Travel and anxiety often go hand in hand, but for those who have mental health needs, it can be a stressful time even more so. We spoke to three travellers with varying mental health needs who’ve been able to overcome them and see the world.
Bryony, 34, hails from Eastbourne and has been crippled with panic and anxiety ever since she was six years old. After trying many different treatments and medications to ease the worries she felt on a daily basis, she decided to take an impromptu solo trip to Bangkok, Thailand, to free herself from the world of fear she felt trapped in. She says travel has saved her life and writes a hilarious blog on travel and anxiety at Find a Happy Place .
Bryony is currently enjoying life in Vietnam (for now), so we chatted with her before she was rained out by the impending typhoon.
‘Everyone was out to do me harm’
“I don’t know what started my anxiety,” she says, “but I do know I was about six-years-old when my anxiety manifested itself through hair pulling (trichotillomania), and then evolved into panic attacks, I think it stemmed, more than anything, from a fear of people. I thought everyone was out to do me harm.”
Bryony sought help as she got older, using a mixture of medication and therapy such as CBT and counselling. But as stresses of work increased, she found she was coping with it in the wrong way. “I’d got myself into a real rut, panicking regularly and drinking too much. My life felt far beyond my control.”
‘Before I knew it, I was bound for Asia’
Rather than stay this way, Bryony’s next move was a trip to Bangkok. “I just suddenly decided to travel and booked the trip at very short notice. I didn’t prepare, I just plunged in headfirst. My parents didn’t believe I’d board the plane and waited at the terminal thinking I’d waltz back through the gates having changed my mind!”
Bryony did make the flight, and on her first night in Asia she says she felt amazing. Proud of herself, strong, independent – feelings she’d never experienced before. “It was like the world had suddenly opened up to me. I was out there all alone, despite the mental barriers in the way.”
“If I could bottle the feeling of that first night, I would do it in a heartbeat.”
‘It was my rock bottom’
After a few weeks of group travel, which Bryony says is a brilliant choice for an anxious first-time traveller, she returned home and back to daily life. But after a breakdown and being signed off work for weeks on end, she felt she had to leave.
“My anxiety had become so severe that I couldn’t function as a normal, working person. I was very depressed and I had stopped eating almost completely. Suddenly, I was on my laptop booking a return trip to Delhi – for three months. I had never even considered India before but, out of nowhere, I had a huge desire to go.
“I think I was rebelling against my anxieties. It was the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced by far – and the most rewarding by a long way.”
‘Each person has helped me’
Bryony’s panic was with people, thinking everyone was out to hurt her. Her fear of an intruder climbing through her window, even to the terrorist attacks over the past few years, made her feel trapped. Travel forces people out of their comfort zones and into experiencing new people and cultures.
“I travelled with an Italian clown in India for a while, stayed with a beautiful family in Cuba, spent some time with Buddhist monks in Dharamsala, and met gentle, wonderful people in the Himalayan villages while I was trekking in Nepal. Each person has helped me become the person I am today. I’m grateful to all of them.”
What’s her advice for anyone feeling the same way?
“I will always remember the feeling of being trapped,” she says. “It feels so hopeless and endless. My heart goes out to anyone feeling that way today.”
Half the battle, she knows, is tackling the panic. “The road to recovery is tough, I can’t pretend it’s an easy ride, but you’ll feel stronger, braver and prouder every single step of the way. Start small, if you need to. Go camping, try Europe, or head for somewhere with a low level of culture shock (USA or Australia perhaps) before building up to somewhere more far flung.
“If you panic, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s a bump in the road. Just stick with it and you’ll get there. I’ve come to terms with the fact I’ll always have panic attacks and made peace with it. It makes it far easier to cope and detaches the shame I’ve always felt about being anxious.”
Her last few words are the ones that she lives by:
We live on a beautiful planet filled with beautiful people. So travel has saved, and changed, my life.