Calming Anxieties Abroad

Pompeii: City of Ashes
Staying Connected While on the Road, Part IV: Camping, Cruises and More

As a travel blogger, someone who regularly shares her experiences with the world at large, I don’t like admitting that I have a secret.

It’s only a secret to the people outside my bubble of close friends and family, but it’s something I want to share with you.

You ready? I think I’m ready.

Gosh. This is embarrassing.

Sometimes, travel makes me anxious.

Absurdly anxious.

Even though I love to travel.

Is that weird?

Our friend Marie of Ardent Camper says: I dunno!

Let me tell you a little bit about my background with anxiety, and I hope in doing so I can help some readers who might be struggling with the same things.

Since I was a young teen I have battled with a variety of anxiety disorder, specifically called panic disorder with agoraphobia.

For me, personally, what that boils down to is I tend to be anxious, or anticipate being anxious, when faced with situations that involve being alone in an open or unfamiliar place. I have suffered from panic attacks in the past that are just my body’s misinterpretation of a non-existent threat, and kicking the good old fight-or-flight mechanism into high gear.

I think more people are impacted by some variety of this disorder, or other anxiety disorders, than peopleΒ with anxiety disorders often realize. Based on some lovely statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 18% of United States citizens alone cope with some form of these disorders, which also include social anxiety, post-traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety and specific phobias.

So, when your biggest fear is leaving a comfortable and familiar place, how do you manage that fear with doing what you love? How do you prevent it from stopping you from doing what you want to do?

Sometimes it feels like a dark and insurmountable climb.
Sometimes it feels like a dark and insurmountable climb.

Ah, panic. You wily beast. You think you can defeat me, and sometimes I feel like I’m sitting right in your jaws, waiting for them to close and make me unable to step outside my door for fear of the unknown.

But the answer is really simple, even if it isn’t always easy: You just don’t avoid what your anxiety tells you to avoid.

Over the years my anxiety reared its ugly head in several nasty ways, all encompassing either being anxious or having full-blown panic attacks– sweaty palms, shortness of breath, a desperate need to escape the situation, that kind of thing. It was open fields, and then movie theatres, and then my college campus, and for a while it was supermarkets. I still have trouble riding my bike or walking places by myself. But in each of these cases, I had to push myself to get out the door and face my fears.

And boy, let me tell you, my burning desire to travel has been one of the biggest pushes.

So how do we cope with anxieties on the road, whether we have an anxiety disorder, or whether we just can’t quite shake the feeling that we left the iron on back home? I’ve come up with a few steps to help alleviate these nasty feelings, none of which are really ground-breaking, but they certainly work for me. I hope they work for you, too. Following these steps, I’ve helped heal a little of my brain’s jumpy anxiety, and it is always a work in progress.

But it is working.

After that, I want to share how Jessi and I both overcame our fears recently while we were in Italy. If you’d like to skip ahead to the juicy reveal, head on down by clicking here.

Calming Anxieties Abroad in Five Steps

1. Breathe

Something as simple as breathing can really bring your body back into the moment, and out of your head. If you feel anxious, or panicky, don’t let your mind trick you into thinking you’re out of your comfort zone. Train it to become adaptable and comfortable with a few deep, slow breaths.

That’s right people, imagine I’m your yoga instructor.

Deep breath in through the nose, fill up every inch of your lungs, hold, and exhale through the mouth.

Repeat two or three times and I guarantee your brain and your body will thank you.

2. Clear Your Mind

This goes hand-in-hand with breathing. Often we run at such a hectic pace, whether we are traveling or working or managing our daily lives. It can be difficult to focus on just breathing and thinking only about breathing.

If that doesn’t bring your zen moment, try a silent mantra, something you can repeat to yourself that is calming and clearing. Sometimes I like to simply think the word ‘breathe’ while I’m breathing, and my mind starts to clear away the cobwebs and the worry and the thoughts of the day. This is also a good technique if you’re having difficulty sleeping.

3. Think Positively

Remember that when you travel, you are already doing something positive! That’s the hope, isn’t it?

If things go awry during your trip, if you find yourself taking a wrong turn and ending up in an unexpected part of town, take it for what it is: A positive new experience. You could be uncovering a new corner of a new city, you could end up meeting new friends, and you could expand your horizons in a forward-thinking way.

In the same vein, be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if travel plans don’t go as expected. Reward yourself as much as you can, even if it’s just with a simple “thank you” or a pat on the back. Might sound like common sense, but little moments like this can go a long way when you’re already in a brand new place. Remind yourself of who you are, and what makes you awesome.

4. Ground Yourself

No, I don’t mean make yourself go to your room. Ground yourself in the moment you’re experiencing. Don’t think too much about the end of the trip, the next plan ahead, or the past, at least if any of those arenas will cause you undue stress.

If you find yourself becoming anxious or overwhelmed while abroad, something as simple and peaceful as feeling your feet on the ground, focusing on literally how ‘grounded’ you are, can go a long way toward shifting your thoughts away from any anxieties. This ‘mindfulness’ technique has helped me a great deal over the years as I’ve confronted my fears.

5. Seek Support

Not necessarily professional support, though that can be helpful. Talk to trusted friends and family, confidants, travel buddies. Open up to the people you trust, and use your best judgment. Having someone abroad or within an easy Skype or phone call can help your travel woes, whether they are true anxieties or smaller gripes, seem much more manageable.

For such a vast and beautiful world, it is amazing how much commonality we all share.

The Vatican Climb: Or, how Jessi and I conquered our fears

One really thrilling and positive example I want to share is how Jessi and I, stalwart and a little caught off-guard, found ourselves climbing to the top of the cupola in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

St. Peter's Basilica Rooftop
Yep. To the top of that thing.

The Basilica had been a place that once spurred anticipatory panic attacks so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to enter the beautiful interior when I first visited Rome in high school. I was too frozen in the comfort zone of sticking by my friends’ sides that I missed the tour with most of our classmates, and so a visit back to St. Peter’s was a necessity. Big open spaces, feeling tiny in the majesty of the building, and being up high (in the dome or the cupola) were all strike-outs for 17-year-old me.

Just being inside the place sent me into a dizzy fit. Climbing to the top? I thought it would never happen. Impossible.

Before the climb!
Before the climb!

Not this time!

Jessi and I climbed the steps to the remarkable mosaic dome, where I nearly had the first panic attack I’d had in years.

Sweet, nerve-wrenching victory!
Sweet, nerve-wrenching victory!
My moral support! And a giant face.
My moral support! And a giant face.

But I held it together! Hooray, victory!

Our spiritual reward.
Our spiritual reward.

And then, when we thought the dome climb had been quite a workout enough, we found ourselves climbing again.

And then there were more stairs.

And then the walls started slanting. Claustrophobia, or something very like it, started pricking on Jessi’s nerves.

Those walls are sloping with the curve of the dome!
Those walls are sloping with the curve of the dome!

We were huffing and puffing, sweating, one way only, no way out but up–stuck in the upward spiral of stairs worn smooth by countless pilgrims.

We were going to make it! Catholic guilt be damned!

bars edit

And so we did.

Victory view of the Vatican
Victory view of the Vatican

This visit was a decade in coming, and it was a relief to know that I could enjoy that amazing landmark without feeling struck by sheer awe, and the undercurrent of panic.

That fears can be overcome, and that travel, and your life, can’t be stopped by inner demons or inner anxieties.

Do you have an inspirational story for our readers? How about a time when you overcame a big fear, especially when traveling? Man, it feels good!


Pompeii: City of Ashes
Staying Connected While on the Road, Part IV: Camping, Cruises and More
  • Lisa Robin Benson

    Tara, you are awesome. I remember a certain trip to DC–you were already willing to face your fears at a young age. Love ya lots!

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  • I feel you. And you are brave for sharing your story. Hope I can do the same.

    • Thank you so much πŸ™‚ There is support out there!

  • Thank you SO much for being brave enough to share your story like this. I hope that your bravery can help others overcome similar things! I don’t know what it’s like to have that type of anxiety myself, but I can imagine that it would be extremely difficult to deal with at times. I think that everyone has their thing in life that they have a tough time with, but many people aren’t brave enough to face it. You want to travel, and I’m glad you are trying your best to get out there and live your life, do what you want to do! Great tips! Happy & safe travels to you both!

  • Hiii, came over from #WeekendWanderlust what a stunning view. I don’t have anxiety problems so much, but can absolutely relate to some of these things. It really is all about breathing and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, isn’t it? πŸ™‚

    • Thanks for the support, and for reading, Sammi! It’s good to know we are all challenging ourselves in our own ways.

  • I get anxious when I travel on planes. It’s probably relates to a flight that I was on over a decade ago which I experienced the worse turbulence in my life. I thought I was going to die. Every time we fly and I feel a bump on the flight I think back to that moment.

    • The mind is such a powerful thing, it’s so incredible how strongly it can pull back to moments of anxiety. You’re so brave for facing your fears and doing what you love! πŸ˜€

  • CONGRATS! I struggle with anxiety and I think travel has helped me push through those fears and so glad you were able to as well.

    • Especially living in another country, getting used to the transition in comfort zones! You’re so courageous, and thanks for the support, too. I really admire your ability to jump and live abroad, and it’s so comforting to know that even new places can become familiar and no longer scary. πŸ™‚

  • Climbing to the top of the Vatican is nerve-racking for everyone, whether or not you have anxiety! When those stairs get smaller and the walls get narrow, it makes sense that it sends some people panicking. Congrats on making it! I would say my biggest fear is sharks, and recently I went snorkeling with a whole bunch of them in Belize…that was quite the fear conquering trip!

    • Wow, Katie, that’s a huge accomplishment! Pat yourself on the back, that takes a TON of courage. Thanks for reading and for the vote of confidence! πŸ˜€

  • Great post! Well done for sharing your struggle with this, I’m sure that it will help other people with anxiety disorders. I felt somewhat the same (although I don’t have issues with anxiety normally) when going into the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, I got so panicked and had to turn around and leave. I still kind of wish that I had gone through, even though my husband said that the tunnel got even narrower further on!

    • I’ve learned to try not to beat myself up for turning around and knowing when something is too much; but it’s still hard when we’re hard on ourselves. Thanks so much for reading, and remember, just like the Vatican–those tunnels will be there if you want to try again! Best wishes to you Erin πŸ™‚