I am naturally an anxious person. And not the kind of anxious that only appears when running late for work or seeing someone’s penis for the first time. I mean the kind of anxious that manifests itself in multiple areas of my life and has done for many years. For example, when I was young, my school used to hold mufti days: a glorious time in which the restrictions of green plaid would be lifted and we would be free to express our individuality through sparkly t-shirts and patterned jeans. The day would fill me with equal parts excitement and severe anxiety; excitement to dress out of uniform during school hours, anxiety in case I got it wrong. As a result, every mufti-day involved my mum driving me to school with my uniform in the car – just in case I’d made a mistake. I would slouch down in the front seat so no-one could see me, and make my mum drive around the block until I spotted a few other out-of-uniform children. Only then would I be able to enter confidently, my gold coin donation jangling in my pocket.
While I no longer need my mum to drive me around the corner before school, I am still plagued with anxiety and low moods, which is not something that I am very good at letting others in on, and not something that goes away on its own. My anxiety has seen me get off public transport on the way to a new job, unable to turn up and unable to go back; turn down social events and spend a lot of time alone; waste hours nervously trying to interpret the passing comment of a friend and skip university classes because nothing I owned seemed right to wear. It has also meant nights where I don’t sleep for hours, my brain grabbing hold of mundane worries and refusing to let go.
Changes in my life can exacerbate my anxiety and mood swings (and I don’t mean switching from coffee to tea), which is not ideal considering one year ago I moved from Melbourne to London, a leap which led to a lot of uncertainty and turned out to be a much bigger deal than changing up my caffeine intake. Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time working out what has worked for me in the past, and what works for me now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the best things for navigating the crevices of my anxious mind is travelling.
While travelling, I’m forced out of the everyday and into confronting situations, where I have no choice but to disregard the pessimism of my thoughts and work things out on my own. At home, the thought of meeting up with someone new can result in hours of over-analysing, yet while away I’m forced into getting off my hostel bed and talking to people in the shared kitchen. I learn to ignore the thoughts that no-one will like what I have to say, or will judge what I’m wearing and it works. At home if I have to navigate somewhere new, I will sit anxiously at the front of the bus, triple checking my phone to make sure I’m going the right route and become gripped with fear that everyone’s watching me if I press the stop signal too early. While away, I feel confident enough to converse with a stranger in broken English about which road to take, and to laugh at myself if I get on the wrong train and end up in the wrong town.
This isn’t something that has come naturally–it’s taken a lot of trips, a lot of crying in hostel rooms and a lot of nights alone–but every time I go somewhere new, I feel a bit of my anxious self-break away, and a bit more like the person I’m supposed to be. Of course, there have still been trips where I’ve panicked about doing the wrong thing and spent time alone in my hostel because it’s easier than wandering a strange town. However, these moments became experiences to learn from, and not something to brew into an anxious cloud of doubt and stress.
Constant travel is not a magic solution, and I am aware that overcoming mental health issues requires more than a midnight swim with strangers in Montenegro, but each trip I take, each new city I explore and friend I’m forced to make lessens the stomach twisting nervousness and low moods that can cloud my days at home. Each delay in an airport, lost wallet and cancelled hostel booking goes a long way in building up my resilience and confidence. I am teaching my anxious mind that if I can deal with these things when in a foreign country and alone, then I can deal with any changes I experience when home. I truly hate the aphorism, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” I think it’s hackneyed and exists only for 14 year olds’ Pinterest boards. However, in my case, I’ve found that travel is one of the only things that stops me being a jangled mess of anxiety and sadness, and that has been worth every fucking penny.
Cover by Jordan McQueen