My tips on how I survive traveling (semi) alone with GAD and PTSD
I (usually) try to keep an air of happiness and excitement to my posts. I want to share the wonderful things about traveling and living abroad. I’m experiencing so many things in a few short months and years that I could only dream of experiencing while living in California and it truly is a blessing, but travel isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Things get stressful and scary, especially when you are living with Generalize Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recently I spent a week in Edinburgh for Tim’s work. During the day he basically left me to my own devices and while I’m now quite familiar with the city, and fairly comfortable, it still brought up the thought of my travel anxiety and I decided it was time to share with you all, how I deal.
Travel has always been something I dreamed of. Both my parents are military brats and had lived in foreign countries before they were 10. They moved house and travelled the world courtesy of the military, only to settle down … in a military town and I was raised with any number of friends from around the world. For as long as I can remember, my parents wanted me to get out of my small home town. To see the world and experience different ways of life. So I started dreaming. I studied Rome and Greece in college and got a deep yearning anytime I saw anything remotely European. I’d watch British shows and yearn to experience England.
And then I met Tim. A Marine from Michigan with a desire to travel as strong as mine (and a ton of actual travel experience), and no desire to settle in one final location any time soon. I knew it was meant to be. We married and began traveling as soon as we could. While we were young it was weekends away in Vegas and San Diego, Los Angeles and Big Bear. But the older we got, the more we were able to realize our dreams of international travel and by our fifth wedding anniversary we made it to Rome. Two and a half years later we’d make a return trip to Italy for my 30th birthday and while it was a wonderful trip, I also experienced my first panic attack abroad. I went on to have at least one more episode of panic and anxiety to the point of not being able to leave my hotel room for dinner. Upon returning to the states and discussing these attacks in conjunction with my experiences of abuse at the hands of my ex-fiancee, my therapist diagnosed me with PTSD. And it was like a weight was lifted. Because now I had an answer and now I knew I wasn’t going crazy and now I knew it was going to be okay because we could work through it.
Fast forward a few years. We’ve now moved to Europe and I’m challenged almost daily to keep my PTSD and GAD in check. With the balance of medication and self-help techniques, I’m truly thriving in this place.
But travel is stressful to anyone and sometimes with anxiety, it can almost be too much to bear. But if you have someone who loves and understands you to come along, it makes things so much better. If you’ve been reading for a while you know I half seriously half jokingly refer to Tim as my emotional support husband. An nowhere is this more true than in travel. I like to squeeze his hand when a fire truck or ambulance with a screaming siren triggers my PTSD, and I feel safe when I know he’s watching my back as I blissfully take instagram photos of the rainy streets at night. But while we travel for Tim’s work, I’m mostly on my own and because I need to vacate a hotel room to eat and acquire a decent cappuccino, I find myself traipsing around various foreign cities on my own. I have worked on adapting.
So, my fellow anxious travelers, this one is for you. For you who’re afflicted with GAD, or, PTSD, panic disorders or social anxieties and… wanderlust. I know you’re out there. And I hope you’re reading this. I hope that I can let you see that you can travel (alone even) and see the world. Here are some things that help keep my anxiety in check while I’m out there alone. If I can help at least one person with anxiety get out of their comfort zone and experience even one afternoon in a new city, alone, then I’m happy.
I plan out my route by doing research.
I look for safe places to be and how to get there. I feel comfortable alone in cafes and museums. I’m happy to sit at a quiet cafe in the corner with my laptop and write (which is where I wrote the bulk of this blog). But before leaving the safety of my hotel room, I plan the path on my phone. I find the easiest and safest route to get there (i.e most public but least amount of car traffic, if I’m walking).
I never listen to music while I walk.
I know. I love music as much as the rest of you, and as much as I’d like to disappear into song and tune out the world, it’s just not safe to do that in a foreign city. Even a safe one like Edinburgh. I don’t even like feeling of my sight being hindered by an umbrella or hood, so I’m definitely not going to put on my headphones while I’m walking alone. I’m not even listening to music right now and you know what? it’s kind of nice. I’m enjoying listening to the Scottish accents when customers come in for a chat. I like to see the tourists trying to plan their day. It’s actually kind of nice. And behind my computer tapping away, I still have the bubble of safety.
I head to a museum.
As a history lover, I find solace and tranquility in a museum. As an anxiety sufferer, I love that museums are quiet places where it’s totally okay to be in your own world while viewing items of the past. Find a museum on a subject you love (if you’re in the UK it’s likely that it has free admittance), and take that time to learn something new while decompressing in the (hopefully) quiet atmosphere.
I let myself have a break.
I find that in today’s worlds of vacations, there is a feeling that you NEED to see everything. But you can’t. You can’t see everything and if you try, you’re going to get burnt out. There are people, even some of my closest friends, who can NON-stop go go go on vacation (or daily life). They can pack it all in with a seemingly endless stream of enthusiasm and they are as joyful in the morning as they are that evening. But that is NOT me. When guided by these wonderful friends, I can keep going, but alone… it’s just not there. I can only handle being in public alone for so long. I can only handle the hyper vigilance for so long. And you know what? That’s okay. I let myself stay in the hotel room extra long in the morning watching netflix. Or I let myself return for a nap. It is supposed to be a vacation after all, right? I’ll get out and see what I can when I can. And for that, I’ll be a lot happier than if I force myself to go see things I’m not really enjoying because my anxiety is through the roof.
I treat myself.
It’s hard traveling with anxiety. But it’s also super rewarding. I think those of us who have to push past the anxiety and fear to get out and see a new city or country might just appreciate it a little bit more than those who might not have to work as hard internally. So give yourself a little pat on the back. Treat yourself to your favorite coffee or buy a little souvenir. Remind yourself that you CAN do this and you are stronger than your disease.
I’ve rambled quite a long time about myself. But I didn’t write this blog to be about me. I wrote it to be about you. I hope that those of you who are anxious travelers read this and know you’re not alone. Or if you don’t have anxiety, you might travel with someone who does. Maybe this can help you help them. Having friends and family who get us, who accept and support us even when we perceive ourselves as broken, that’s a huge key.