Have Anxiety, Will Travel? Balancing Worry & Wanderlust

Have Anxiety, Will Travel? Balancing Worry & Wanderlust | For those of us who struggle with anxiety, the excitement of traveling is often met with equal amounts of worry and stress.

Traveling.

For someone who struggles with anxiety, few things are as bittersweet.

One one hand, I love experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a place for the very first time or revisiting old haunts and feeling the warmth of nostalgia flood in. I enjoy adopting a totally different schedule–or no schedule at all!–for a time and engaging in the late-night life chats that inevitably unfold with my travel companions. I appreciate the reminder that my hometown is just one tiny speck on the map and my lifestyle is just one possible way. I even get a kick out of packing my suitcase with non-perishable snacks and three-ounce toiletry bottles and feeling like I have everything I need in life in just one bag (er, maybe more like two or three). Simply walking into an airport sends my heart racing with excitement and possibility as I imagine where other travelers might be headed and ponder, yet again, how insanely awesome it is that we can wake up in one city, state, or country and fall asleep that night in another.

But–and there’s always a “but” when it comes to anxiety–the very elements of traveling that contribute to its novelty, excitement, and ability to impart perspective can also trigger huge amounts of worry and stress. The mere thought of plunging into unfamiliar and uncertain situations that are largely out of my control often tempts me to call the whole thing off, to generate a flimsy excuse as to why I can no longer go, and to retreat to the safety and comfort of my home, where adventure may not await but where at least I know what to expect.

As I’ve discussed in my recent 2-part series on strategies for managing anxiety, I’ve come a long way since this past January when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Things like getting enough sleep, seeing a therapist, and practicing yoga have helped immensely in enabling me to feel healthy, balanced, and like my true, upbeat, goofy, passionate self again. But certain situations, especially those involving any type of travel, seem like an open invitation for those old, irrational thoughts to creep back in–a reality with which I was confronted this past weekend when I went to visit my younger sister just a few hours away.

Typically, I wouldn’t know spontaneity if it knocked on my door and delivered a pizza, so I was quite proud of myself for accepting her last-minute invite without hesitation. I was also truly excited to spend time with her and knew that it would be a low-key trip: the drive was easy, I would be staying for only one night, and I was visiting my sister, for Pete’s sake, so I should be able to just relax and be myself. As you can imagine, then, I was completely blindsided by the uneasiness I felt at various points before, during, and even after the trip. (Yes, after!) Don’t get me wrong, I still managed to have a great time overall, and I don’t regret the visit one single bit. But I was certainly reminded of how much stepping outside of my normal routine can shake me up, how much I obsess about and overanalyze things that should be fun and carefree, and how lonely it is to feel anxious while everyone else appears to be relaxed and enjoying themselves.

I plan to write more on the topic of travel anxiety, since it’s an obstacle I am truly committed to overcoming and would love to help others tackle as well. I took several longer trips this summer (including a two-week stay in Europe), so I have many thoughts on the matter!  I want to make the posts as relevant and useful as possible, so I invite you to comment below (or drop me a line at turningthepaigeblog@gmail.com) and let me know which aspects of travel anxiety you’d like to hear more about!

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A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over

A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over | Here are some of my favorite songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

This past weekend, I attended a concert featuring Mat Kearney, one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. As he strummed the first chords of his early single, “Nothing Left to Lose,” I was immediately taken back to the very first time I ever heard the song: 9th grade, on the school bus, in the dark of the early morning. The melody caught my attention as it played over the radio, and in typical 2006 fashion, I lamented over the fact that I didn’t know the name of the song or artist–and therefore wouldn’t be able to purchase the track on iTunes and download it to my brand new, hot pink iPod nano. (Will this be the “walk uphill both ways to school” story that I tell my future children?)

In that moment of reminiscence, I was truly awed by the power of music to so instantly and effortlessly transport us to a different time and place. Often, these times and places are from our past; for example, whenever I hear the Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann,” I’m suddenly a little girl again in my old house on Heritage Street, and I’m dancing around the living room with my dad and younger sister as the tune plays on our stereo. And whenever I hear “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, I find myself a college freshman once more, cruising in the car with my girlfriends on a sunny August day as we pass by a fraternity house and hear the song blasting from their speakers.

But I think that music also has a way of carrying us into the future–whether by lifting us out of a dark place and encouraging us to press onward, by enabling us to grasp the bigger picture and deeper meaning of our current situation, or by simply reassuring us that we’re not the first person to ever feel this way. So last spring, when I could finally begin to discern the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I started searching for songs that took me to the place where I wanted to be. Over time, what began as just two or three tracks gradually blossomed into a full-fledged playlist that I’m excited to share with all of you today. The songs that comprise my “New Beginnings” soundtrack speak to a variety of emotions and experiences associated with moving on, from waving a hearty goodbye to the past and embracing the future in all of its uncertainty, to hesitating in taking the first steps forward, to remembering that it’s okay to not have it all together yet.

So without further ado, happy listening! I hope that wherever you are in your life right now, these songs will bless you with a dose of positivity and encouragement. And if nothing else, some of these tunes are pretty darn catchy! (I dare you to sit still through “Goodbye,” “Movin’ on Up,” or “Welcome to Your Life.” Go on, try it.) Then, when your jam session is complete, comment below with your thoughts on the playlist and/or tell me about your favorite songs for moving onward and upward!

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. Enjoy! 

A Playlist for New Beginnings | Songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort | My first hiking experience taught me a lot about the "mountains" we face in everyday life.

Recently, while visiting relatives in California, I was invited to accompany several family members on a Sunday morning hike along the coast. To a native of flat, land-locked Indiana like myself, this opportunity was highly appealing–at least in theory. In reality, though, I am afraid of heights and really out of shape (a winning combination!). So my mind flickered back and forth between visions of me 1) toppling off a cliff and taking an unintended dip in the Pacific and 2) being (quite literally) left in the dust by my loved ones. My cousin, an experienced hiker, reassured me that the trail wasn’t as narrow and risky as it looked (!) and that we could stop and rest whenever I needed to do so. Despite her encouraging words, though, I was preparing to decline the offer–until at the last minute, something made me change my mind. Maybe it was a profound moment of bravery, or maybe it was a sugar high from the donut I had just eaten for breakfast. Whatever it was, whether pastry or perseverance, I decided to give it a go.

We weren’t far up the path before I went into Deep Life Reflection Mode and realized that my reasons for hesitating had run far deeper than concerns about my safety or physical fitness level. As my legs burned and my heart pounded and the people and objects at sea level seemed to shrink beneath my feet, I realized that what I had truly dreaded was discomfort: the discomfort of feeling my body struggle to make the climb after so many months of inactivity, of appearing weak and slow in front of my fitter family members, of not knowing for sure what lie ahead on the trail and if I would be able to make it, of wishing things were different or maybe that I were different–stronger, braver, more adventurous–and most of all, of feeling all these things and, with no distractions at my disposal, actually having to face them.

And you know what? This ain’t a fairy tale, and all of these discomforts were, in fact, present during the hike. It hurt. I was slow. I didn’t know what to expect at any given moment. In between gasps for air, I thought about how my life right now is so different from the way I had envisioned it as a child, a teenager, and even a college student. And there was nothing to take my mind off it all–it was just me and the mountain. But I did it anyway. And at the top, I got to share the victory (and the amazing view) with wonderful people who didn’t think any less of me for being Poky McWinded. 

When I told my therapist about the experience, I remarked that I can now truly appreciate why mountains are so often used as metaphors, and she and I proceeded to dissect the wealth of symbolism inherent in my own rocky adventure. (It turns out that you can take the girl out of AP English class, but you can’t take the AP English class out of the girl.) We discussed the obstacles that I had overcome, both literally and figuratively, as well as the new perspective I gained at the summit, when everything that had once seemed big and insurmountable was suddenly much smaller. I then asked her for advice on how to better handle discomfort, whether physical, mental, or emotional, moving forward. My aversion to leaving my comfort zone was my own personal “mountain,” and although I thankfully hadn’t let it prevent me from joining in on the hike, I had let it rob me of plenty of experiences in the past. Was it possible, I wondered, to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

She replied that although none of us will probably ever reach a point where we enjoy or intentionally seek out unpleasant situations, there are steps we can take to reduce the amount of distress we experience when we inevitably face these circumstances. Although it may seem counterintuitive, one of these tactics is leaning into the discomfort rather than pushing it away and attempting to find a distraction. She encouraged me to “stay curious” and explore what my discomfort could be signaling (e.g., an unmet need), since unpleasant emotions are essentially just indicators that something is amiss. She also urged me to let go of any expectations associated with the discomfort. In other words, rather than anticipating the countless negative outcomes that could arise and creating unnecessary anxiety (one of my many talents!), I should instead focus on what I can control, i.e., my thoughts and actions in the present moment. 

Leaning into discomfort and letting go of expectations will no doubt be a lifelong journey, but I am thankful for this clarity regarding the first steps. Reflecting back on the hike in light of my therapist’s advice, I can now see that my discomfort was signaling a mix of self-consciousness, disappointment, and a desire for belonging and acceptance. I created unnecessary anxiety by assuming that I wouldn’t be up to the task, that I would be judged for it, and that somehow these things would diminish my worth. My goal now is to perform this mini-analysis in the moment, before I let anxiety speak too loudly and before I let fear talk me into playing it safe. And whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I can mentally return to that mountaintop, with a sunny valley on one side and the foggy Pacific on the other, and remember what I’m capable of, discomfort and all.