06/04/2016 07:48 BST | Updated 06/04/2017 06:12 BST

Travelling with my Friend, Anxiety


First published on Coeliac on the Road.

When I arrived in Réunion Island last September, about 6000 miles away from the UK, I was convinced I couldn't do it. I was sure that I'd have to get on the next plane home and give up on any dreams of being an independent, intrepid traveller out in the big wide world. Seven months of ups, downs, crazy adventures and lazy days on the beach by the turquoise lagoon and I look back to that watery-eyed girl with a knowing smile.

Transition is difficult. However, despite all the doubt-filled voices in my head and overwhelming emotions crashing over me in those first few days, my gut knew with certainty that I had to ride out the hard bits of readjusting then I'd be okay. It's the same wave of panic I've had many times before when moving to new places and probably one I'll have many times again.

I'm writing this because travel is such a transformative, incredible, and unbeatable adventure so we naturally hear a lot about all the highs of leaping into the unknown and discovering different corners of the world. But it's not necessarily easy and most of us are carrying bags full of emotional baggage.

I'm a relatively stable individual but ever since I can remember I've carried anxiety with me that can be like a tornado ripping through all sense of reason. From sleep paralysis to panic attacks to nauseating sickness, my anxiety has manifested itself in all kinds of ways throughout the years.

Leaving your tribe behind and waking up in a completely different place or country alone can be daunting to even the most chilled out people, never mind if you're prone to imagine every worst case scenario under the sun within two seconds of arriving. But you're never really alone with awe inspiring natural surroundings, the people you connect with along the way and the chance to make good friends with yourself, warts and all.

So what did I do to help cope with anxiety? Alongside daily meditation I also started to visualise the anxiety as a guest, someone who was welcome to stay and say whatever it felt it needed to say, but who must also respect my house rules. The most important of which is to be kind, so even when my guest is kicking up a fuss and trying to send the whole household into panic, we try and be kind to each other. I treat it like a baby who just needs to be held until it feels more secure and less scared and in return it kindly quietens down and trusts that I know what I'm doing.

I posed my bags for seven months this time, getting a shared apartment by the sea in the south of Réunion to be an English Language Assistant for the British Council.

I arrived here longing to turn around and go back home, feeling too physically sick to eat properly for days. I spent three hours shaking and sobbing into the pillow, followed by an all-consuming dread that something terrible was going to happen, before getting to sleep on the first night. But I've had a more memorable time than I ever could have imagined and have surprised myself in many ways.

I started learning three different types of dance, African, Swing and Bachata. Another traveller and I organised and delivered a cultural presentation in French to an audience of people with over 8 different nationalities. I went on countless hikes and saw a volcano in eruption. I danced beneath the full moon on the beach and lay back gazing at a sky sprayed with stars. I volunteered at a local organic farm, sleeping in a wooden hut with a straw roof. I learnt I love helping students express themselves in a foreign language.

Challenging things happened too, but I coped and the good times outweighed the bad. I'll be sad to say goodbye, having found yet another home from home.

I've done the get-up-and-go thing a fair few times in the last 5 years. I can say that even with anxiety it is so totally worth it. I have never once regretted it and I have always left each place feeling stronger than when I first arrived. This means that I now expect the sheer panic following a change and know that it's just making room for the growth that is about to come.

Transitions are tricky, anxiety can feel crippling. But I'd rather go through the change and work out how to adapt than never get the chance to explore beyond my comfort zone. I've accepted my anxiety and I'd go as far to say that it's a travelling companion of sorts. Curiously, the more I treat it as a friend, the less crushing it becomes.