When I was 18, I remember viewing people who struggled with depression or who constantly talked about ‘how to overcome anxiety’ as somewhat different to me. Whilst I sometimes felt a bit rubbish about my weight or whether or not anyone would ever fancied me, I had experienced a relatively sheltered existence. I had never really had to ‘feel anything’ too strong and the thought of travelling half way around the globe to go on a Gap Yah seemed a relatively normal thing to do (or look at little middle class me being all cocky, little did she know). At 18, I sat in my shared apartment in the middle of Mexico, working in the tourist industry, spending my day’s swimming with dolphins and evenings drinking litres of cocktails with locals. It all felt relatively easy.
Something happened in my 20’s, I am not sure if it was the abusive relationship, the eating disorder or the fact my brain was flummoxed at how I had managed to survive this long, but anxiety came calling mid way through university for me. This anxiety bish was crazy. She had the power to read minds, knew what everyone thought about me and convinced me the best place to exist was in my bed. I stopped going out anywhere, I hated social gatherings of any type and would only see my friends in one on one basis. I looked back at teen me who travelled half way around the world, living with strangers, going to work in a country she didn’t speak the language, and she seemed like a different person. I had somehow got older, and worse, how does that even happen? Overcoming anxiety or even existing in life felt near on impossible now.
So when I started therapy in 2016 and they asked me to write out some long-term goals, I knew that going solo anywhere would be the ultimate test, and travelling solo again would be the dream.
Fast forward 14 months and picture me sipping cocktails and eating red curry in a little restaurant in Cambodia, surrounded by people I had only known a few days and feeling completely at ease. Miracle right? Well with a little hard work and the sort of planning we wished Dave had done before launching the Brexit referendum it was possible and I did it. So, if you too are trying to overcome anxiety and make that trip of a lifetime happen, then pull out your post it notes, crack open that day planner and let me tell you how this anxious explorer travelled Southeast Asia all on her own.
Set your goal:
So what pushed me this anxious Annie from her bedroom and into Southeast Asia? I spent most of my twenties hold up in my bedroom, petrified of attending any social event for fear of people judging me. I was obsessed with how I looked, and how I looked was fat. I got fat. I went from anorexia to binge eating and I put on a lot of weight very quickly. I was ashamed of myself and I stopped living. I didn’t want people to see me, I didn’t want their judgements and so I hid. I hid for a long time. And at first people were understanding and empathetic and eventually they kind of just stopped being my friends. There were no big fallout or dramas, but there are so many times people will hand out an invite for you to cold shoulder them, until they just kind of give up.
After I began therapy and began letting people know what had been happening for me and stopped giving a crap about being fat, my friendships began to blossom and grow again. I started getting invited to things, I was part of their stories and pictures and I made amends for all the times I blanked calls, texts and knocks at doors.
Then the ultimate invitation came. A wedding in Thailand where I would see one of my oldest pals get hitched. For once I didn’t just want to watch on the sidelines. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted toes in squishy sand on beaches, sun on pasty skin, and curries so hot my eyes would water and my moustache would sweat. Invite accepted.
You can have whatever goal takes your fancy. Something that will drive you to take risks no matter what your anxiety tells you. Whether it’s your friends getting married, wanting to see one of the seven world wonders or a drive to shake your booty at carnival, pick one and lock it in.
Take Little Steps:
By the time I was on my trip I had already been working my way through 20 weeks of therapy and enough Mindfulness tools to open my own Yoga retreat in Bali. I was zen af. But I was privileged to get the support I had from the NHS and have a therapist who was quick enough to tell me when my thoughts about myself were a bit bonkers.
It was clear half way through therapy that I had somehow gained the power of mind reading through my depression and that I knew exactly what people were thinking all the time (even when I wasn’t in the room with them). It was a skill. My therapist thought this was bullshit, but what did she know?
She did however suggest that perhaps my thought processes were a bit skewed and that I should try doing things I had refused to do previously in the hope that this might prove to me I didn’t have superpowers. Sure, Donna, I’ll give it a go love, but would you put Spiderman through this shit? I think not.
So before my big trip I did lots of little tasks that challenged my thought processes. I went swimming alone where no one laughed at me. I travelled to the cinema on my tod and the usher didn’t scream “cinema ticket for one, for this loser”, and I took myself for lunch with me, myself and I, and not one person stopped to gawk at the circus attraction that was a fat girl eating a club sandwich. Each task made me realise that my therapist was a little bit right and that I didn’t always know the outcome for everything, and occasionally I might get things wrong. Occasionally. I am not putting my superhero outfit away forever, just yet. In which case, it probably meant I could go travelling alone without the whole of airport security giving me a welcome round of appaulse for being a complete and utter lonely wanker (other than an obsession with my sun cream bottles, the bastards didn’t even care).
Make a Plan:
It has been said on a couple of occasions that I may verge on the side of being a control freak. Some would say perfectionist. I would say, a forward thinker. Occasionally it’s a bit of a problem. I once helped arranged a children’s party when I was stopped by someone who I had asked prepare the kids buffet.
‘Cara, how would you like the pizza sliced.”
I had made her too scared to cut pizza. I am a monster. But obviously it’s triangles, not squares, what kind of psychopath was she?
Clearly, I am woman who needs to feel in control which is a near on impossible task when trying to arrange a holiday 6000 miles away to somewhere you have never been before. I started with the basics, I knew I would be visiting Thailand, that I had to fit into my annual leave allowance and that Vietnam had been on my number one places to visit for the past 10 years. Hello Internet.
A lot of the advice that sprung up from my early searches suggested booking on a tour, especially when working with such a tight time frame. But tours to me suggested women in pleated ankle length skirts, sensible shoes and stop offs to admire carpet factories in someones back garden. I wasn’t keen.
Fortunately, I happened to be speaking to a travel agent on Tinder (part hook up app, part essential services directory) who became my guide when picking the perfect tour for me. I am thirty years old, so there was no way I was using a hostel (and I might snore a tad) but I also didn’t want to be part of the tweed jacket and binoculars brigade. I went with G Adventures Cambodian Experience Classic Tour, which was a 9 day non stop whiz through Southern Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangkok, Thailand. The classic tour is a combination of group touring and guides with independent activities and time spattered throughout the itinerary. A definite bonus for me was that G Adventures try to put back into the local communities and there were planned trips to community run restaurants, spas and circuses. Side Note: G Adventures do offer an 18 – 30’s version of this trip. They say it is for people aged up to 39 – I only saw young sprightly teenagers on this tour, you know the type, the ones that can drink twenty beers a night and still wake up for morning sunrise treks. Awful.
Being able to plan, but also allowing someone else take control for me gave me lots of time to worry about all the other bits, like if 5 pairs a knickers a day would cover me just in case I become doubly incontinent in Asia.
Use the Internet:
When I was travelling in 2004 (vomit), there wasn’t such easy connections to the internet and other than an hour slot in the internet cafe once a week to message my Mum on MSN, being alone and abroad could be an isolating experience. But in 2018, the internet can connect you to more places, people and adventures than ever before.
Feeling lonely, jump on to social media and search for friends, pals and acquaintances for a 5 minute natter. Join Facebook groups for people travelling in the same areas to you, geotag all your photos and find people close to you. The internet is great for finding people just like us, who feel like our natural spirit animals.
When I was bored, or didn’t want to adventure into the streets alone, I logged into TripAdvisor. As well as finding reviews for local hotels, the ‘Things to do’ tab will load up lots of local tours and trips with a number of helpful people willing to offer you some advice. On my first night in Vietnam, alone in a hostel that wasn’t particularly friendly, I was feeling distinctly alone, starving and panicky. The thought of going out and finding somewhere to eat alone was pretty petrifying. However, A 10 minute whiz through the internet and I found a local company that offered Street Food Tours, where they would pick me up from my hotel, take me around the city and feed me. I was sold. I could even pay for it online. It was one of the best parts of my whole trip, and I wouldn’t have even tried it if I hadn’t been anxious that evening.
I also used UBER a lot when travelling from place to place. Vietnam on a moped was both exhilarating and scary but it meant that most trips cost me less than 50p and I didn’t have to work out how to explain “Please take me to the big touristy thing that I can’t pronounce” in broken Vietnamese. The only time I ever got ripped off in a taxi was by grabbing one not using an UBER app. (Do check with local guides though as travelling in an UBER in South East Asia worked out fine for me, but I am not sure how suitable/safe they are in other countries/regions).
Equally, if you are feeling too overwhelmed by the whole travelling thing, a good Rom Com on Netflix and Deliveroo can equally take some of the stressors from a night alone in a strange place. After 2 weeks travelling, I ended up in a hotel in Bangkok, tired, emotional, and ready for a nap. I made the hugest order from the Hotel room service, cracked open my laptop and rewatched the first season of Gossip Girl and did a little cry of relief that this was my holiday and I could do what the fuck I wanted. Don’t feel the pressure to spend every day taking selfies of your arse for fuckboys to like on Instagram, if you want a PJ day, have a bloody PJ day.
Of course, I am not saying you shouldn’t venture out and takes risks, and speak to people you don’t know and order taxis and try the language and go to places you have never been before. But having fail safe back ups on the internet can be the difference from experiencing something new, to having a meltdown in your hotel bathroom.
So those are my tips and tricks in how to overcome anxiety and travel solo. They made my tour of South East Asia so much more fun and I literally can’t wait for my next trip. But where to? Do you have any tips in managing your anxiety abroad? Or are you planning a trip and want some more tips in how to manage it solo? Give me a shout in the comments or over on my socials. Happy travelling to my Anxious Annie’s, you got this.