I’m a pretty anxious person, so talking to someone who is equally full of anxiety about their travel experiences is like listening to my own thoughts. I recently traveled to Ireland for the first time with one of my most anxiety-ridden friends. I wanted to get her drunken perspective about going on an adventure abroad while full of anxiety to help anyone who might be in the same boat. The moral of the story is that you can be both nervous and a traveler. Let’s see what she had to say.
GnomeTrotting: So how many drinks have you had, first of all?
Nervous Traveler: About one and a little bit, but I’m refilling as we speak.
GT: Ok, so let’s get down to our interview. What would you say is the most anxiety-provoking aspect of travel?
NT: Aside from TSA? TSA is my archnemesis.
NT: I have a variety of anxieties about travel rather than one overwhelming one – some are reasonable, some really bizarre. They hit me in waves and I’ll be obessed with that particular thing.
GT: What are some of the bizarre ones?
NT: For example, one of my obsessions for this trip… I have never been away from my dog in his whole life for more than a couple of days. So I had anxieties about the repercussions of that. What if he doesn’t love me anymore? I didn’t want him to think I abandoned him.
GT: What are some anxieties you think are more reasonable?
NT: I have severe social anxiety. So I was worried about how much I could handle being around people for so many days. It makes it easier that you’re all people I’m comfortable with, but it doesn’t nullify the social aspect. So my anxiety itself was a cause of anxiety.
Also hurricanes. I live on the national hurricane website. I kept thinking, what if a hurricane comes while we are in this trip?
GT: My anxiety was what if a hurricane came before and you guys couldn’t make it. So back up… why are you so scared of TSA?
NT: It just feels like such a confrontational situation. I start packing weeks in advance. It’s hard for me to decide what to take. So I know every single thing in my bag. But somehow when I’m in line, I’m convinced they’re gonna find something illegal and I’m gonna be arrested. I cannot go through TSA without Ativan. Even though funny enough, I didn’t take it in Dublin because everyone was so nice that I felt more comfortable.
GT: Do you feel like your anxiety has prevented you from traveling?
NT: Once. When I don’t travel it’s because I can’t afford to. But there was one time, when I had booked a flight and I was at a bad anxiety point. I was sick so I used that as an excuse not to go on this trip. Because I was convinced that if I got on this plane, I would die.
GT: Die of panic or die because of a crash or something?
NT: No, I was convinced that the plane was going to crash. When I was younger, a thought would occur to me and my anxiety brain would cling to it.
GT: What was the place?
NT: San Francisco, which I still haven’t gone to.
GT: That place sucks anyway.
NT: I can push through it if it’s something I want bad enough and I like travel enough that I can usually push through it.
GT: What activities do you avoid when traveling because they’ll make you anxious?
NT: Well… the freaking suspension bridge we did is one of them. I’m also careful not to get too drunk in public because that doesn’t mix well with the social anxiety. And the next day I will be obsessed with every single thing I said. I have that when I’m sober, but when I drink too much, I feel like I have less control.
GT: Take us through one of your vacation days. What were some of the things that made you anxious throughout the day?
NT: This is hard to do because I have so many anxieties that I have a hard time differentiating between what is normal human behavior and what is anxiety. I have an anxiety about leaving my stuff behind and being robbed, so I’ll double check the door twice. I carry around – which you do too – all my medications, because I don’t want need something I don’t have. I’ll check my bag repeatedly for my passport, my wallet. I will check it multiple times throughout the day.
GT: Did you have anxieties about going down a shady street? Getting lost? Getting in an Uber?
NT: To a certain extent, travel alleviates my anxiety in an interesting way. By separating myself from my real life, a lot of it drops away. So reasonable fears, like going to a foreign country where you don’t know anyone, don’t actually scare me. I’d be much more afraid to get lost here at home than in a foreign city.
GT: Was there anything we did that if you were by yourself, you would have been too anxious to do?
NT: The suspension bridge. I wouldn’t have gone there if you guys didn’t want to do it, because I knew it wasn’t something I would be comfortable doing. There’s anxiety over potential death and also the impression I’m making as I’m terrified. And I’m super glad we made it, and the walk back wasn’t as bad. It was totally worth my panic attack.
GT: But you’re not scared to travel alone?
NT: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less brave. Now at 30, I’m not 100% sure that I would be as comfortable doing what I did at 22 where I up and went to France alone and I didn’t care. And part of that was stupidity. I was too young to know better. I didn’t think about reasonable things.
For a minute when we were planning this trip, I was thinking of going to London by myself and I realized that I was more scared than I would have been 5-6 years ago. So my anxiety has increased.
GT: Do you think now that you’ve been to several new countries that you’d feel more brave?
NT: I hadn’t left the country in years. Having gone and seen that it’s the way I remember it and it’s so easy to get around, I think I’d be less scared. Especially because I once loved traveling alone. I only had two… three panic attacks on this trip.
GT: You had three?! What were the other two?
NT: I had a couple of moments in the bathroom. I’m not used to being around people constantly and I was super sick so I felt awful. So I couldn’t breathe, and I had a panic attack. And once it’s over, I kind of feel better. I try to look at it more like a release of emotion.
GT: Was it anything we did?
NT: No it was just life. Basically, I did more living in those 10 days than I had in a long time. So there’s a lot of anxiety in just being. But then the next day I get to see a castle and everything is fine.
GT: How do you think your travel experience is different from some sociopath who is chill as fuck about everything? What is wrong with those people?
NT: I discussed this with my therapist. Among my anxieties, I mentioned I was traveling with a friend who has no anxieties. And she basically told me to study this friend to see how she handles things so I could apply that in life. I worried about annoying her and just everybody. But she’s still nice to me about it; she’s comforting and accepts my anxieties. So it was soothing to have a rational voice.
GT: So is she inherently having a better time because she’s so relaxed about everything?
NT: I think the opposite. I think that by experiencing the lower part of the spectrum more deeply, we also experience the higher end. I like to think we get the same intensity in the fun times. By going from the anxiety I was having to some beautiful castle, the shift makes it better. I actually wouldn’t trade it. I rather be super anxious all the time and get the intensity of the positive than be meh about everything. There’s value to intensity I think? Maybe it’s because it’s the only way I know how to live.
GT: Did you have any anxieties that did come to pass?
NT: Well I definitely had one anxiety that did not come to pass. I was relieved that you guys weren’t babying me. It was nice that you have anxiety, too, because it was more normal. Some other friends feel like I come off as helpless. And it’s frustrating to be put on the spot and it makes me nervous to be put on the spot.
GT: Is the anxiety justified though? Do you think that your anxiety helps you avoid dodgy situations?
NT: The emotion of anxiety – its purpose is to warn you from dangerous situations. So my disordered anxiety is by default keeping me from dangerous situations, but probably also sometimes keeping me from random situations that aren’t dangerous. My anxiety isn’t refined enough to know what’s real danger or not.
GT: Do you feel like your anxiety has kept you from worthwhile experiences?
NT: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at parsing out which anxieties are somewhat rational. I missed out on a lot of high school experiences because they made me anxious. I didn’t go to dances, I didn’t date. I didn’t do most of the things you do as a teenager. I think more often, it keeps you from having a valuable experience than it saves you from a dangerous one.
For example, if I had crossed that bridge and then plummeted to my violent death, I would have been super pissed because I ignored my instincts. My whole body told me, ”You’re going to die if you cross that bridge.” So I would have been really pissed if I died.
Wait, what was the question? Oh missing out on worthwhile experiences? Yes. The answer is yes. The bridge experience – I had the same experience in North Carolina. And everyone crossed the bridge but me. I stayed on this rock and I missed out. That was one of those things, where I was like I already made this mistake, don’t make it again.
GT: That happened to me once in Jamaica. I didn’t go up the Ocho Rios waterwall and then I regretted it.
NT: This is why we need a Worry Time podcast.
GT: Wine and Worry Time. Speaking of wine, what helped alleviate your anxiety on your trip?
NT: I rely on alcohol more than I probably should. When I socialize, even with people I’m comfortable with, I have like a refractory period where I’m exhausted and mentally obsessing over what I did or said. I didn’t wanna get caught in that cycle. But because the pace was so fast, it forced me to not fall into that pattern of obsessive thought. Basically we were always doing something unless we were unconscious. That was most helpful thing.
GT: Yeah, travel fills up your time in such a way that anxiety can’t.
NT: You don’t have the opportunity to be in your head to get lost in your anxiety.
GT: So would you say travel a good alternative to anxiety medication?
NT: The closest I’ve ever gotten to “cured” was living abroad, especially those 5-6 months when everything is new and everything induces adrenaline. There’s no space for it to take you over in the same way. I would definitely tell people to go to a foreign country, because it shifts your paradigm so completely that it leaves no space for your anxiety.
GT: You’re so eloquent for a drunk person. I hate it. Maybe we should have done this sober. It would have been a mess.