“You feel excessive, unrealistic worry and tension with little or no reason.”
It’s a little scary that WebMD can so concisely define my entire life with one sentence. Throw in random panic attacks, bouts of severe depression and a heaping dose of crippling insomnia, and you’ve got my life dealing with generalized anxiety disorder in a nutshell. I used to think that solo travel was reserved for only supremely confident, outgoing and mentally stable individuals – the kind that graced my Instagram with their huge, carefree smiles as they sipped coconuts on a beach thousands of miles away. I was convinced I would never be like them; that something terrible would happen to me should I dare to leave the comfort and familiarity of home. I guess anxiety has its perks though, because one day while panicking that I would never achieve my dreams because of my unrealistic fears, I managed to open my web browser in a fit of determination and book the bucket list trip I had been putting off for years.
When I boarded the plane to Vietnam at the beginning of my four-month solo adventure, I remember my hands shaking so violently that I almost could not lift my backpack into the overhead bin. When I arrived I was so overwhelmed by the culture shock and the new environment that I gave myself a stress-induced stomachache and confined myself to my room for 24 hours, before hunger eventually drove me to work up the courage to venture outside. One month later, I contracted food poisoning and sobbed hysterically in a Cambodian hospital because I was convinced I would be medically evacuated and have to end my trip early (spoilers: I was totally fine).
But for every minor setback that my anxiety caused, through travel I found that I had the inner strength to conquer it. My first day in Hoi An, Vietnam, after 5 hours curled in bed on a gorgeous sunny day, I forced myself to take a 20-minute bike ride to the beach. The next night, after locking myself in my room for three hours, I forced myself to go to the lantern festival in town. The day after that, I forced myself to talk to a stranger in a cafe and wound up having drinks with them on the beach. Suddenly after a few weeks, I discovered that I wasn’t forcing myself to interact with the world anymore – I was simply doing it. And you know what happened?
My ever-racing thoughts slowed dramatically.
The constant shouting in the back of my head telling me to worry became all but a whisper.
I was no longer scared and suspicious of everyone around me.
I was exploding with confidence.
And above all, I was blissfully happy.
“Seeing the world and facing my fears did more for my mental health than any medication ever did.”
It all clicked when I realized that I had navigated four planes to a country halfway across the globe by myself and had not met a single person who wasn’t kind, caring and generous to me despite me being a total stranger. As it turns out, the world is only as terrifying as you make it out to be. I was so concerned with everything that could go wrong that I overlooked everything that was bound go right. For every “bad” thing that caused my mental health to plummet temporarily, a hundred amazing things happened that built it back up to the point where I could cope with and manage it permanently. The greatest lesson I learned from traveling solo with a mental disorder is that no amount of obsessive, meticulous planning can stop situations beyond your control from going awry, but it makes life a whole lot easier to face them with optimism rather than dread.
Seeing the world and facing my fears did more for my mental health than any medication ever did. Because of what I learned about Buddhism in Asia I now practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness as a means to balance my mood and keep myself calm. I met tons of locals and other travelers who became my friends and continue to inspire me with their ongoing adventures. My exposure to other cultures taught me to be humble and deeply empathetic, and I can’t help but feel a sense of gratitude towards life even on my worst days. I have since solo-traveled the world with ease and my bucket list continues to expand to the point of bursting. I may still be my own worst critic and while I know my anxiety will never go away completely, it is a liberating feeling to know that I can continue to conquer it on my own terms – one adventure at a time.