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.
Thank you for opening up about your experiences travelling with social anxiety. It’s courageous expressing something so personal and so misunderstood. It’s great that you found value in your time in Korea despite how harrowing it seemed. Knowing who to let into your life is definitely a life lesson everyone needs to learn no matter what age.
Huggggssss, Izzy! The vibrant personality in your blog doesn’t show this at all. But your writing shows a courageous spirit so cheers to you and the good people around you!
Thank you for sharing and opening up about this, I know it is not easy to be vulnerable all of the time. I loved reading your article, I admire your positivity and outlook in these situations. Moving abroad and living so far away from family and loved ones hasn’t always been the easiest so it is really nice to have a community of support. You inspire me to be a better blogger so I can share my stories and experiences like you are and help people who may be going through similar experiences 🙂
WOW, Izzy, I don’t even know where to start. I guess at the beginning: THANK YOU so much for being so real, raw and forthcoming about your struggle with anxiety. I’m sure you were terrified about sharing this — and rightly so! — but I bet you’re feeling so liberated now. And the great thing about being so open and vulnerable about our struggles, issues, interior life is that 99% of the time it’s gonna be met with kindness, understanding and empathy because it takes so much courage to do so. And people relate! I’m sure friends, family and strangers will reach out to share their own journeys with this condition.
This year I’ve been trying to be as open and truthful as I can be, and holy sh*%, it’s life-changing! I’m no longer ashamed about certain emotions/feelings that don’t make that much sense, and I was once a bit embarrassed about my own anxiety, but as Brene Brown says “shame grows in silence”, so now I to be one of those TMI people, but I share with persons that love me, so I hope it’s alright haha. And it’s refreshing for you to talk about this issue for two reasons: A) because we live in the generation of anxiety. I’d venture to say that most people nowadays suffer from this condition (to a varying degree). Check out this excellent video on it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mW0gj3n4D1Q) and B) because I’m so fed up with “chronic travelers” painting traveling as the ultimate bliss-seeking, constant enlightening bs journey. Which, of course, a part of traveling does comprise these beautiful things, but there’s so much more, like the loneliness, the homesickness, etc.
What a *trip* you’ve been on these past few years! But it’s taken you to an amazing place: to meet your bf, to have a seemingly great gig and as travel does, helped you grow into yourself. I truly wish we could meet in person to converse, maybe later down the road! I wish you the best of luck Izzy!
Everything about this was just so perfect 🙂 The images, the graphics, the storytelling, the suggestions – just perfecto! I’ve been lucky enough to hear about your experiences and your world in person 😉 xx but to see it in your art form is just so impressing (is that a word? impressive and impacting => impressing?^^)…
You know that the first time I met you, I was in the middle of a strangely insecure and anxiety-stricken time (that I’m maybe still getting out of? lol) — but you had such an innately calming and graceful aura and reassuring smile — like a little BuddhaMothaTheresaPrincessDiana nature about u (when you supposedly were on high-anxiety that day yourself – but I wouldn’t have even known it!) — and that made me feel like you saw what/who I wanted to be and didn’t mind the fumbling way I was trying to express it — and believed that it was in me – without a doubt. That personality trait you have is not something that people can usually learn — that is YOU and something you have within – and it is SO unique and incredible. And worth it – no matter which other personality traits accompany it. So, the fact that YOU also have a brain and heart filled with anxiety is part of the deal of being you — and it really just means that you just care and worry that much – and I know that it’s for a very important purpose that you are the way YOU are ❤️❤️ And the emotions that you’ve developed and ebbed and flowed with your whole life will continue to shift like the sea and who knows what kind of surprising peace (or chaos) you may find yourself in at different times of your life ~~ but I know you’ll always be strong enough to enjoy it – because it’s our life ❤️ and you’re pretty damn good at living it.
Yes!!! It’s true that you should only do things that are best for ones own mental health. In addition, trying To go easy on yourself if you fail once in a while is always good too!
Sandy N Vyjay
Travel is indeed a great teacher. It teaches you so many things and transforms you from within. Travel teaches you tolerance and how to manage minimalastically. There is nothing better than travel as a teacher.
Oh you poor thing. I was there with you during that panic attack. I’ve had the same thing happen to me and the world just closes in. As an introverted extrovert my anxiety has increased as I got older and it definitely comes into play at times while travelling. Know that there are a lot of us that go through this, even though it doesn’t seem like it on the surface and good on you for sharing your story.
I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this post (and you!). It’s so nice to see members of the travel blog community who can open up about their physical and mental health struggles – and really show how it can impact your experience and how travel can impact you as well. Much love and hugs!
This post was so relate able to me! I think travel has expanded my worldview and made me less likely to stay in my comfort zone. It’s helped recover from anxiety a lot!
I love your graphics they are so cool 🙂 It can’t be easy to travel with social anxiety. I think it is amazing that you have the guts to still travel with anxiety. It is sad to read about what happened in South Korea. It is amazing to read that you understand what it is and what you have learned from this, not everyone is able to see that. It is so important to understand and accept this and to feel ok with yourself. Good luck 🙂
Wow, I love how transparent and real you are in this post. I think alot of people don’t talk about this but can completely resonate with some of the things you mention here. I had some anxiety when moving to Korea – mostly because I left all my friends, good job, and everything to go there with Scott. I have never had a hard time making friends but for some reason in Korea I couldn’t make friends for the life of me. It was a total blow to my sanity and I no longer had that support system I once had. There were times I would cry once a day for weeks and would count down the days until our first year was up and we could peace out. Later on I ended up loving it and we came back. But I can totally relate to the feelings you had living there. It saddens me to know such a bubbly happy and inspiration person has to deal with inner anxieties! I want to just reach out and hug you whenever you need it! You have been such an incredible inspiration to me and my personal cheerleader since we started talking and getting to spend time with you in person in the Philippines was a trip we will never forget! You’re an incredible soul and if you ever need a friend I am always here for you. I love the lessons and take aways you have from the different places you go as well. I love hearing about your personal growth along the way. One of my favorite quotes you had in this was, “Before you succumb to that feeling that the world is conspiring against you, take a quick step back and breathe.” I am also guilty of being too quick to think that the world is against me! I could go on forever and I feel like I’m all over the place, great job on such a eloquent and amazing piece Izzy! We love you!
Big big hugs, cuz I’m sure it was not easy to open up and tell your story to the world. I give you huge props for getting out there and exploring the world despite your anxiety. I lived in Singapore and Hong Kong for a little bit by myself and that was hard to do even without having social anxiety, so I know it must have been a million times more challenging for you.
LaiAriel R. Samangkja ( Thelittlelai: Beyond limits)
You have just hit me straight to my heart while reading this blog post of yours. I didn’t know that you have suffered a lot with your social anxiety, but have brought you a lot of beautiful life lesson in the end. I truly admire you on how you fight it and how you were able to manage it while traveling to the different countries. I haven’t been traveling as much as you did and you have inspired me. Anyway, I heard about the Asian discrimination in Vietnam as well if you’re going to apply as an English Teacher, it is frustrating to think that co-Asian country could discriminate that much. Truly traveling can really bring us a lot of lessons. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. God bless and have a safe travel always.
Izzy, I didn’t think it was possible for me to have any more respect for you than I did, but this did it. You’re just such an amazing person and I hope you know that you opening up and making yourself vulnerable is going to help so many people. Thank you for your honestly, your bravery and for being you.
I think that many people suffer of social anxiety. We were born in a decade that the conservative ways of thinking.mentality were still the rules of living a ‘normal’ lifestyle. I had to deal with this too and yes through travel was my way to deal with it. I realized that during my travels I can be authentic because I may not meet again those people. And guess what, I gained new friends, because I was myself. Courage of being authentic brings you to the level of truth and when you say the truth you’ll encourage other people to act the same way. The scary ones will just freak out and run away.
Anne-Sophie - City Cookie
I think it’s wonderful that you are sharing your experience with your readers – you never know, it could really help someone. I recognised myself in some of what you described. I too have struggled with feeling that people are judging me (public speaking and job interviews are so so tough for me) and I have had mini panic attacks when I’ve travelled solo. For me, solo trips and time spent living abroad have been the best for my self-confidence and these experiences have made me grow as a person.
Oh, Izzy, thank you so much for writing this beautiful article. Pouring your heart out, especially for someone who is prone to social anxiety, is something that you’ve obviously taken control of and harness to your advantage. It’s wonderful to see such honesty and raw emotion laid plain for the world to see! You’ve done a great service to people with mental health concerns and who might limit themselves based on the fear of a “flare up” or episode occurring while away from their comfort zone. But as you said, learning to handle it on your own and find your own inner solidarity and strength, ultimately, resulted in a better and wiser Izzy. This sort of post, with its relentless brutal honesty is a breath of fresh air in the travel writing world. So often people use their social media to paint the picture they want to be on display instead of showing the negative spaces often found within the canvas. Thank you so much for letting all of your readers share in your journey and for providing encouragement to anyone worried that they can’t make it without being held up by others. You write beautifully and I’m so happy to know that this form of therapy is as beneficial for you from sharing as it is to your readers.
Many of the things you mention here resonate for me. In particular, what you said about encountering a superficial environment in Korea, and sharing yourself with insignificant people, and giving them opportunity to affect your happiness and take away your peace of mind. A similar situation happened to me within my first eight months of living in Korea. I found an amazing school to work for, but had the hardest time finding genuine friends for a very long time. This place is sociable but also can be very lonely. Back then, due to a lack of emotional support, I let in a romantic interest who I allowed to reduce me to a quivering mess. What you said about being better off alone, rather than inviting insignificant people into your trusted zone, was really powerful. Thanks so much for sharing this!
I don’t know what is harder sometimes to put up this front, to fake a smile and hold it in or just to reveal your inner thoughts and feelings in a sincere post, the way you did Izzy. We love your bright, cheerful posts as much as we appreciate the raw and emotionally charged ones. Keep them coming, because: You’re amazing, you’re human, you’re your authentic you!!!
I don’t know you personally so it’s a bit difficult to write this, but reading this I think you are a very strong and brave woman. Any person would have mental difficulties because of what you have been through with your parents alone! The way you are dealing with your anxiety is inspiring. I wish you all the happiness in the world and hope the future will be easier for you.
Such an inspiring post, thank you being so brave and opening up about your experiences. I’m sure a lot of people reading this post will be able to relate, even if they don’t feel like they have the voice to speak up about their own experiences, I think reading this will give them strength and hope! It’s great that writing this blog helps with your anxieties, so keep it up and keep doing you!
Thank you Izzy for your honesty and opening up about your struggles. As someone who also suffers with anxiety and panic attacks, travel has been a challenge for me to push myself to get out there and not just shut myself away from everything as I once did. This post is so inspiring for others out there who are going through the same hardships <3
It’s really a bold decision to speak up about your experiences and struggles you face. I am feeling more strong and fresh after reading this inspiring post, Izzy. Kudos! The term social anxiety is new for me, but some of the experiences you shared are very familiar. Thanks for a great post.