My tried and tested tips to cope when this unwelcome guest comes along in your hand luggage.
Travel is one of my all time favourite things. For me, it stimulates growth, sparks new ideas, clears my mind and excites my spirit like nothing else. But, two months ago, I found myself sitting at the airport waiting for my flight to India and I felt a panic begin to rise in my chest. Was I making a mistake? Who did I think I was travelling half way across the world alone to a country where endless articles tell me that as a woman I will not be safe? I received an excited text from one of my yoga teachers asking if I was there yet and confessed in reply that I was actually sitting at the airport scared witless. You see I have travelled alone countless times, in dozens of countries, but it was my first trip since I had been diagnosed with the big A. Naturally, I was filled with nervous fear at the very likely prospect of having my frenemy anxiety tag along on my dream journey a million miles away from home. But I jumped on that plane anyway and had one of the most amazing adventures of my life.
Here are some tips I picked up along the way to cope when this unexpected guest comes along for the vacay:
1. Keep your tribe on the line. Technology is responsible for a great many things, some of them not so fabulous. But one of the greatest things it has done is remove borders with the tap of a facetime call or a whatsapp message. As soon as you land buy a local sim card so you can stay connected to the people who know (and care about) your story. Staying connected will give you a lifeline to familiarity if and when anxiety strikes in a strange new place. Landing in Kathmandu after a month of soul searching in India, I learnt the town was on high alert expecting its second tremor from the 2015 earthquake and anxiety swept in to convince me that I was in immediate danger. Alone in a hotel room, in one of the most polluted cities in the world, where busses often drop off dangerous cliffs, and more plane crashes happen than in any other nation I started catastrophising. A whatsapp text to a close friend brought me quickly back down to ground level, as she reminded me why I was there and just how capable I was to do it.
2. Learn to identify your intuition. When you travel your intuition will always guide you and keep you safe before your rational mind has time to process the situation enough to see the full story. I spent four days in Varanasi with dozens of other yoga teachers for Shivratri, a major Hindi festival that celebrates the union of Shiva and Shakti. There on an organised tour, that to me meant I could kick back and let someone else plan my days. Varanasi is intense by anyone’s standards (and amazing) but the evening before Shivratri brings hundreds of men to the banks of the Holy River Ganga for an all night pilgrimage. Our group were to spend the evening in a concert near the river and walk against the stream of the pilgrimage along the banks back to our hotel after it finished. My instinct started firing little warnings, and right before departure my stomach joined the protest party. But not wanting to “miss out” I pushed myself to still attend. Needless to say we found ourselves in a very dangerous situation, one that left me shaken and a little traumatised. But mostly, I was really angry at myself for not listening to the warning signs that my intuition threw my way before I got there and fearful of not seeing it next time danger came to play. Lesson learnt. From that moment on I listened closely for the whispers of my intuition and let it guide my way. Its hard to separate anxiety from intuition but the more you listen to your inner guidance the quieter the voices of fear become in your head as you learn to trust your feeling in any new situation.
3. Honour to your body. Listen to and honour what your body needs. If that means a few days rest in a safe place, splashing on a slightly more expensive bed for the night for a little TLC, or a quiet day by the river your body will thank you for it. Managing your anxiety means knowing when the warning signs flare up, don’t push the boundaries for the sake of it. In India I skipped an entire town on my hit list because my body was begging for a rest. The town was a twelve hour overnight bus ride away and my body just wanted a book, hammock and some chill time. I ended up connecting with some seriously epic like-minded people because I stayed. You aren’t missing out by stopping sometimes; you are just entering a different story.
4. Ground yourself. Travelling, hours on the move, new places, new people and varying altitudes increases the air and space in your body and mind and for those of you (like me) who are vata dosha dominant this can leave us a little spacey, anxious and up in our heads. Carve out time for whatever grounding practise balances you back to calm. My go-to’s are massages, walking barefoot in grass or sand, sitting with my back against a tree or meditating on my breath.
5. Make daily meditation non-negotiable. For me meditating allows me to tune in to my body and quiets my mental processes. If you are new to meditation a mantra is a great place to start. I love the chant “Om Namah Shivaya”, which translates to I honour the divine in me, or I am at one with myself. While in Rishikesh a shopkeeper told me he chants this every night before sleep for five minutes and it quiets his mind and induces a calm restful sleep. The practise of meditation has been proven to reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system (flight or flight) and increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Meditation shifts us into a state of restful awareness, slowing down the heart rate, evening out our breath, blood pressure and giving our immune system a chance to rejuvenate. It also lowers the cortisol levels in our body (released in stress). Practising it daily keeps you in tune with your self, and your energy levels and, at a neurological level it helps slow the automatic response of the amygdala that stimulates anxiety and fear.
6. Jenny don’t be hasty. My anxiety triggers when I feel pressured to make a decision, particularly in a situation I am unsure of. Don’t let anyone pressure you to make a decision ‘right now’. If something feels off, take a moment, step out of the situation if time allows, or just take a deep breath to give yourself a moment to connect with the choice before you leap. Often that one extra moment allows you to feel at ease and comfortable with the choice you’re making, or to pinpoint the reason for your discomfort and address it. Particularly in third world countries and different cultural situations, you may find yourself being haggled with or told that you “must” do a certain thing. For Laura and I in Delhi when we stepped out of the Red Fort we had two dozen tuk-tuk and rickshaw drivers competing for our attention and telling us it was unsafe to walk. Instead of panicking we stepped aside and tuned into our instinct; both of us believed that it wasn’t safe, but didn’t trust the vibes of the man that was telling us so. We firmly said no, and ended up spending the rest of the day with a different, very kind 21 year old rickshaw driver who appointed himself our “security guard” and took us to see so many places we never would have ventured to alone. The best bit? We felt completely safe and at ease with him!
7. Do the things that bring you joy. Laughter is absolutely the best medicine. You will likely encounter some form of anxiety on your trip, but don’t let it stop you from the next opportunity. Take time to seek out the fun things that will make you laugh or bring you joy. Spend time playing a game with local children, take a yoga class, see a movie, go for a hike in nature. If you can’t find it, fabricate it. Did you know that the human body can’t tell the difference between a fake laugh and a real one, and still releases all the warm and fuzzy chemicals whether you actually have the giggles or not? In Varanasi, after that traumatic experience I attended a hatha class at a local studio hidden down a winding alley. Mid class a few of us had the giggles and instructor stopped the entire practise to lead us in his favourite modality; integrated yoga therapy, otherwise known as laughter yoga! I walked out of that class with a cheesy grin and a brand new spring in my step. Whatever it is that lights you up, do it, and do it as often as you can.
8. Travel rarely goes according to plan and as an anxiety sufferer it’s a major trigger when you aren’t met with the experience you expect. Absolutely plan an itinerary, but keep your expectations for what it will bring you down to earth so that if (and when) it changes, you can happily go with it rather then getting fixated on “what should have been”. In Nepal I intended to trek the Annapurna Circuit but freak weather had other plans, closing the pass with -20 degree temps and epic snow falls, while stories of missing people and avalanches taking out lodges at Annapurna Base Camp thwarted my plan B. Plan C took me entirely by surprise, off the beaten path to epic views and a whole new adventure as I trekked a relatively unknown new path; Mardi Himal. The biggest thing is, don’t compare or beat yourself up if you haven’t done as much as someone else or ticked everything off your own list. It’s meant to be an adventure, and it’s meant to be fun!