A while back I came clean about my travel confessions, but there was one I missed off the list, and that’s my fear of flying. Despite hundreds of flights over the years I still can’t get through the plane doors without an attack of sweaty-palmed nervousness. But it’s not just flying, other phobias in my collection include motion sickness, boats, spiders and confined spaces. And a couple of weeks ago in Canada I had to do something which combined them in one horror-filled package – a seaplane flight. I spent days worrying about it but in the end the pilot was entirely capable, the sky was calm and the views were amazing. One of our group asked me afterwards if it was all worth it – why did I travel if it made me so anxious? But the thing is that it’s always worth it in the end. Travel has added so much to my life that fear is never going to stop me doing it. The amazing memories I have are well worth any moments of pain it takes to get there.
I never used to be so much of a scaredy cat though – I’ve flown in helicopters, climbed a 50-metre high tree, kayaked and wild-camped along a river in Western Australia. But a few years back I got sick on a trip to Bali. Unlike your usual food poisoning this just didn’t go away, instead it slowly took over my body and got worse and worse over the years until I had days where I couldn’t leave the bathroom long enough to get out of the house. Being that anxious becomes a bit of a habit, and although I’m much better these days it’s been a hard one to shake off. But I’m not the only one who gets anxious about travelling. When you look at some the most common phobias – flying, heights, confined spaces, spiders, snakes, dogs, injections, germs – they’re all things you’ll end up encountering if you love to travel. Anxiety might be an inevitable part of my travelling life for now, but I’ve found a few ways to make it more bearable.
So much of anxiety is anticipation – worry that the plane might crash, worry that you’ll get bitten by a poisonous snake, worry that you’ll fall and hurt yourself. But being prepared for the possibility of the worst-case scenario usually makes it a little bit less scary. I’m scared of getting motion sick when I travel, so I’ve packed a little pouch with pills, acupressure wristbands and ginger sweets which I always have on me. It’s a really easy thing to do and I rarely have to use it, but it makes me feel much better to have it there just in case. There are similar preparations you can make for other phobias too. Read up on how a plane works so you don’t get freaked out when it makes a strange noise. Look up what poisonous snakes look like so you know which to watch out for. Though steer well clear of Google if you’ve got any health phobias as it’s a sure-fire way to convince yourself you’ve only got days left to live.
There’s nothing in the world guaranteed to make you obsess over something than trying not to think about it. Ideally we’d all be able to slip into a peaceful meditative state at any time, but I can’t manage longer than 20 seconds before the thoughts come pushing their way back in. So that’s where distraction comes in – being absorbed by doing something else means there’s less space in your head for the anxiety. My favourite distraction is a good book – preferably something easy to read with a gripping plot, this is not the time to tackle those literary classics. But yours might be listening to music, watching a film, doing a crossword, writing or sketching, or sometimes just a good conversation with someone. Anything which takes your mind into a state of ‘flow’ where you’re not conscious of your surroundings any more. Or at least as near as you can be – if it just takes your anxiety down a notch or two it still helps.
I won’t lie, there have been times on my travels when I’ve had a bit of a meltdown and decided I’m never leaving home again. It never lasts though, there’s always something new to remind me how much I love travel. But it helps to go easy on yourself. Yes it’s good to push your limits and get outside of the dreaded comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time. Travel should be enjoyable too, so there’s nothing wrong with making things easy for yourself some of the time. Yes I could trek up a mountain to watch the sunset – I’d probably even like it if I did – but sometimes I’d just rather watch it from the beach with a glass of wine. If you’re only on a short trip it’s tempting to pack in too much and end up overwhelmed, so I always make sure there’s plenty of free time to see how I feel. Who cares if you feel unadventurous sometimes, so many people never travel at all and would be in awe of you for just being there.
I never used to be scared of flying, until a terrible flight from Vietnam to Laos, complete with bone-shaking turbulence and terrifying drops through air pockets. After that I was a wreck – so much so that on a flight to Australia a few months later I looked so terrified that a neighbouring passenger asked if I wanted some of his Valium. Now I’m not advocating accepting prescription drugs from random strangers, but there’s no shame in seeing your doctor and getting prescribed some anti-anxiety medication if you need it. Like I said before, often the fact that you have it on you helps without even having to take it. My medication of choice when it comes to flying is usually a strong gin and tonic. Although it’s not a good idea to get completely plastered as an anxiety avoidance technique, I do find it takes the edge of the fear.
It’s easy to beat yourself up about being anxious and fearful, and think you’re the only one who feels that way. But the truth is that everyone is scared of something. My sister is hugely adventurous – the marathon-running, mountain-climbing type – but if a pigeon flaps near her she’ll run off shrieking. I know people who have phobias of everything from velvet to moths. So don’t just focus on the things that scare you, remember the ones that don’t too. I can’t stand spiders, so if I see one in my room I’ll be out of the door in seconds, but I’ll happily scoop up a cockroach if I need to. I’ve held a snake, zip-lined across a rainforest, sat on a mountaintop in a thunderstorm. None of those bothered me at all but for some people it would be their worst nightmare. Everyone is brave in their own way, so don’t forget yours.
Do you suffer anxiety when you travel, how do you get through it?