As a Jew, I come from a long lineage of anxiety, neuroses, and cat allergies. Maybe it’s hereditary, maybe it’s environmental, maybe it’s cultural, but regardless, depression and anxiety have been a struggle for as long as I can remember. If they aren’t boiling on high, definitely at a low simmer. Sometimes mental illness feels so ingrained in who I am, in the fabric of my identity, it’s hard to tell what makes me Chelsea besides these factors. If you clicked on this article, chances are you know what I’m talking about.
Fighting anxiety sucks. It’s definitely held me back from major advancements in my career. “What if they ask me to lead a project and I can’t and everyone finds out I’m a fraud and I get fired and have to go back to nannying and I’m so distracted that I messed my life up that I don’t pay attention to the kid and they fall and break their face on a curb and grow up with a weird scar and eye tick and then find me when they’re adults and murder me?” I wonder. Don’t worry, I’m medicated.
Anxiety can keep us from being social, from pursuing job opportunities, love interests, and awesome travel excursions we otherwise would have been stoked on. I’ve missed out on countless festivals because of my anxiety around large crowds. I’ve said “no, thanks” too many times, gone home too early, ruined a moment with a fear. I’ve totally regretted missing out, but felt I had no other choice if I didn’t want to have a meltdown in a Porta Potty with The Chainsmokers carrying on in the background. But I’ve also learned a few things over the years. Anxiety doesn’t have to control your life or keep you from exploring the world. Here’s my advice for traveling with an anxiety disorder:
RULE 1: ALWAYS LEAVE WAY EARLIER THAN YOU THINK YOU SHOULD
See that? That’s the face of a woman who is notoriously twenty minutes early to everything. If I could get to the airport the day before a flight, I would. Why? Because just being two minutes late sends my anxiety into full-on batshit psychosis. If you leave enough time to account for traffic, long lines, and road closures, you won’t have to spin out about being late for check-in or worse, missing your flight entirely. If Google Maps says it’ll take thirty minutes to get to the airport, leave an hour and a half ahead of takeoff.
I once left two hours early for a 45 minute drive, but was late due to a fucking landslide that left the only access road closed. And yes, I did listen to a lot of Fleetwood Mac in the car, just to really hammer it home. If you end up being super early, great! Grab a coffee or scroll Instagram to see all the parties you weren’t invited to because everyone is mad at you for reasons you will spend the next three hours brainstorming. Have fun!
RULE 2: READ THE FREAK OUT PRINT
One of the most anxiety-ridden aspects of travel is simply getting around. I had to rent a car in Costa Rica and this practically gave me a heart attack. We arrived, got picked up by a shuttle to take us to an off-site car rental service, where they told us they had no more automatic cars, only stick shifts (I thought we left stick shifts in the 90’s with puka shells and soul patches, but whatever). So there I was, driving a stick shift in a foreign country on roads I wasn’t used to, with street signs in a language I didn’t understand, and a new face covered in stress acne.
Lesson? Research the hell out of everything beforehand. If you’re taking a bus or using public transit, read forums, blogs, and subreddits. Find out what problems other travelers encountered, and how they dealt with it. The best way to combat your anxiety is to have definitive alternate options “just in case.” Are there taxis available? Does Uber run in this city? Do travelers say the transit system is easy, or insane? Does your hotel offer airport pickup? The more you research, the better prepared you’ll be.
RULE 3: IF YOU’VE GOT FLIGHT ANXIETY…
… chances are, tons of people have hit you with, “you know, flying is 10,000 times safer than driving a car.” Yeah? Well nobody walks away from a plane crash, Kevin.
A great way to combat flight anxiety is to read reassuring articles about flight turbulence that explain exactly what it is, and why it’s normal. Pressing on the pressure point in the web between your thumb and forefinger can have a super calming effect, and if nothing else works, just straight up drug yourself. I mean it: pop a Unisom. Take several puffs from your CBD pen (if it’s legal in your area). Down a shot of whiskey. I’m not usually a fan of coping with substances, but in the case of a ten-hour flight over the ocean, turn your anxious body into a drugged up pile of laundry.
RULE 4: HAVE SEVERAL MEANS OF OBTAINING CASH
What if the machines eats your debit card? What if Chase freezes your credit card because it thinks it’s protecting you from fraud, and won’t turn it back on because the world is conspiring against you? What if you accidentally leave your wallet at a restaurant and then take a bus 200 miles and there’s no way you can turn around and go get it? (True Life: I Am Bus Girl).
Before you leave for a trip, make sure to call your bank and set up a Travel Notice. Let them know where you’re going, and for how long. Bring a bunch of cash in your home currency to exchange should you have any problems getting local money once you’ve arrived. If one ATM doesn’t work, try another one. Some machines only work with certain cards, so try a few before you panic. Wear a money belt (it’s like an underwear fanny pack, but make it fashion). And if you lose all your money and cards, like in my case, you can still have a loved one wire you money, if that’s possible. If not, email me. I gotchu babe.
RULE 5: LEARN SOME KEY PHRASES
You’re in a new country where everything is unfamiliar, including the language. It can be stressful to think you might not be able to communicate or get the things you need because of a language barrier. By learning some key phrases, you can not only quell your anxieties about accessing certain necessities, you also seem like you give a shit about their culture… which, hopefully, you do.
Phrases like “where is the hospital?” or “I need help” or “there’s a terrifying creep following me around and you look like a nice lady, can I hang out with you for a while so I don’t become a CNN headline?” would be dope to learn beforehand.
RULE 6: ALWAYS HAVE A BUDDY OR CREW WHEN YOU GO OUT AT NIGHT
If you’re anxious about getting lost, assaulted, or mugged being out at night in a new neighborhood, congrats! You just learned what it’s like to be a woman in nearly every situation on earth! If you’re traveling solo, stay at a hostel. Hostels are full of young travelers who are all pretty much going to the same places, and often even host bar crawls to keep the group together. You’ll have an instant crew of people to keep you from wandering into an alleyway, where monsters hide!
Remember, it’s always okay to just take a minute, or an hour, or a whole day of your trip to just be with yourself and calm down. If you feel comfortable and safe to do so, let the people around you know you’re struggling and need some support. Sometimes the best remedy for anxiety is just having someone listen with compassion and a glass of wine. Mental illness can dominate so much of our lives, and hold us back from embarking on the cool adventures we want and deserve.
Fuck that. We’re going, with or without the ability to breathe.