Traveling With Anxiety: On Love, Layovers, & Losing My Shit

Nov 25, 2015    /    philosophy

It was the middle of the night and I was in a private room in a hostel in Colombia. I woke up with my stomach churning, rolled onto my side and breathed deep, hoping dearly that the nausea would pass.

But it didn’t pass.

Maybe 10 minutes later, maybe 20, maybe five, I was on my knees with my head over the toilet, vomiting.

And there are no reason for it. No more vomiting the next day. No other signs of food poisoning. Nothing that could have caused food poisoning.

The next day, the only conclusion I could reach was that it had been my anxiety that woke me that night, forced me over the toilet bowl, and then left me awake, staring at the ceiling, focusing on my breathing for perhaps another hour.

That anxiety had, after all, been running high since I arrived in Colombia. I felt constantly nervous. I checked the door lock five times every time I left the room. I had to stand in the hallway sometimes and just breathe. It took me hours to respond to simple emails because the idea of saying no, even when no was appropriate, made my chest tighten. Sometimes I was so exhausted that I’d stay in bed all day.

And now it had come to some sort of horrible peak, forcing me into the bathroom in the middle of the night, retching over the toilet bowl.

*  *  *  *  *

It wasn’t the first time I’ve had anxiety. It wasn’t even the worst. Something like seven years ago, I was having true panic attacks. And when you have one of those, you actually think you’re dying.

Your chest tightens up and breathing is hard. Your heart races. Sometimes you can’t move at all. There’s sometimes nausea and dizziness.

When they started, my panic attacks were always in the morning, triggered by my alarm clock. It would go off—buzzing at low volume—and I’d wake up gasping for air, feeling my heart race, unable to move for a few terrifying moments.

I actually went to the doctor because I thought I had a heart condition. My heart was always racing for no reason, and I thought, dear god, I’m going to die in my twenties.

When I went to the doctor, though, she told me I was having panic attacks. We talked about depression. She asked if I’d been suicidal. I told her I wasn’t going to hurt myself. She wisely asked, then, if–even if I wasn’t going to do anything about it–perhaps I was thinking about dying. Was I, for example, secretly wishing I would be hit by a bus?

I started bawling there in her office and she prescribed anti-depressants.

*  *  *  *  *

I’ve done a lot of things to manage my anxiety and depression over the years. I’ve taken trips. I’ve gone to therapy. I’ve been on and then off anti-depressants. I adopted my dog, Luna. I sing and dance, read good books, take deep breaths, nap when I need to, eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and hike and walk everywhere. I have tried yoga. I have journaled. And I have asked my heart what it wants and followed its requests.

Sometimes these things work wonders. Sometimes I’m under control. In fact, I haven’t had a full-on panic attack since I got Luna. And there have been a few stretches of time, particularly for that first year on the road, where depression and anxiety seemed far away, conquered even.

But that’s not always.

When I was cycling across France this September, I wondered if my phantom jaw pain (which an exam and x-rays turned up no reason for) was a result of anxiety. Perhaps I was grinding my teeth in my sleep.

I also started having headaches this year, something I’d never really had before and that seems to crop up during the most anxious periods.

And these first two weeks in Colombia have been the worst in years, my body and mind in a constant state of alert.

Worse, my normal standbys—the one-person dance parties and morning hikes—have yet to banish anxiety back to a manageable place in my life. And so I go on each day battling through it. My work takes longer. A single email can leave me exhausted. But I slog onward because there are no other choices. There’s no opt out button for life and work, especially when you’re single. We all slog forward, no matter what.

*  *  *  *  *

Part of the problem is that I’ve been reading all the wrong books.

Stories about what it means to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Stories about our toxic consumerism and where it’s leading. Stories about places without freedom. Stories about our broken legal system and extreme wastefulness.

I mean, they’re the right books because I care about those issues. I’m glad I read them. But they also dig me into a hole that’s hard to climb out of. My anger and outrage over the state of the world is sometimes trumped by my sense of overwhelmed helplessness. And I’m sure overwhelmed helplessness isn’t a great thing for my anxiety.

*  *  *  *  *

Recently, several people asked me how I manage to travel with anxiety.

I think the answer starts with this: anxiety manifests differently for different people.

Some are paralyzed by specific things, like flying or crowds or social situations. Some feel mounting panic over things they can’t quite pin down, reasons that don’t seem to make sense. Some have more constant anxiety. Some go for long periods feeling okay until–WHAM–one day it rears its ugly head again.

My own anxiety comes in waves. It can go on for weeks, but then disappear for awhile. Usually, it’s like a song playing in the background: there, but not too loud. Then, sometimes it’s all I can hear.

It’s also unpredictable.

Sometimes I can understand where it comes from. Like when I pass through immigration lines. I feel tense and anxious and have to focus on my breathing. But that makes sense because of that time I was detained and mistreated by British Immigration on my way to a conference.

I can also understand the anxiety I have around my singleness. After all, I did end up utterly alone and hospitalized this year. So having some intense fears about dying alone, while an overreaction, also comes from an understandable place.

But there are also lots of anxieties that don’t make sense. Like how sometimes writing emails takes me three times as long as it should because I have this horrible, overpowering feeling that I’m saying the wrong thing and that there will be terrible consequences—losses of jobs and friendships and goodwill. Or how my chest feels tight every time I walk over a bridge because I can’t stop imagining falling over the side. Or how sometimes it takes me five minutes just to get up the courage to leave the apartment because I’m paralyzed by thoughts of the place burning down while I’m gone, even though I’ve checked the stove 10 times already and unplugged everything in the house.

*  *  *  *  *

Even so, I do travel full-time despite my anxiety.

I do it in part with simple strategies: hiking, fresh air, fruit juice, dance parties, and self-forgiveness when I’m finding it too hard to accomplish much.

Even bigger, though, is the fact that I’ve built my travel around my neuroses.

It’s one of the reasons I usually travel slowly, staying at least a month in one place. In part, I do it because I get to see more of the place, meet more new people, and get more work done and in part I do it because that’s how I need to travel. It’s infinitely less stressful than planning a move every few days.

Traveling slow also means I feel less pressure if I have a bad day or bad week. I can take long naps, stay in and binge-watch episodes of Master Chef Junior, or read a book cover to cover. I don’t have to go out and see everything on a day that I’m feeling intensely anxious. I have all the time in the world to get around to climbing the 649-step staircase to the top of El Peñon. I have weeks upon weeks to get to the top of Schilthorn. There’s no pressure to see the Louvre on the first day of a six-week stay in Paris.

The other big and ongoing thing I do is practice self-forgiveness. Those words can sound a little self-helpy, but what I really mean is that I actively try not to beat myself up if I have a bad day or a bad week. If I need to close the curtains and retreat to bed. If I take twice as long to get things done. If I just can’t seem to pull my shit together.

I try to treat myself the same way I’d treat a close friend who was going through this. I remind myself that we’ve been through this before and that it always passes. I give myself permission to take the afternoon off and get some fresh air or take a nap or do a little less that day. And sometimes I literally lay in bed and whisper, “I love you.” Because “you’re going to be okay,” doesn’t always mean much when you’re in the middle of an anxious period. But “I love you” always means something, even if it feels really ridiculous to say it out loud to yourself (and, frankly, even more ridiculous to admit to you right now).

* * * * *

Most of the time, I’m fine.

I do my work, explore my current city, make new friends, play with Luna, and live my day-to-day life, be it in the Swiss Alps, rural Colombia, or Slovenia’s capital city.

My anxiety stays in the background, manageable.

Recently, it’s been bad, though. I turn down a writing gig and it screams at me all night that I’ll never find another one. I wake up and vomit. I decide to go for a walk, but return much sooner than I expected because I just can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen. I’m having jaw pain again and dreams about tense, life-threatening situations.

And so as my anxiety changes shape, I ask myself the question: will this too pass or will my strategies need to change shape too?

I don’t know the answer.

But I do know that if my strategies must change, that’s okay. If I need medication again, that’s okay. If I need to travel even slower, staying 2+ months in each place, that’s okay. If I need to move to my best friend’s town for a few months, that’s okay. If I need to avoid certain places and situations for awhile, also okay.

* * * * *

Just today someone suggested that perhaps my travel lifestyle was making my anxiety worse.

It’s not an uncommon opinion. But in my case it’s a wrong one.

My depression and anxiety have been at their absolute worst during times when I was standing still, signed onto long-term leases, living firmly in one spot.

That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with them on the road, obviously. But travel is not the cause of my midnight vomit, my morning panic, my thrice-checked stove. It’s just the backdrop against which I manage these things.

And that’s kinda the point.

When I was still living in Denver, thinking about living out of a backpack, I thought, why the hell not? If I have to live with depression and anxiety, why not do it somewhere new, somewhere beautiful, somewhere interesting? If I have to feel lonely, depressed, and anxious, I’d rather do it in the Swiss Alps and in Rome and in Paris than locked up in my little house in Denver.


So, now to you: Do you travel with anxiety or depression? How has it been? What are your strategies for managing?

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22 Comments
  • Ali
    November 25, 2015

    I hate that anxiety has such a grip on you right now. Do what you can to take care of yourself, remember that you have friends who love you, and the most adorable dog in the world who loves you, and you will get through it. And thanks for sharing the struggles you’re dealing with. You reminded me that I need to be kinder to myself too.

    HUGS!!
    Ali recently posted…New Traveler Gift GuideMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      November 25, 2015

      <3

  • Tara @ Sweat like a Pig
    November 25, 2015

    I can definitely relate to this, being a nomad with depression myself. I 100% agree that it’s much better to live with anxiety in a new and exciting place. I hate that the first thing people suggest to “overcome” my depression is moving back home. Thanks for sharing your story. As always, I love your blog and am always silently reading :)

    • gigigriffis
      November 25, 2015

      Yes! I hate that too.

      And thank you.

  • Patricia White
    November 25, 2015

    I so appreciate your writing about this! I have the same struggles in daily life and cannot take medications for any relief. I also have constant migraines and digestive problems. But I have also adopted the attitude that I just as well do things I want to do, as much as my body will allow, because I will feel this way regardless. I am happy that I have traveled as much as I have. People always told me I was so brave to travel alone to foreign places. I never felt that way about myself, and yet I have such a high regard for you and what you are doing, in spite of or because of everything that could hold you back. You have accomplished so much, written so much, traveled so much, so much more than I could ever hope to do. You remain a constant inspiration.

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Thank you! And I’m so sorry to hear about your own struggles. Solidarity, friend.

  • Chip
    November 25, 2015

    Hang in there. You have a world of readers supporting you.

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Thanks.

  • John
    November 25, 2015

    Nice work summoning the courage to live your dream and write about the high points and low points honestly and directly.
    John recently posted…How to have difficult conversationsMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Thank you.

  • Jane Halsey
    November 25, 2015

    Thank you for your vulnerability and truth. Thank you for honoring your readers the community you have created by sharing your personal journey both inner and outer. It is okay always though clearly not always easy. I love that you tell yourself “I love you” in the dark moments. I am reminded to tell you something I told myself repeatedly that helped me get through emotional pain. “I bless these feelings and accept the gift they have to give me”. Your observation about the books you have been absorbing seems spot on as well. The sun is always there behind the clouds waiting for a parting.

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Thanks, Jane – for both the encouragement and wisdom.

  • Kira
    November 25, 2015

    Uddfa, Gigi! It sounds like you already have so many good strategies. So sorry it’s breaking through despite your efforts.

    For me, acknowledging that anxiety is present and that it’s just a mostly unfounded (or at least not helpful) feeling that will pass is helpful. If I just sit and feel it a bit without panicking that it’s going to get worse, and without trying desperately not to feel it, it passes sooner.

    I too get the anxiety around saying no via email. I’ve learned to delete my long-winded apology portion, say it simply, and each time it gets easier. The less time I spend thinking about if I should say no, the better. I decide with a gut check and roll. It helps when people express understanding, but sometimes they don’t.

    I’ve also learned there are certain kinds of anxiety that are trying to get my attention for a valid reason, such as those that arise in stressful relationships. As I’ve respectfully ended these relationships (an anxiety-provoking task in itself), I’ve noticed that while the buildup is awful…the anxiety more or less melts once I’m free. Part of it is just knowing I’m actively standing up for myself. Another part is acknowledging that sometimes the work and energy it takes to “work with” someone is just too taxing, and it’s sadly time to stop investing.

    I also “listen” the anxiety if it has valid viewpoints and reason with it…I learned this trick from your blog! If you want to get Freudy about it, sometimes I feel like anxiety is the “inner child” and my voice of reason is the “parent.” When anxiety rears its head, the child feels like the parent isn’t doing his job, and thus feels powerless. I then reassure that while the situation *looks* scary to the child, my parent part has this covered and will take care of the child, so the child doesn’t need to fret.

    When all else fails, I try to channel the anxiety into something productive but easy so it doesn’t totally get to “win” and cripple me. Sometimes you can’t work (grrrr) but you can bang out a walk, take care of some dishes, organize messy files, offer to help someone clean or do yardwork…I feel like the mindless tasks plus feeling useful help.

    And when it’s night and I’ve tried everything and I’m laying there exhausted freaking out? It’s time for the big gun. Benadryl baby. Knocks a lady right out.

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Excellent points. Thank you.

  • Sonja Lishchynski
    November 25, 2015

    Oh hon. So sorry. Been there. Does not help that Luna has been unwell too. She is such great support.

    I found having a partner made it worse. Like I had to manage him too… Until I met Stefan. Luckily he is the one person I can completely fall apart with. I really hope you have that one day.

    In the meantime you are my super woman for flying solo!

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Thanks.

  • Kathryn
    November 27, 2015

    Wow, you really do sound like you’ve got it together.

    My biggest cause of anxiety is flying. Not the actual flying itself but being stuck in a confined space with some many people all doing weird and random shit. I avoid it as much as possible. Trains are so much more fun and don’t have the same effect. Maybe because there is that possibility of escape.

    I actually used to love flying once but I think over the last decade or so, people have become much harder to deal with – I’m not sure if it’s just me but I do think maybe it could as air travel has got cheaper, people’s manners have gotten worse.

    Maybe it’s true that these are gifts, things like anxiety are a price for being sensitive to your environment and that came be positive in many ways.
    Kathryn recently posted…This Week: OsakaMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      November 29, 2015

      Got it together? Oh my. I felt like I was revealing the exact opposite. :)

      I so relate to your comment about flying! The actual flying doesn’t bother me, but when I’m in a high anxiety period, I get really anxious when we land and it takes forever to get off the plane.

  • Kristine
    December 26, 2015

    Gigi, what a beautifully written post. I also struggle with anxiety- thankfully it is mostly mild and over the years I’ve learned what triggers it. Flying is a huge trigger and people can never understand my love of travel given how terrified I am of flying but it’s a trade off. Lots of self talk, medications, deep breathing seem to help. I think that anxiety does change over time and so do the coping skills we choose. I’m similar to you- if I’m traveling for a long trip and moving every day that increases my anxiety. Moving slow, taking time for me makes a huge difference! Great post!
    Kristine recently posted…Thoughts on Home……My Profile

    • gigigriffis
      March 11, 2016

      Thanks.

  • Morgan
    June 16, 2016

    I totally feel you on this. Traveling is exciting, but it can also be extremely nerve wracking, especially when you are anxiety prone. It’s really important to figure out a way to manage your anxiety in order to preserve your sanity while you’re away. These are simple instructions that can go a long way (literally)! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Grant Williams
    September 16, 2017

    Hi Gigi – nice blog. I found it very informative about the digital nomad life and specific details that I don’t usually run across elsewhere.

    Thanks!
    Grant Williams recently posted…Tired of An Unclean Home? Here’s Which Air Purifier Is Best for DustMy Profile

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