I want to be clear that to the best of my knowledge, I do not suffer from any disorder or illness – but I do deal with what I call “panic flashes”. I’m not good with negative emotions besides anger. Anger I’m wildly familiar with, but feelings of sadness, isolation, rejection or anxiety make me extremely uncomfortable. If I begin to feel any one of those emotions too heavily, I panic. I have a moment (a “flash”) where the back of my neck will become hot, my vision tunnels and I become light headed.
I’m not sure if this can be categorized as a panic attack because the feeling is so fleeting, but when my thoughts become too dark, I can feel myself physically spiral. I’m literally scared of emotions. Even typing it out is embarrassing and uncomfortable. I keep almost deleting this whole post because just thinking about it is making me cringe, but I’ve been doing this thing recently where I don’t hide from emotions. Apparently it’s healthy or whatever.
So when it comes to travel, where I am at my all time happiest, I was annoyed to discover these panic flashes can still happen. As many travellers have come to realize, our mental health is not magically changed by travel. Social anxiety or clinical depression doesn’t evaporate in thirty-five degree weather, because as nice as a sunset on the other side of the world is, it’s still the same sun.
It’s especially important to continue to take care of our mental health while on vacation, so we can enjoy ourselves to the fullest. For me, as fantastic as a Toña or a hot New Zealander bartender is, I still sometimes need relaxation techniques. One method I discovered recently is talking games.
While on an island in Nicaragua, I convinced my sister and best friend to go on an eight-hour hike up a volcano with me (what could possibly go wrong?). I normally love hiking, but after two hours in the brutal heat I quickly became angry (my go to). All I could think about was the sweat pouring down my back, the blister forming at my heel, and my ragged breath – where the hell were those alleged “endorphins”?
To make matters worse, my sister was practically skipping through the jungle with ease, and Madison, who was as despondent as myself (see above), was daring me to turn us back with every miserable glance. It’s incredibly frustrating to be doing something you enjoy but not be able to appreciate it, and then feeling guilty about that. I figured talking would only tire us out further, but I was nearing a breaking point (my third if I’m being honest). I began asking Madison ‘would you rather’/’random preference’ questions:
Peach or cherry?
Would you rather live in a house in London OR ranch in California?
Paintings or sculptures?
Would you rather eat a live worm OR the same amount of dead bird?
Zac Efron or Meryl Streep?
Would you rather be hit by a truck OR continue this hike?
Some of the questions became wildly inappropriate and inanely specific, but the weirder they were the faster those negative thoughts ebbed away, distracting us from our daunting climb. I have no scientific evidence to back up this technique and it may not work for everyone, but at the very the least, it’s a pretty fun game.
Now, I would like to report that this turned into the best hike ever and was totally worth the hours of scorching pain, but I would be lying. It was hell and I’m glad it’s over. That being said, I don’t regret doing the hike and I’m proud that we finished it. As my Finnish friend Erik likes to say: “it’s character building”.
Like many things in life, anxiety and stress affect everyone differently. It doesn’t matter where on the spectrum you are, what matters is that you learn to take care of yourself. So, while on the move, some other (more sciencey) techniques I’ve come to enjoy are:
Take a deep breath in through your nose, letting your lower belly rise, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. By creating a full oxygen exchange, you slow your heartbeat down and your blood pressure stabilizes. I actually do this randomly sometimes just because it feels good.
To get out of an anxiety spiral, a great way to ground yourself back to reality is by listing:
- 5 things you can physically see around you
- 4 things you can touch
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Mental Math (stay with me)
When we begin to get the dark and twisties, stress can overwhelm the nervous system and release chemicals that prepare you for ‘flight or fight’. To interrupt this process you can distract yourself by accessing a different part of the brain. A quick way to do this is mental math. In addition, this ‘interruption’ is also teaching your brain how to better manipulate and update information.
This is not a definitive list by any means; there are lots of other approaches you can try. It is all about finding what works best for you. And remember: staying hydrated, eating regularly and getting enough sleep also play a huge role in your mood!
I’ll leave you with one last thought to consider: would you rather be a poor, mentally healthy world traveler or sneeze money (but it hurts a little)? And yes, you can do whatever you want with the money you sneeze. And no, you cannot stop traveling to make money. CHOOSE WISELY.
Happy healthy travels!