When I booked my trip to Asia, I was 23, fresh out of college, and a 100% bundle of nerves. I had just learned about my relationship with mental health (I’ve got that delightful combo of Moderate Anxiety & Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and was working in sync with my therapist to manage it.
The truth is, before I recognized my anxiety as a mental health issue, I had just figured it was an inherent personality trait. I was always a nervous kid; I can’t tell you how many adults rolled their eyes and told me I was “too sensitive.” But after college I began realizing that I was confining myself to a box two sizes too small. My fears had kept me stuck in my comfort zone, and that comfort zone began shrinking. Afraid of getting sick, afraid of getting hurt, afraid of uncomfortable social situations, I narrowed my goals and ambitions to fit the needs of my fears. My anxiety was running the show, and it was becoming evident by my actions. I went to college with all my friends; I studied what I was told to study; I avoided any social situation that had the potential to be awkward. Any risk, no matter how small, was sure to result in catastrophe.
But when I hit 23 I just decided I was tired of it. I discovered my OCD and began working with my therapist on CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and more specifically, Exposure & Response Prevention. Under this treatment, we’d little by little work to push the boundaries of my fears, exposing me to them long enough so that they’d lose their grip over me. Think of it like watching a horror movie 20 times in a row. By the twentieth time, you just stop worrying about the creep in the closet because your brain eventually acclimates to him. This was a game changer. This is when things began to improve for me.
Maybe I was riding the high of therapy or maybe I had just tasted what it feels like to take ownership of my anxiety, but I was ready to continue the domino effect. I booked a one-way ticket to Bali and I let the fears come. And boy, did they come.
What if I get sick?
What if I get lost?
What if I get mugged?
What if I get kidnapped, held for ransom and end up in prison as a recruited Indonesian drug mule?
I had every fear in the book, and I did my best to exercise what I had learned: allowing the thoughts to be thoughts. Let them come, let them go, I’d tell myself. The more you force them away, the stronger they get. Just let them happen.
Perhaps even worse was the nagging feeling that I wouldn’t fit the mold for a backpacker. My brain would feed me an endless stream of negative self-narratives:
You’ve seen these people on instagram
You’re not like them
They’re carefree. You’re a worrier
This isn’t for you
And I’ll admit it, the narrative followed me around Asia when I did go, trying to remind me to stay in my place -- to go back to that chokingly small comfort zone I’d begun to poke my head out of. But I pushed through. I told myself that I’d let my trip be my exposure therapy. Afraid of getting sick? Let’s test it out. Afraid of getting lost? Let’s see what happens. I did my best to surrender my control over everything, and as you can imagine from reading this post, I made it back just fine.
From my first trip -- and from all my trips thereafter -- I learned something really valuable about my relationship with anxiety. Those of us with OCD are always going to worry about the what if’s and we’re always going to worry that we don’t fit the mold. Our insecurities want us to believe that, even when we know better. But we always have to push through, because that’s the only way out of anxiety’s grip. Since my first trip, I’ve been to 18 countries, with two more coming up next month. None of the terrible things I stressed about ever happened to me, and none of my newfound travel buddies thought I didn’t fit the mold of a backpacker.
I want others to know that if I can do it, you can too. Whether you have anxiety, OCD or neither, your goals are always worth the discomfort you sacrifice for them. You are exactly the type of person who can travel. You are exactly the type of person who can kick your anxiety’s ass. You are exactly the type of person who can do exactly what it is you want.
In the end, ADAA and I share the same goal: to help bring about "you feel that way too!?" conversations -- the ones that let us breathe a sigh of relief after connecting with others about our shared worries. The only way to put anxiety in its place is to recognize that the things we worry about often aren’t crazy, but in fact are much more common and reasonable than we think. And to those of you curious about travel: I get what you’re worried about. I’ve worried about it myself, I’ve worried about it some more, and I promise it’s okay.
About the Author:
Gilad is a traveler in his twenties and is the author of Anxious & Abroad, a travel guide that aims to show nervous travelers and first timers that travel isn’t just for the carefree nomadic types, but can be fun and worthwhile for any kind of person -- neurotic, meticulous, anxious or otherwise. He’s traveled to almost 20 countries in the past three years, all of which with anxiety and OCD. His site is full of tips, recommendations, advice and step-by-step guides he’s compiled from his travels, so that he can help people plan a trip from the beginning all the way up until you get on the plane. You can check out his site and follow his social media below: