What Traveling with Social Anxiety Has Taught Me
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s promote awareness and encourage positive conversations by sharing and reflecting upon our own experiences with mental health. Today, I’m revealing my battle with social anxiety while traveling.
Traveling has always been my preferred method of self-care. In fact, I believe it’s one of the best investments we can make in ourselves. But a prevalent misconception is that it’s a form of escapism, a way to disconnect from the realities of our everyday. That might be true to some extent, but after spending the past three years overseas, traveling has forced me to come to terms with my anxiety.
As a person living with trigger-based social anxiety, being at home surrounded by a supportive network of friends and family allowed me to repress my anxieties. If the anxieties made themselves known, my family and friends were quick to understand having prior knowledge of my extreme sensitivity. When I decided to pursue a long-term travel endeavor, I was under the false pretenses that I would be okay, not aware that by removing certain pillars of my support group, I would have to grapple with things I never had confronted before alone.
I may come across as highly extroverted but I’m a “learned extrovert,” a term introduced to me by the blogger Nomadic Matt, who also went public with his severe anxiety last year. As a young girl, my coping mechanism was to come off as warm and friendly as I possibly could. I realized that by being personable, it would lessen the probability of people judging and/or not liking me. I can’t tell you how painful it is to be criticized on caring too much about what everyone else thinks, but that’s part of the symptoms of being socially anxious, that you are forced to live your life around the opinions of others. In the long run, I appreciate that being socially conscious taught me to nurture better qualities in myself like patience and gratitude. But it’s very exhausting to keep up that front, especially when you do want to raise your voice against injustice or concern, but feel powerless against the fear of retaliation. I drew strength from Nomadic Matt’s confession, that a prominent figure in the travel world be so open with his crippling fears. The solidarity in community is crucial to the success of travelers living with this illness.
In 2008, I packed my bags for Thailand on a gap year program as a way to recuperate from my parents’ divorce. In early 2011, a spring break in Scandinavia helped me take my mind off a hospital scare with my dad. Later that year, in the wake of my dad’s unexpected passing, I jetted off to Florence, Italy for a cathartic semester abroad crying my heart out next to the Arno at least once a day. There’s no doubt that travel has helped me to overcome a number of challenges in my life but it’s not a quick solution to all of life’s problems. As empowering as travel may be, it also severs you from the safe haven of your community. Many people who suffer from mental illness already feel like they’re on their own, so being geographically removed on top of feeling mentally isolated can easily turn into a recipe for disaster.
When I moved to South Korea in the summer of 2014, I was convinced it would be just like any trip, except that I would be living and working abroad and not just traveling through. As surreal as being in South Korea was, there was an atmosphere of hostility and superficiality I didn’t anticipate. I fell into the wrong crowd and gave permission to insignificant people to take away my peace of mind. My social anxiety spiraled out of control living in constant fear of judgement. And on top of that, in the middle of my first year abroad working harder than I had ever had before, my pre-existing hypothyroid condition flared up and I was left to deal with not only a weakened mind, but a weakened body. I could barely get myself out of bed let alone attend to my shattered spirits. My silver lining in Korea was meeting Tim, my current beau. But as supportive as he was, he had only just met me and was unprepared to deal with my history of sadness and anxiety. On a similar note, my anxiety was a burden I refused to unload on newly made friends, most of who were going through their own similar struggles of isolation. So I developed an eating disorder as a way to gain some semblance of control. I honestly had never felt so low in my life.
The year in Korea came and went and I was left with a loss in my sense of self. I felt like the darkness that I had once kept at bay had been uncaged and was spreading across my body and my thoughts, ensnaring everything I once loved about myself. I felt defeated by the experience of teaching abroad I had once romanticized; the discouraging year demonstrated I wasn’t as worldly or independent as I thought I was. For my 25th birthday, I had organized a quarter-life celebration in Bangkok and had my sisters and some friends fly out to meet me. Almost immediately, my sisters noticed my fragility and defensiveness. I wasn’t the same person. For the three weeks we were together, I lashed out at them and pushed them away, feeling more sensitive than ever. I was readying myself for a fight that didn’t exist. I truly believed everyone hated me. The tension was so thick, it reverberated among the group unfairly. And as it started to affect the group’s overall disposition, that’s when I knew the anxiety was out of hand.
The day I found the courage to share all I had been hiding is the day my first panic attack hit. Episode number one. I was sitting on the floor in the lobby of an Airbnb condo in Kuala Lumpur, baring my absolute dejection about my not-so-pleasant time in Korea. In the flood of words interspersed with tears, my windpipe clenched with a ferocity I had never known and soon, I was gasping for air. The suffocation was swift and slow at the same time, like every sad moment I had ever tidied away in the caverns of my heart escaped and were barreling up my esophagus, clogging the passageway in their sheer numbers. I panicked naturally, thinking that the feeling of drowning and the sharp stabs in my chest were indicative of something truly wrong in my physiology. And then my sisters held my hands and told me to B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Breathing is a pretty special thing. I don’t do it enough, especially when I’m anxious. It’s like I lessen my breathing to suck in all of the fears that may spring out. My sisters were truly worried about my sanity because Thailand/Malaysia was the first leg in a 6 month, 5 country backpacking adventure I had planned with Tim. But I have always been the kind of person who thinks regret is more terrifying than any risk one could take and so I did the backpacking trip, even with the promise of panic attacks looming on the horizon. The trip actually rejuvenated my spirit, being the recipient of so much kindness and experiencing the beauty of the world in new, far-off places. But during my bad days, I still would retreat into myself. But even on those bad days, Tim never turned his back on me. Those six months on the road together showed me the true meaning of unconditional love, that even in a vulnerable state of being, I would always have someone by my side.
In February 2016, Tim and I ended our backpacking trip in Vietnam to continue our time living and working abroad. At the start of a new chapter, I vowed to respect my journey by taking the time to chronicle it. The efforts of the year have amounted to this blog post that you’re now reading. And that one act of self-love turned out to be my saving grace in Vietnam. Suddenly, I had a way to tame the beast. Every time I write, I write for my self betterment—to focus on my joys instead of my sorrows, to record the things that inspire me and the happy moments I want to immortalize. I write to calm my fears and self-loathing. I write to record my favorite eats and how wonderful and alive eating makes me feel. Since starting this blog, the panic attacks have lessened; I’ve only had three major episodes in the past fifteen months. I’m not arguing if travel helps or hurts those with mental illness. Rather, it’s more about what these changing environments have exposed about the nature of my anxiety.
Here the most important lessons I’ve learned traveling with anxiety:
When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was so worried about being unable to find a teaching job because a number of blogs/teaching forums had warned about discriminatory hiring practices against applications of Asian descent. At one of my interviews, the recruiter looked at me and said, “No parents will want you teaching their children because of how you look. Lower your salary expectations.” Instead of letting my anxiety flare up, I used that moment as a learning point to educate the woman on what was problematic about her statement. Afterwards, she tried to offer me the job but I politely declined and instead, walked away with the experience of not taking someone’s ignorance personally.
If you find yourself in the wrong story, leave. But try to leave with a lesson in tow. When I left Korea, I thought there was not a single redeeming quality about the country (unrelated to Tim and my friends). And then I recognized that Korea taught me to grow a backbone and learn how to be more discriminate about people. Thailand was about catharsis; Vietnam reminded me to live more meaningfully. The discovery of both strengths and weaknesses aids to character development. In every new place, I am discovering more of who I am and where I am meant to be.
Traveling demands that you put yourself out there in order to succeed, but that doesn’t mean everyone has a right to get to know you. Live with openness but don’t forget to approach all situations with wisdom. You always have the right to choose who you invite into your life. I have shared my home, and my heart, with a lot of people who didn’t deserve it out of sheer desperation to have a community. But it’s more damaging to share yourself with the wrong people than to simply be alone. In the end, the best self-care is self-love. If you feel taken advantage of in any situation, whether among new flatmates, by a supervisor, or even by a street vendor, stand your ground. YOU are always in control of your peace! Never feel bad about what needs to be done to protect yourself.
When Tim and I first moved to Vietnam, we noticed Tim’s bike helmet we left sitting on our motorbike was gone and we panicked thinking we were robbed! Tim and I were furious and immediately resorted to, “Oh, I knew this would happen because this is what they tell you about Vietnam...” Turns out that the woman paid to watch over our motorbike saw the helmet left unattended and put it away for safekeeping. Before you succumb to that feeling that the world is conspiring against you, take a quick step back and breathe. Once you’ve cleared your mind, try to reassess the situation, seek out the misunderstanding before laying blame. You rob yourself of peace when you assume.
Upon moving to Korea, I thought there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t making friends as easy as I thought I would. Not fitting in gave me so much anxiety and in a foolish move, I forced relationships that ate away at my soul. In hindsight, it wasn’t until I conceded to the fact that I wasn’t everyone’s “cup of tea” that I started making genuine, loving friends. When you feel uncomfortable, you are at your most vulnerable. But traveling comes with a lot of discomfort because of what is unfamiliar. If you learn to live with the discomfort as an everyday fact rather than something you have to contend with at every go, you’ll learn to manage it better and orient in a way that’s beneficial to you in the end.
Sometimes, new places teach me how very strong and capable I am and how much I underestimate myself, but more often than not, the world humbles me and brings to light everything I still need to work on. Whenever I came across a hardship abroad, I would yearn for home. Now after doing some real heart work, I see that it was never an issue of actually needing to be at home, but needing to feel okay with myself. Echoing the great Nelson Mandela, I hope that in the end, the choices I live by reflect my hopes, and not my fears. To me, traveling is me at my most hopeful.