We spoke to keen traveller Charley, who talks about anxiety, nerves while travelling and the holiday where everything went wrong. Here are her coping tips for when everything seems to be going the wrong way.
I used to not agree to do things because it set off the feeling of an attack – climbing anything, snorkelling, swimming in the ocean, even walking in public in a new place. But now I tell myself to break past the limits, power through, focus on the memories I’ll have for actually doing something. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does I break away an extra piece of the anxiety and just watch it float away.
My anxiety started a long time before I really realised what anxiety was. And I always put it down to being shy, or an introvert, or generally a bit of a wimp. But as soon as I started travelling (my first time on a plane was aged 19) I realised that my problems were rooted deeper than ‘being a bit scared every now and then’.
I had panic attacks when forced to go out in public alone (walking home from school or meeting people in town on weekends), and having to interact with strangers gave me the shakes and uncontrollable nausea.
Getting evicted in New York
The first time I ‘travelled’ was my first holiday with my boyfriend-now-husband on a five hour flight to New York. He was already very well travelled, was completely comfortable with the experience and doesn’t have anxiety issues. He tried his best to reassure me during the flight, but it was obviously taking its toll on his patience. I felt so claustrophobic and anxious about what my state would be the next minute, the minute after that, the next hour, etc. five hours felt like a lifetime. I was already dreading having to fly back (even before we landed!).
It turned out this particular holiday was a disaster anyway.
We’d rented an apartment, so spent the first night planning what to do the next day and recovering from the flight (a hot shower, new pjs and 10 mins breathing exercises will do the trick!). In the morning we woke to the court sheriff knocking on the door. The apartment ‘owner’ had been subletting illegally and hadn’t paid rent for 3 months. So we were being evicted and had ten minutes to pack and go. It felt like the worst had happened.
I panicked about finding somewhere else to stay, about not being well prepared, about having no phone to contact parents, about being duped of our $1500 payment. I spent the first day of our holiday sobbing and gasping for breath in Times Square, convinced we had been scammed.
It all worked out with a new hotel in the end, but I spent the rest of the holiday on edge about everything, thinking something else would happen. I longed to not think about it and carry on enjoying myself, without my heart beating palpitations every few minutes.
Every time I go away now, I’m always careful to check and re-check everything. And having to be so prepared for everything does take its toll on my enjoyment levels. But there are things you can overcome, and I’m living proof!
Fainting at St Paul’s
Years ago I climbed the stairs of St Paul’s dome on a school trip.
Entering the dome, I looked over the edge into the cathedral and immediately had a panic attack. I almost fainted and had to be walked back down with my friend. Ever since, I’ve limited myself. Anything with heights was a no – London Eye, Shard, even Lincoln Cathedral!
But planning activities on my honeymoon to Sri Lanka, someone told me I had to climb Sigiriya Rock. I looked at youtube videos, pictures on Flickr – it looked far too high and steep for me. Walking up steel stairs bolted onto the side of a 200m rock, with a sheer drop below? That’s a panic attack waiting to happen. But I got there and I was determined to climb it, no matter what happened. If an attack came, I was going to close my eyes and my husband would lead me up by my armpits – conscious or unconscious!
And I did it. I climbed without any help at all, clutching onto a bottle of water and stopping to close my eyes and breathe deeply every time there was more space.
Comfort kits and flights
As for flights, I’ve since survived 8 hours, 10 hours, 12 hours by making a ‘comfort kit’. It sounds silly, but it’s pretty much everything I need to keep me calm –
– Polo mints (they’re my go-to for distraction and settling my stomach)
– An eye mask (even used on 3 hour flights – anything to feel like I’m not on a plane)
– A bottle of water
– Noise-cancelling headphones (good for drowning out nervous noises like babies crying, people coughing, the dings of the help button)
– An iPod packed with calming music (Ludovico Einaudi, film instrumentals)
– Anything that will calm my breathing and lower my heart rate from palpitations