I arrived in Austin and had a panic attack on the street. Alone and hungry, sleep deprived from flying overnight from Portland, I had gone out in search of food because the hostel I was staying at wouldn’t let me check in early. It was hot and my body found it tough to adjust to the temperature difference. When the maps on my phone started malfunctioning, I called Aninda on the brink of tears. It wasn’t the first time. I had a panic attack on my third night in Gangtok and I wasn’t even travelling alone. My aunt and I had spent a beautiful day hiking to Enchey Monastery and gorging on plump chicken momos but later that night, something triggered me. I slept through most of my first day in Bangalore because the anxiety wouldn’t let me embrace the newness.
I tend to panic in unfamiliar situations. Over the years, I have found out that I do not enjoy the first few days in a new place. Far from faces and streets I am accustomed to, far from my established routine, my brain goes into non-compliance mode and instead of savouring the unknown, I stumble into intense longing for familiarity. It’s a strange homesickness but more for an idea of home than for a real, physical home. I attribute my panic attacks to a generalised fear of the unknown. The first few days in a new place are distressing. It is more intense when I am travelling alone. I also suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder which means I have difficulty interacting in a social setting. As a traveller, it is an experience I seek but pushing the limits and striking up conversations with people I do not know can be both debilitating and rewarding.
As someone who loves to travel, I can’t just give up and say I can’t do it anymore though that’s exactly what I say when I am panicking. In Houston, I was staying at the Houston International Hostel in the Museum District. It is run by the beautiful traveller, curator, and bike enthusiast, Joyce who has met numerous travellers on her trips and numerous others through her hostel. The evening the day before I was leaving, she showed me her collection of artefacts and paintings and advised me to not think of anxiety as an impediment to travel. Travel Anxiety can hit pre-trip or during the trip. Remind yourself of why you want to travel and remember there’s an entire community of like-minded travellers who struggle with anxiety. And remember that you are not alone. It is important to know that it will pass and you will be able to enjoy your trip.
If you have a similar story, here’s what you can do to for relief:
- Try to figure out what triggers panic in you and avoid them. It gets a lot easier once you can identify your triggers. The first day is the most difficult for me and I usually plan to take it slow and lounge at my hostel or sit in a coffee shop. Substances like alcohol can aggravate anxiety in certain individuals.
- Plan meticulously. I try to plan as much as I can for the first few days. Having a detailed itinerary makes me feel prepared.
- Spend some time looking at pictures of your destination. Knowing, or rather seeing, the attractions on my itinerary helps me familiarize. In the end, it is the fear of the unknown that sets my anxiety metre ticking and knowing what to expect helps.
- If you are easily overwhelmed, plan for one activity a day.
- Take breaks between exploring. Find a peaceful spot and unwind.
- Remember that you do not have to see or do everything you wanted to do. Your well being comes first. While it is okay to push yourself if you are feeling anxious, don’t go overboard. It is okay to spend an entire day cooped up in bed and binge-watching Netflix if that is what de-stresses you.
- If you are panicking, call up a friend or someone you trust.
You can do it!