So let me state straight off that this blog article is very different to what I would usually write about and post on our travel blog. This post is personal and shares my personal story and journey living with and travelling with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Mental health affects so many of us and my hope is that by sharing my experiences I can show that its not only possible to travel with mental illness but also to thrive. I also hope my talking about it, help to do my very small bit to reduce the taboo and stigma that still remains when it comes to our mental health.
I have written this up as a kind of interview question style. Also I am happy to answer any questions and would love to hear from others living with mental health, travelling Australia or around the world.
What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is the most common mental health issue in Australia with one in four people affected in their lifetime. It is normal for all of us to feel anxious, stressed, worried or nervous from time to time when difficult or awful things happen in our lives. It is also normal to no longer have those feelings to when the situation causing the feelings is over or resolved. GAD however is a pessimist and a doomsayer; it persistently makes you worry, be fearful, nervous and anxious even when life is good.
Symptoms of GAD is ongoing and persistent and can include:
Physical Symptoms: heart palpitations, breathing fast or holding your breath, tightness in the chest, heaviness in the chest, irritability, agitation, insomnia or restless sleep and panic attacks.
Psychological Symptoms: persistent worry, obsessive thinking about something that logically isn’t that important, catastrophic thinking which is deciding the worst possible outcome and believing it is the only possible outcome and being overly fearful.
Behavioural Symptoms: most commonly avoiding triggers or situations that bring on the worst feelings of anxiety, worry and dread.
Symptoms I have experienced have varied over the years. During my teenage years my symptoms were dismissed as teenage moodiness and rebellion. Then in my twenties, difficult events outside of my control sent my GAD into hyper drive and because of this I developed my most significant and frightening symptom – panic attacks.
The panic attacks were the worst mostly because they were highly unpredictable. The only warning I would get that I was about to have a panic attack was these black spots that looked like blurry spiders. The ‘spiders’ would appear in my vision and immediately after a panic attack would start. I would struggle to breathe, cry (sometimes uncontrollably), I would pace or my body would visibly shake and my heart-felt like it was going to explode. I found the entire experience very distressing and scary, so out of necessity I sought help from my doctor and a psychologist. Here’s the thing – I am not even a bit scared of real spiders!
How Is Gad Treated
The most common treatments are anti-depressant and or anti anxiety medications as well as psychological therapies (counselling) especially for severe symptoms. Complimentary treatments and strategies are often used such as meditation, physical exercise, eating well, breathing exercises and challenging GAD’s pessimistic messages.
Throughout my twenties, after being diagnosed with GAD, my treatment was both medication and cognitive therapy with a psychologist. The medication reduced my physical symptoms including those awful black ‘spiders’ and the therapy taught me strategies to manage my anxiety. Over a long time I learnt that the strategies best for me are:
Challenging the pessimistic and catastrophic thoughts: just because GAD says it is so doesn’t mean it is. GAD often tells lies and it really does help to call it out on its lies.
Breathing exercises: breathing in for four, hold for four and out for eight has an amazing calming effect.
Talking to my husband: GAD makes you feel alone and as though no understands your worries. This too is not true and talking to someone I trust really helps me.
Exercise: physical exercise I find greatly reduces my physical symptoms. On our travels we do a lot of walking and kayaking and this has had a profoundly positive effect on my overall mental health.
Art: over the years I have done meditation which has been helpful however I have found painting is the best form of meditation for me. When I am painting the GAD turns off and all my symptoms disappear. As a bonus it turns out I am not too bad at painting so I am enjoying learning a new skill.
How I Travel with Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Interestingly travel has been the best thing for my GAD and I believe it comes down to travelling giving me the time I need to use my strategies that I mentioned above. It is easier to challenge the negative thoughts, to breathe, to exercise and create art when travelling than it ever was when I worked full-time.
Challenges of Travelling with Generalised Anxiety Disorder
My GAD does demand a few things while we travel. I have to know each day what we are doing, I can’t just wake up and let the day happen, I must have a plan for the day. I am trying some days to be more spontaneous but it always comes with heightened feelings of anxiety so it’s not something I can do every day.
GAD aside, missing people is the hardest part of travelling for me. So my GAD plays into this most days and tells me that the people I love don’t miss me. Managing this is a real battle some days.
Also I have to continually challenge my GAD’s pessimistic attitude everyday. I am by nature not the most positive go lucky person ever but I am also not a pessimist and having to constantly remind myself my GAD’s negative voice about everything is not only wrong, it’s destructive. It is exhausting challenging GAD every day.
Benefits of Travelling with Generalised Anxiety Disorder
I try to turn my GAD into something positive where and when I can because despite it being pessimistic and a doomsayer I am not:
- My GAD’s need to know what is happening has meant I have perfected travel planning. I am really good finding great things to do wherever we go and keeping our travels within our budget.
- The fact my GAD makes me face all kinds of fears and worries everyday (real or imagined) I can do scary and new things while travelling like learning to tow our caravan.
- I have learnt through travelling that my GAD isn’t worried about new places so the first day or two in a new place usually means I get a bit of break from feeling anxious. This obviously works well with travelling as it gives me the freedom to move on to new places as often as I want.
- Also travel gives me a lot of control over my life which my GAD appreciates. And no schedule means I can plan my days around my mental health if necessary and this helps a lot.
What’s Helped To Make Travel with Anxiety Doable
It’s tempting I think to see everything about anxiety as a negative when really anxiety in the right amount is actually a good thing. Anxiety can help to motivate us and decide what matters to us. I have come to realise that there are some benefits and some things I need to have in place to travel successfully ‘with’ GAD.
Having support: whether you travel solo or with another person, having support of people who genuinely care about you is important. For me it’s primarily my husband. He’s the one telling me I can do, is patient and tolerates my GAD’s demands and understands on the occasional bad day I need to take time out from the usual travel activities like sightseeing and just chill.
Using my GAD positively: there are definitely many things I have to challenge my GAD on and say no to every day or I’d end up curled up doing nothing. There are also times or ways I can use my GAD that is positive and one such example is its need to know what is happening where and when. Or another way of putting it is excellent at encouraging my planning skills and I go accept this because planning is useful when travelling.
To end, for me travelling with generalised anxiety disorder has its challenges every day. Some days it takes a hold and it takes a lot of effort to manage but luckily these days are far apart. For the most part travel has been very good for managing and keeping my anxiety in check.
If you too live with anxiety and or depression and are considering travel either ongoing or as a holiday then I strongly urge you to do so. Set up your supports, know your coping strategies and even if you’re scared do it anyway. The benefits are so worth it.