5 Lessons I Have Learned Traveling With Anxiety
As many of you may know, I recently backpacked from San Ignacio, Belize to Antigua, Guatemala with my husband for our honeymoon. You may also know that I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and mild-to-moderate depression. So, how does one living with these conditions navigate new places and experiences during a pandemic without losing control? The answer my friends, is you don’t. Let me explain…
The funny thing about generalized anxiety is that it is completely random and what you would expect to trigger panic and anxiety rarely does. For example: Flying thousands of miles above ground, no problem! Walking for hours wading through water up to your neck, squeezing through small spaces, and climbing rocks deeper and deeper into a dark cave, no sweat! 9-hour bus rides wearing a mask in a bus full of strangers, challenge accepted! Climbing steep Mayan Ruins and hundreds of meters up mountains and live volcanos, love it! Noticing a tingling sensation in my leg while laying in bed at night… "I THINK I MIGHT BE DYING.” I must say, I was a bit surprised, and even a little amused by the irony.
What is Sleep?
As you may have gathered, nighttime is when my anxiety tends to peak. At home I have managed to curb my evening anxiety for the most part with a solid wind down bedtime routine, among other behaviours I practice throughout the day. However, put me in a new environment and disrupt my routine; it’s a completely different story. Sleep evaded me for most of the trip; I got a solid sleep maybe 4 out of the 11 nights we were away (to be fair, one night I am 99% sure I had food poisoning from chicken and cheese stuffed jalapeno poppers). Most of my sleepless nights were driven by anxiety. One night I was anxious about our border crossing from Belize to Guatemala; “what if we don’t have the right documentation?”, “What if someone kidnaps us and holds us ransom on the other side?”. Another night we were staying in a jungle lodge, and I was convinced our clothes, which were hanging on our deck overnight to dry, were being stolen by either the people staying next to us, or the monkeys we had seen earlier that day (totally legit right? By the way, our clothes were fine). Other nights it was just me and my rapidly beating heart for seemingly no reason at all.
After a few sleepless nights in a row, I began to get suspicious; there had to be a deeper reason for my heightened nighttime anxiety and lack of sleep, other than a change in environment. Upon investigating my change in behaviours and habits over the past few days, I established several explanations.
The Books You Read
The first explanation was the reading material I chose to bring along with me on the trip, Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad. I chose this book because a) I love memoirs about individuals overcoming hardships, and b) I enjoy books that involve travel and adventure. The deeper dove into Suleika’s story about battling cancer as a young adult, the more involved and emotionally invested I felt; it is both a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir. You may be wondering, what is the connection between this book and my sleepless nights? The answer my friends is Health Anxiety. I discovered that, the more invested I got in the story, especially before bed, the more intense my anxiety grew. I found it interesting, however, that the contents of the book did not affect me during the day, when I was distracted by people, activities, and the beauty of the places I went; it was only when, I was in bed next to my sleeping husband and everything went quiet, that my imagination ran wild and anxiety festered.
Location is Everything
Living with anxiety for many years, I have learned that not everything is within my control; however, you can be darn sure that I will address everything that is. For example, my husband and I spent 3 months planning this trip. We read hundreds of travel blogs, excursion, transportation, and accommodation reviews, and scoured the internet for COVID-19 travel restrictions in the 4 different countries we were traveling through and to. We crafted a detailed itinerary, stocked up on items, such as Latin American Spanish phrase books, bug spray (and wipes), water purification tablets and LifeStraws, a first aid kit, face masks, and multiple bottles of sanitizer, and were very diligent in ensuring we had every piece of documentation and paperwork (and tests) needed for travelling during a pandemic. As you might be able to tell, I like to take proactive steps to avoid anxiety provoking situations, such as missing a shuttle, being denied access because of missing documentation, contracting malaria from mosquitos, a parasite from unclean water, or getting COVID-19 and having to quarantine in an unfamiliar location.
One thing I didn’t consider, however, was accessibility to essential services. This probably did not cross my mind because it hasn’t been a source of anxiety for me since I was a teenager. However, it did indeed cross my mind when we rode, from a very small village, 45-minutes into the jungle in the back of a truck that resembled part military vehicle, part safari jeep, to get to our fourth hostel of the trip. As per usual, the anxiety of being so far from a healthcare facility didn’t hit until, you guessed it, I was laying in bed.
The Food You Eat.
The final explanation for my heightened anxiety and sleepless nights came as no surprise. Being on vacation, I was particularly excited about taking a break from planning, preparing, and cooking meals and took full advantage of this opportunity. Kyle and I indulged in local cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and filled up on coffee, street food, and baked goods in between. During the day I am certain we drank as much coffee as we did water (if not more) and in the evenings we celebrated with beer from local breweries and beautifully crafted cocktails. Sounds amazing right? Admittedly, it was delightful, and I had an excellent time; however, when I connected the dots between my changed behaviours and my evening anxiety levels, I felt incredibly silly.
Among all the excitement of being on vacation, I managed to disconnect from many of the recommendations I provide my own clients when it comes to nourishing and supporting our bodies for good mental health. The meals I had consumed contained less fruits, vegetables, and fibre than my body is used to receiving and the traditional cooking methods in many of the restaurants involved deep or pan-frying food items in a ton of oil. I was also taking in more sugar and caffeine than I had since studying for final exams during my undergrad!
Despite the situation being compIetely ironic, I found the whole thing quite amusing and felt encouraged by the fact that my lived experience reinforced the foundation on which I base my private practice – the power of the food-mood connection.
"my lived experience reinforced the foundation on which I base my private practice – the power of the food-mood connection".
Naturally, I took what I learned from these 5 lessons and altered my behaviours accordingly. I expressed gratitude for my anxiety not showing up during moments when I absolutely thought it would. Instead of hating on myself and my body for not allowing me to sleep I got curious and investigated the cause. I put the book down and saved it for the flights home. In the jungle I managed to prevent my anxiety from evolving to a full out panic attack by reaching into my wellness toolbox and pulling out a few calming exercises that have worked for me in the past, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Upon making the connection between my changed dietary habits and my anxiety, I reduced my alcohol intake and chose lower sugar options, stopped consuming coffee after 12:00 PM, and actively sought out fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on at local markets.
Going back to the proposed question in the intro, “how does one living with these conditions (GAD, panic disorder, and depression) navigate new places and experiences during a pandemic without losing control?”
I went into this trip knowing full well what my mental health conditions are capable of when they are in full swing. I also knew that, even though I have my anxiety under control at home, being triggered in a new place was a possibility. Losing control was also a possibility. What brought me comfort and gave me confidence, however, was knowing the work I have put in over the years to support my mental health and develop mental resiliency. Mental resiliency enables us to take risks, try something new, and adapt to difficult circumstances. Being mentally resilient doesn't mean I will never experience distress – it is a part of the human experience after all. Instead, I have learned and developed strategies to withstand and learn from these unpleasant experiences.
The key point I'm trying to make is that, in rearranging my priorities over the years and putting myself and my mental health first, I have finally gotten to a place where my mental health conditions are no longer controlling factors in my life and I feel confident in my ability to control my reactions, rather than letting my reactions control me.
If you are interested in learning more about the food-mood connection, and how it may be impacting your life, check out my free Eating for Mental Wellness Meal Planning Guide or book a discovery session and we can discuss into your symptoms and detemine how I can best serve you. Perhaps you are all-in and are ready to dive into virtual one-on-one counseling today - you can book your first appointment here!