Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Why Do I Have Anxiety About a Trip I Want to Go On?

Sometimes I wonder what I ought to blog about. Like, sometimes it's easy. I've just seen a good movie, or I've got a book out, or I'm going to an event or whatever. Other times it's like... well, it's Wednesday, guess I'd better shake my life down for some lunch money.

Another option—one I'm testing out today—is filling a void: taking a question I've Googled helplessly and seeing if maybe I can provide an answer where none existed. On the one hand, this is an inexhaustible resource because I write a lot of checks that Google can't cash. On the other, that means I have to try and do what I couldn't do in the first place: answer the damn question myself.

We're doing a bit of time travel right now. For me as I write, it's the evening of Thursday, May 30. Tomorrow evening I drive to my uncle and aunt's place in Norfolk, catch an Uber to the airport at 4 am, fly to Chicago, meet up with m'kouhai Ginger at local time 7 am, and stay with her for a few days. Then on June 4 we fly out of Chicago...

... and catch up to where you are now, reading this on June 5, when she and I will both have our feet on the ground in England. Her for the first time, me for the first time in... a year or two. It's a common trip for me. Past!me just has to do one last load of laundry, a pet store run for supplies for my guinea pig sitter, and maybe get some more blog and social media posts banked if I feel like it before I take off Saturday morning. We have Airbnbs and train tickets booked, our phones our ready, our banks have been notified, our time off has been approved.

So why, future readers and future self, am I having full-blown anxiety about a trip I want to take and am ready to take?

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By the time you read this, the issue will have solved itself. The anxiety will be gone and Ginger and I will be enjoying ourselves and I'll wonder what my problem was. This happens before any trip I take that requires me to be far from home for more than 24 hours. It's not homesickness. It's just... a weird fear that something about what I'm doing is quite terrifying and maybe I ought not to be doing it after all. I've had it before conventions, before extended stays with friends and family, before this same trip. And it's amounted to... nothing to fear.

Which is lovely, but that doesn't change the fact that it comes back every time, and no amount of pre-planning or preparedness shakes it. It's just there, waiting, crouching on my bedpost to tell me something's awful but I don't get to know what.

The resources I found all had pretty much the same advice: see your mental health professional, plan ahead, and get a more realistic idea in your head of how low your risks really are. The thing is, I know. I travel a lot. I know my way from Heathrow Arrivals to my friends' house in Carshalton like the back of my hand, and I have enough friends and family on tap that even in a disaster I have options. The problem is that the anxiety is there... and that means something's wrong with me, surely.

If I feel this way, I imagine at least one other person in the world does, too. Your bags are packed, your tickets are in your purse or on your phone, there's nothing to worry about, you're going to have a great time, but you feel like an absolute fool for the constant jitters. So... what now?

That's been my day today (last Thursday as you read this). And, for now, here's what I have.

(As an aside, I'm using the term "anxiety" in the medical sense. I'm aware there's situational anxiety, cold feet, things like that—but going forward, I'm talking about it from a mental health standpoint.)

1. Nothing's wrong with you. You just have anxiety.

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If you're like me and have chronic anxiety, you already have your answer. Anxiety is not logical. That's kind of the point. It's brought on by uncertainty, and there's no bigger uncertainty than leaving your status quo for an extended period of time. Even if you plan ahead perfectly and have everything flawlessly in place, even if you've made the trip before, you are still moving into a realm of elevated uncertainty.

One of the tough things about anxiety is that, even when we are aware we have it, our brains still sometimes demand we explain ourselves—even when it surfaces in a situation bound to trigger it. As though there are situations when it's less reasonable. The whole point of anxiety is that it's not reasonable. There's not a sliding scale of when it is or isn't "okay" to feel it. You feel it. Recognize that. You haven't failed in some way.

2. Anxiety is not an ill omen.

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Whatever you feel guides you—intelligence, a sixth sense, your gut, a god or gods, experience—you have probably at least once had a feeling that Something Is Not Right. And you've either ignored that feeling and wished you hadn't, or followed it and been grateful you did.

Remember that feeling. Did it feel like fear? Did it feel like anxiety? I can't speak for everyone, but the answer is more often than not no. I can't describe what it feels like for me with any helpful words, but I do know it feels nothing like my anxiety attacks. It's a brief feeling, non-threatening but insistent, just a little tug at my brain to think a little more critically and step away.

There are times when fear is good for decision-making. Let's say you're pulling out from a side street onto a busy road. You're about halfway out, and suddenly a car you did not see comes barreling down. If you're anything like me, you get that cold drop in your stomach and reverse right the hell back. Your brain registers danger. You act. That's our lizard brain keeping us safe.

But there's a big difference between that and creeping, buzzing anxiety. It's not an omen that needs to be observed. Having anxiety is only a prophecy of bad times to come if it becomes a self-fulfilling one. So if you're about to go on a trip and you've got the anxiety? No. It's not telling you not to go. Not unless you've got a very different feeling indeed.

3. Your reaction is a sign that your trip is doing what it's supposed to.

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I was in my mid-20s when I made my first trip to England. I went just before Christmas. I traveled alone. I'd never been outside of the country; I'd barely seen any of my own country. I had a great time, save for the end (which involved multiple delays, a hospital visit, a bad complimentary hotel room, and getting stranded in Paris on Christmas Eve—followed by months of women in their 40s who don't speak a word of French saying they wish they could be "stranded" in Paris).

It wasn't until I was back home in my own bed that I actually believed something my uncle told me: Part of the reason you travel is so you can come home. This seemed ridiculous to me at first, but it's true. As much as I love England, I also love coming home from England. I've had time to reset, to think about how I go about my work and my life from a distance without having to enact anything in the moment. I've probably seen new things and had new ideas. It's like rebooting, in a way: sometimes the best thing you can do to improve your daily life is to leave it behind for a bit.

As a counterpoint to #2, anxiety over leaving home to go on holiday is probably a sign that you're doing the right thing. It means you've become so used to where you are that even the idea of dropping it temporarily on purpose is getting to you. Imagine where you'd be right now if it wasn't your idea.

If you're feeling that anxiety no matter what, then good! That's your high sign that you need the break and are making a good choice for yourself... and your daily life when you return will benefit.

4. It will pass.

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If you've traveled before and are getting cold feet about your next trip, stop a second and answer me this question: at what point are you certain this is all going to drop and you'll feel great?

For me it's when I board the plane that's actually crossing the Atlantic. When I've settled in for the long haul flight and picked a movie and they come around with "coffee or tea" and I'm like "Oh, right, I'm off again." I can tell you right now that's when this will drop off my shoulders (or, from your point of view, when it did drop off my shoulders).

Maybe for you it's when the plane lands. Maybe it's in the airport before you even board. Or maybe it's when you first set your feet on the ground and realize you've landed, and think about everything you've got ahead of you.

If you've never traveled before... trust me, you will have this moment. There's a point when the holiday will begin, and you'll be on it. The anxiety isn't generally about being on holiday. It's about the leaving-the-familiar part. Once you've left the familiar? It may take a little time if you're new to it, but you'll get there.

5. Be kind to yourself until then.

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The absolute worst thing you can do with anxiety is try to strong-arm yourself into not feeling it. Especially if you do so by telling yourself it's stupid and you shouldn't. You don't like it when other people treat your anxiety that way, right? No reason to do it to yourself, then.

The biggest gift you can give yourself in these moments is to just go... you know what? Okay. This is anxiety. I feel it. It feels at odds with what I need and want out of this trip. That doesn't make me bad or stupid for feeling it, and it doesn't make me wrong about making the plans. It just is.

In the meantime, do what you know works for you. If you take meds, take your meds. (Do that anyway, really.) If you have doctor-approved methods of getting yourself to sleep, use them. Do whatever it is you need to get to that point when the anxiety breaks and you can enjoy yourself. In my case, one of those things has been writing up what I'm going through in hopes of seeing it in print and maybe helping the next person who feels that way.

The most important thing, though, is that you haven't failed by having anxiety over a thing that's supposed to make you happy. If you consider it a failure, you'll bottle it up instead of acknowledging and treating it. And that's just going to tire you out.

What's helping me now is knowing we're going to go to lunch or dinner later, I'll remember I wrote this, and I'll pop this up on my phone and think about past!Kara fighting off this anxiety. And I'll be glad she did because I'll be with a good friend in one of my favorite places in the world. And maybe, maybe, now that I know how anxious I get when I get too stuck in my ways, I won't wait as long between steps outside my routine.

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