My editor recently asked me what kind of traveler I am. A Romantic? An Adventurer? A Thrill Seeker; Planner, Dreamer, Self-Improver?
I wanted to tell him I had a little bit of all these passionate travelers inside me, but in truth I’m a reluctant traveler. A low-key, “dread the prospect of traveling,” kind of traveler, and not for the reasons you may think. I’m far more complex than that.
Sure, airports are a complete hell: endless TSA lines, travelers who can’t seem to follow basic security rules; bag drop queues that don’t budge and confuse anyone with a basic understanding of how life works, last minute gate changes that have me racing around the airport, this gate, no that gate; not a morsel of healthy food in sight; chronic flight delays that seem to always choose me. Let’s just say it: flying sucks.
The weird thing is, once I hit that shiny, brightly lit airport, the place one would expect to become completely undone, the calm, grounded, and excited me comes out. Ready for take off. Or, anything really. I’m the smooth operator, gliding confidently through the airport, bags in tow, smile on my face, excited for what’s to come.
Honestly, I wish it was any one of those airport situations that triggered my pre-travel angst. Situations that are concrete. Impersonal. Nameable. Maybe, even crushable. But, the source of my unease is far more insidious. It creeps up slowly, a week before we travel; hangs around, amplifies as the departure date nears, and makes me wonder why I’m such a bright star to ever think it was a good idea to leave the comfort of my home and daily routine in the first place.
So, what’s the big deal?
Sleep for starters. Or, maybe I should say, lack of sleep because that’s my joy the night before. I’m amped up, convinced the alarm clock won’t go off the next morning, worried I’ll oversleep, miss our flight and ruin our trip. Obviously, it will be my fault, and then I’ll have the added agony of having to beg my family for forgiveness, figure out how to make it up to them, while all along praying they won’t begin to see me as someone unreliable, lacking, and unable to manage even the simplest task of setting and waking up to an alarm.
Then there’s my self-flagellation to contend with, the one that will manifest as perseverative thinking (anxiety’s dark bedfellow) about what a failure I am because, really, how hard is it to wake up and get out of the house? I’ve only done it every day for my entire life! And, sure, my family may take pity and forgive me, but I’ll stoke the guilt flame, and keep it alive and burning. It’s really the only fair thing to do!
I need practical, real time solutions, so I check my alarm at least 10 times to make sure it’s working, that the hour is set to a.m. not p.m., and that the volume is turned up so I can hear it. But, at the same time, it’s pretty obvious to me that alarm clocks aren’t reliable, that they can mysteriously stop working, and it’s probably not a good idea to count on one in the first place when a trip is hanging in the balance. Clearly, staying up and watching the minutes pass by, 1:45 a.m., 2:07 a.m., 2:32 a.m, is the only logical thing to do. At least I’ve landed on a solution. I’m thankful for that.
So there it is. It’s a fait accompli. I’m destined to be 100 percent trashed when I travel, meaning there’s a high probability that I’m going to look and feel like garbage for the first few days of our vacation. You know the look, pale skin, drawn face, bloodshot eyes. Is there anything worse than when people tell you “Hey, you look really tired!” “Gee, thanks. I know I look like crap. But, I totally appreciate the reminder. You try setting an alarm and getting to the airport on time. Let’s see what you look like?” Honestly, people can be so rude.
Worse, there’s a strong chance I won’t sleep well on the trip itself. Apparently, 63% of us don’t sleep soundly when we’re away from home. Thank you Princess Cruise Lines for coming up with that helpful statistic, and validating what I already know: I’m going to be a total zombie during our vacation, and court all the serious health issues that come along with sleep deprivation.
Oh, hey there, high blood sugar, hormone havoc, compromised immunity, inflammation, cellular aging, and chronic disease! Honestly, is it even worth going away if I’m setting myself up for hypertension, diabetes, and premature aging…?
And how about packing, and the associated fear of leaving something behind? I try to ward off that uneasy feeling by furiously packing a few days before a trip, but it doesn’t help much because I always unpack what I preemptively pre-packed to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Bikini. Pants. Tee shirt. Dress. Bikini. Pants. Tee shirt. Dress. You get the drill.
And what about the toiletry bag, and checking and rechecking that my new travel containers, facial cleansers, oils and cosmetics are TSA compliant, and won’t be confiscated. Because, really, how is anyone supposed to enjoy a vacation with parched, blotchy skin, dull hair, and sub par beauty products?
And, I haven’t even mentioned my kids yet. They insist they are old enough to pack themselves, which is really just code for “you’ll help me pack when I’m ready to pack” which is always the night before our flight, and “please make me a check list of all the things I need, but will forget to put in my backpack if you don’t remind me.”
This last minute hustle doesn’t make any impression on them. Not even a dent. They sleep like babies, and are happy to catch some extra Zs on the way to the airport, and on the flight. Of course.
So there you have it: As my family looks unabashedly forward to vacation, and sleeps soundly the night before we leave, I obsess and take on the collective worry of the group: maybe we should have arranged for a car service, rather than counting on Uber at 4:00 in the morning. Being up on time, does not guarantee you will make it to the airport on time. And, what about passports? Do we have them? Are the boarding passes loaded in our Apple wallets, and the printed boarding passes stashed into our bags just in case our phones are misplaced or the batteries die?
Is there anything else I can fully obsess about?
When our travel day finally arrives, my group bounds out of bed, grabbing bags and carry-ons I packed, and wonders out loud why SHE is so effing tired, and taking so long to get out of the house. The Uber is waiting they’ll say to me.
But don’t they know I have to do another 1000 things? It’s called locking doors, closing windows, checking and rechecking bedrooms to be certain we have everything, scrutinizing the stove to make sure there won’t be a gas explosion while we’re away, and setting the house alarm.
You may be wondering if I’m a less reluctant traveler when I travel solo, unburdened by responsibilities to my loved ones. Um, no. That’s the exact moment my ambient, amorphic dread shape shifts, and winds itself around the real possibility that my plane may crash, my children may grow up motherless, and I’ll never see them graduate from college, land their first job, fall in love, or have families of their own. And, this creates a cascade of other serious, compelling thoughts:
Is my will in good order? Actually, where is my will? What about my accounts? How will anyone get in without my passwords? I should really write them all out and put the list somewhere safe. Somewhere readily found. It’s really the least I can do, given the irresponsible decision to leave my children behind.
What sort of mother does that?
I will definitely have to make our last meal together memorable; perfect actually: Serve their favorite dinner, throw in a warm apple pie for good measure; lots of great conversation and easy laughter. I’ll also need to remember to send the kids heartfelt texts from the airport, telling them how much I love them, how amazing I think they are, how very proud they make me. I’ll pepper in lots of colorful hearts and kissy face emojis. At least, when I’m gone, my children can hold onto that.
So why do it? Why jump through a gazillion emotional hoops in order to travel.
For me, the benefits of exploring new places, whether it be the canals of Venice, the streets of Nashville, or beaches of Hawaii, takes me outside my regular routine and comfort zone, and reminds me that there is a vast, gorgeous, stunning, wonderous world out there that is waiting to be explored, one that is so much bigger, richer, and more textured than the one in which I live everyday. It pulls me away from the tyranny of my endless to-do lists, social obligations, worklife, carefully curated schedules, and mind numbing chores, and fully awakens me to the beauty and splendor contained in the present moment, and in my life. Of course, having this epiphany while enjoying a glass of rose in the South of France doesn’t hurt.
While I don’t travel to relieve anxiety, I am 100 percent aware that being in a new place, fully present in the experience, has the power to calm my nerves, stop my elliptical thinking, and help me approach life with a spirit of curiosity and awe. Rather than obsessing about something I did or said last week; or worrying about something that may or may never happen in the future, traveling keeps me firmly planted in the here and now, and invites me to fill my body and soul with the sights, sounds, and tastes of new and unknown places.
It’s so darn freeing and life enhancing to shrug off the mantle of everyday life and immerse myself in an entirely new experience.
So listen up:
Anxiety is part of everyday life. We all have it. It’s here to stay.
It’s our body’s way of saying, “Hey, watch out. There’s a problem.” “Tune in, and focus.” “There’s something you need to pay attention to.”
A certain amount of anxiety is vital to our overall well-being and personal safety. It enables us to spot and respond to potential threats and danger. Imagine walking down the street alone at night and hearing footsteps behind you. Do you really want to tune out and think happy, positive thoughts; or do you want to focus, walk faster, call 911, or scream if necessary. Without anxiety and appropriate levels of fear, we’re all just sitting ducks.
On a more mundane level, anxiety can help us to be better prepared for life’s challenges. If you’re anxious about an exam, it can push you to study harder; If you have a big decision to make, a little trepidation can help you assess it from a wider angle, taking into account all the associated pros and cons. Anxiety can also be a great travel companion, nudging you to be more thoughtful and organized when packing and planning for your getaway.
Experts believe there’s a “sweet spot” when it comes to anxiety, one that lives someplace between an eternally positive, laissez-faire attitude and overwhelming, crippling anxiety that interferes with your ability to manage and enjoy life. Given that an estimated 40 million American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, it’s clear that finding the sweet spot isn’t easy in our modern, fast paced world.
Seeing anxiety as an age old biological function that can protect us from harm and prepare us to tackle life’s challenges can be helpful when trying to manage my own nagging, fear based thoughts. I’ve also found recognizing my anxiety as something that ebbs and flows to be freeing. When that foreboding pre-travel feeling begins to take hold, identifying it and saying “Hi there. Come on in. I’ve been expecting you” makes me feel more in control and at peace with this part of me, even if it doesn’t change the fact that I’m probably not going to sleep soundly the night before my next trip.
But, maybe, just maybe, in time I will.