Travel anxiety is no laughing matter

I buckled myself in, closed my eyes and prayed that both my body and my mind would make it. I had taken an antidepressant to help me relax, but it wasn’t combating against the baby’s cries, the stale air, or the fact that my knees were pressing against the seat in front of me. The thought that I would be trapped here for the next ten hours was enough to send me back to the cabin bathroom on frequent trips, just to squeeze my eyes shut and attempt to turn my hyperventilating breaths into deep, calm ones. As the engines roared in my ears, I thought of my family, 30,000 feet below me, slipping further and further away, oblivious to the terror I felt as the reality of my decision to move across the globe settled in. As I walked down the narrow aisle back to my seat, the walls of the plane pressed in around me like I was trapped in between two mattresses.

Anxiety is something that’s not often talked about, like we’re the last little line of society that the dust pan just can’t reach. “Suck it up, you’ll be fine.” “Why can’t you just get over it?” “Change your thought process.” All these statements just make it worse.

I know anxiety isn’t all “just in my head” and science proves that. Sometimes it just made a stressful situation a little harder to deal with. Other times a panic attack would sneak up on me, with a racing heartbeat and shortness of breath, for no real reason at all. I wouldn’t say that my anxiety made me less adventurous, it just made me more cautious in unfamiliar situations.

Anxiety and all, I had decided that I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living my life-long dream of studying abroad in France. During my junior year, I was accepted into the direct exchange program in Lyon, France. I arrived in August before my senior year began. The first few months were hard.

I felt like I was trapped in an elevator that wouldn’t be fixed for nine months. I cried a lot and swore to myself that I could stick it out until Christmas, but even that seemed bleak to my frazzled brain. It was hard to make friends, especially French ones, and loneliness, a lack of ability to fully communicate in my new language, and the months stretching out before me made my situation seem hopeless.

I had been taking a low-dose of Xanax daily for months at this point, something that I had fought hard against. I didn’t want to feel like I needed to depend on something to feel happy or calm, but sometimes asking for what you really need shows more strength than weakness. When I made my first appointment at a French doctor’s office to refill my prescription, I arrived at his home. Generally speaking, doctors in France don’t have clinics, and his home workspace was a room filled with a large wooden desk and house plants of every size. There was no examination table, no thermometer, no charts, just stacks of paper, books, and various objects spilling off of every surface. I felt extremely small and out of place. I sat down across from the doctor who had been recommended to me as “English-speaking”, but found myself forced to mime how I felt, and the medication I thought I needed. After an exasperated sigh from us both, he took my American prescription bottle and slowly slid a scrap of paper towards me across the table. I shyly wrote my name and slid it back like some crappy negotiation. The exchange lasted a total of five minutes and I left with a refilled prescription and a mental note to learn more French medical terms.

After a couple more long months of resilience, things finally started to fall into place. I started to connect with a few people I had met, and leaned heavily on their encouragement as we became that new kind of family you find when you live or travel abroad. As my level of comfort steadily grew, so did my sense of adventure. There were multiple occasions where it would have been easier for me to just stay in for a weekend, save some money and relax, but I had come here to see the world and I refused to spend too much time on the things I could do back at home. If others were too busy to travel with me, I found myself booking flights and trains to see cities completely by myself, something that I thought someone who hates being alone would never do. I decided on a whim that I would take a solo trip to Copenhagen, and spent the time wandering museums, botanical gardens, and fancy coffee shops. I learned that being alone and being lonely are two completely different things.

That’s the thing about going abroad — you learn things about yourself. Like, really learn things. Adventurous, daring, and bold were never the words that would first come to mind when describing myself, but now they don’t seem so far out of reach. I didn’t let fear tie me down to one place, I simply picked up the ropes and took them with me. And while anxiety is probably something that I will deal with from time to time throughout my life, I’ve learned to do things that scare me on purpose so that I can control it – not let it control me. Everything I experienced abroad showed me that fear cannot keep me from opportunities or dictate my life.

Because if I hadn’t stuck it through, I wouldn’t have traveled to 16 countries in ten months. I wouldn’t have wandered into Vatican Square while Pope Francis was giving a blessing over the city. I wouldn’t have rented a house on a Greek island with five friends and dance under sunsets that took my breath away. I wouldn’t have met the people I was supposed to meet, who have left deep impacts on my life. If I hadn’t stuck it through, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, able to encourage people that even if you try something and it’s different than what you thought, it’s okay. Don’t let that hold you back.