attacks and anxiety. I ended up in the hospital once more for severe chest pain when I was 17, and again they told me there was no physical cause.
As thankful as I am to have my physical health, I will say that being told that there’s no solution for symptoms that you’re physically experiencing (because they’re created by your mind) feels so incredibly frustrating, scary, and alienating.
Thankfully, through years of journaling, learning to talk about my inner struggles with my friends and family, occasional chats with therapists and doctors, and possibly a stroke of luck, my regular bouts with anxiety magically subsided by the time I entered college when I was 18.
I’m happy to say that I can count the number of panic attacks I’ve had in the last six years on less than 10 fingers, which is really saying something for someone who used to have them multiple times per month. Compared to the way things used to be, I honestly feel like my battle with anxiety has been won.
Then again, there’s one thing that ALWAYS causes my anxiety to flare up: travel.
Confession time: I experience anxiety every. single. time. that I travel.
I know, I know–pretty ironic for someone who runs a travel blog, right? But for someone who’s normally fairly rational and likes to go with the flow, travel can bring up those same near-death/end-of-the-world feelings:
- What if the plane crashes?
- What if there’s a terror attack?
- What if I get kidnapped?
- What if I get sick?
- What if I’m robbed, attacked, or assaulted?
- What if I get lost?
- What if I simply get scared or lonely?
- What if I regret going, or I want to go home early?
I can’t even count the number of emails and messages I’ve received from friends and readers expressing that they have these same types of concerns. In fact, I struggle to respond every time I receive a message along the lines of “I’d love to travel alone like you, but I’m really nervous. Do you have any tips?”
Because honestly, I don’t.
As someone who also gets nervous before traveling, I know that it doesn’t matter whether or not I remind you that you have a staggeringly low risk of being involved in a fatal plane crash or terrorist attack. Reason and rational reminders just don’t matter to someone who’s caught up in a cycle of fearful thinking.
My only advice is this: If you want to travel but your anxiety or fear is holding you back, just go anyways.
Groundbreaking, right? The truth is, travel is such an incredible teacher. It teaches you that (for the most part) the world isn’t as scary or dangerous as you might assume. It also teaches you how to travel more safely and to be more street-smart.
In my opinion, the only way to stop being afraid of traveling to a new place is to just go and see for yourself what it’s like. It’s totally normal and acceptable to be afraid. In fact, it helps you to be alert and not make stupid mistakes.
I can’t say that my travels have all been smooth sailing. I’ve taken unnecessary risks while traveling and touched the metaphorical stove, and I’ve gotten burned by it. But you’d better believe I’ll never touch that stove again!
- I was terrified out of my mind when I landed alone at the airport in Nicaragua at midnight. And I don’t think I was being unreasonable – after that trip, I vowed to never arrive at an unfamiliar airport after dark again, because I just don’t think it’s a smart idea.
- I suffered from a lot of anxiety before traveling to Mexico, too. In that case, those fears pretty much dissipated as soon as I arrived to my first hotel, and I had an amazing and positive experience.
- And in an unexpected twist, when I spent two months scuba diving in Honduras and being relentlessly attacked by mosquitoes, I didn’t think of the bugs as anything but an annoyance. Well, guess who ended up with dengue fever because she didn’t apply enough repellent?! Perhaps if I had been more afraid of mosquito-borne illnesses, I would have been more vigilant about protecting myself and could have spared myself the agony.
The point is, I’ve learned from ALL of my travel experiences. Whether it was learning that my fears were over-inflated or learning new ways to protect myself, I’m thankful for all that these experiences have taught me.
Travel has boosted my confidence, self-esteem, courage, and optimism.
I truly believe in the power of positive thought, and in the idea that the way a person thinks and speaks about themselves can shape and change their self-image over time.
If you say to yourself or to other people, “I can’t travel. I’m afraid of everything. I’m not brave/good/lucky/outgoing/etc. enough,” you will eventually become trapped in that cycle of thinking. And the only way to change that cycle is by changing how you think and speak about yourself.
Even if you don’t feel brave, tell yourself that you are. Act like you are.
When I went on my first solo trip abroad (to Germany), I didn’t feel brave. I felt scared, lonely, and anxious. I felt excited and hopeful too, but there was definitely a moment after that plane took off that I thought to myself, “Well, there’s no turning around now…did I just make a huge mistake?”
But I went anyways. And you know what? To this day, that trip is one of my all-time favorites.
After all, that’s the trip where I first experienced the rush of freedom that goes hand-in-hand with solo travel. That’s the trip where I first realized, “Hey, I really do have what it takes to travel on my own.”
With each trip I’ve taken, my self-confidence and belief in my ability to travel alone has grown, and at this point in time I do believe that I’m brave, strong, and capable of traveling alone.
Mindfulness can make all the difference.
There’s no shortage of advice out there on the internet when it comes to dealing with anxiety and panic attacks: medication, therapy, relaxation techniques, breathing techniques…I won’t bore you with the full list.
Of all of these possible options, I’ve found one solution that continues to work for me time and time again: mindfulness.
According to one source, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
In short, mindfulness is all about taking a step back and living in the present moment.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness more and more over the past several months, and I’m honestly floored by how much more carefree, optimistic, and tuned-in to my surroundings I feel because of it.
The best part? Practicing mindfulness is actually pretty easy.
My favorite mindfulness technique is to focus all of my thoughts on observing and experiencing a given object. This is something you can do anywhere, anytime!
For instance, I have a ring that I wear everyday on my right hand, that has 6 small pearls on it. When I’m feeling anxious or experiencing another negative emotion, I’ll slip off my ring and use both my hands to observe all of the ring’s little details. I’ll feel the smooth, thin golden ring, the space between the pearls, the gaps in the underside of the setting.
The key is to focus all your energy on feeling and understanding the object without judging it. You can do this with literally any object: your car’s steering wheel, a bottle of shampoo in the shower, your iPhone, etc. This tricks your mind into re-focusing itself on the present moment, instead of on the past or the future.
Often when I’m doing this, I’ll remind myself of where I am and what’s happening right now. I use this technique both when I’m at home and when I’m abroad, and it always brings me back to the present moment, and helps ease my tension and re-focus my energy.
More tips for relieving travel anxiety:
Do your research and make a plan. There’s nothing wrong with being prepared, and it can help you feel like you’re in control of the situation. Before your next trip, research and map out tricky bits like how to get from the airport to your hotel, and how much the fare should be. Keep a list of your hotel addresses (in the local language) on your phone, so you can help taxi drivers find your accommodation without worrying about the language barrier. Keep all trip information stored in a folder in your inbox. Do what it takes to feel secure in your travel plans!
Acknowledge your biggest fears, and learn how to stay safe should they come to fruition. While I try to keep totally irrational fears at bay (aliens, zombie apocalypse, etc,), I think it’s perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that even your most unlikely fears could happen, and to learn how to stay safe if they ever do. Again, this can help with feeling like you’re in control, and can also boost your belief in your ability to take care of yourself. For instance, did you know that there’s a LOT you can do to make sure you survive if you’re ever involved in a place crash?
Start off slow and work your way up. There’s a reason I picked Germany as my first solo travel destination: it’s in Western Europe, it’s a popular tourism destination, many locals speak English, it has a good safety record, and I know many people who have been there. Don’t pick a destination like Guatemala or Turkey as your first international trip, or you’ll likely just cause yourself more stress and anxiety than you would if you picked a destination like London or Paris.
The point is, find what works for you, force yourself to put your fears and anxiety on hold, and just go.
It’ll be worth it…promise.
More resources for travel anxiety and mindfulness:
- How to Not Let Anxiety Stop You From Traveling
- Introduction to Travel Anxiety: Causes and Cures
- 10 Mindful Attitudes That Decrease Anxiety
- 6 Mindfulness Exercises You Can Try Today
Have you ever experienced panic attacks or travel-related anxiety? What tips do you use for coping?