When I was 13 and already on my third therapist, I was terrified of everything. Each session, I ran through a list of things that gave me anxiety. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at 12, so I knew too much about how it worked and could easily identify loads of “triggers.” Math class. Sleepovers. Kissing boys. Trains. Planes. Basically any transportation method. You name it, I was scared of it, and I could come up with a hundred horrible outcomes for each scenario.
This was the curse of being a creative person battling an anxiety disorder, my therapist said. I was a mess—missing school, crying in the nurse’s office, and avoiding social situations. By the time I was 18, I was on the max dosage of Zoloft, still seeing no improvement.
Fast forward to age 24—probably on my tenth therapist—getting dropped off at the airport for a flight to London. It was going to be the longest flight I’d been on and the furthest I’d been from home. I was embarking on a month-long solo Eurotrip, which terrified my family, yet excited me. I felt as if it were a pilgrimage. Waiting for my flight to board, I felt many emotions, the most unexpected one being a sense of calm. I was doing it all by myself. No safety net.
Until then, solo travel was never even a blip on my radar. Travel in general rarely crossed my mind. I figured I’d live my life in my Long Island hometown bubble, maybe move an hour away to the city, getting by with the occasional trip to the Jersey Shore. Caribbean Islands and Europe were the stuff of dreams, places I’d only ever see in my well-traveled friends’ photo albums. I accepted this fact until years later, when it hit me—anxiety had been holding me back from so many experiences for over a decade. I was fed up.
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While this isn't the case for everyone in my position, what helped me more than any psych med or therapy session was getting out into the world and throwing myself into uncomfortable situations. That meant leaving New York and doing things that made me feel like I was going to throw up out of nervousness (e.g.: the time I stayed in an Airbnb in LA by myself for a week, or the time I shook like a leaf before a stand-up paddleboarding lesson in Waikiki).
There’s psychology behind this, and it’s known as exposure therapy. “[Your trip] most likely functioned as a helpful exposure, and maybe a lot of little exposures grouped into one,” says David Austern, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. Exposure therapy is under the umbrella of CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, he tells me. “We target the thoughts that are unhelpful, and then behaviorally we try to reduce avoidance and confront whatever somebody might really want to be doing that might be meaningful in their life.” How do you reduce avoidance? For me, it was exposing myself to the very things that scared me. I also spent lots of time talking to my therapist about my unhelpful and negative thoughts prior to my trip, and I was able to continue to talk to her almost every day I was abroad, since I use online therapy.
During that month-long trip to Europe, the answer to every question or every creeping sense of fear became, “Fuck it, I’m in Europe!” I couldn’t run home to mommy, and I couldn’t go hide in my bed because, well, I was staying in hostels with anywhere from three to seven other roommates and I didn’t want everyone requesting room changes. Mostly, though, I knew I’d regret not savoring every moment of being abroad. I kept reminding myself that wading outside of my comfort zone was the point of the trip.
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That isn’t to say it was easy. Yes, I had an incredible time—and saw 13 different cities while doing so—but my mental illness didn’t magically disappear while traveling. As I’d already learned from some solo traveling in the US, you can hop on a flight but you can never really run away from your problems because they’re in your own brain. This was reinforced when I had a breakdown in front of the Duomo in Milan and an anxiety attack in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. However, it’s a hell of a lot more motivating to try and break through you wall of fears when the most beautiful places you’ve seen in your life lay on the other side.
For example, boats always freaked me out because I was afraid of getting seasick or having vertigo afterwards. When I was in Salerno, Italy, there was a ferry that went up the Amalfi Coast and out to Capri. I observed rustic cliffside towns dotted with hundreds of colorful tiny houses, rickety boats tied to docks, and tanned Italians jumping off tall rocks into clear cerulean waters. When else would I have this opportunity? I knew I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t buy a ticket, so I had my espresso, put on my big girl pants, and boarded the ferry. Anxiety kicked in when I took my seat on the top deck, as the boat rocked with the waves when we weren’t even moving. What was I gonna do when we were cruising along for two whole hours? If I puked, who would hold my hair back?
Guess what? I was fine—not an iota of seasickness. Instead, I was filled with wonder at the cliffside towns’ beauty, and even more filled with pride. I was doing this. I wasn't just getting by—I was thriving. I cried, for once not because I was miserable, but because I was so fucking proud of myself. Years before, I never would’ve thought this to be possible.
I realized that even if I did get sick, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. I could’ve puked in the bathroom (I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first) and then bought a ginger ale from the beverage stand on board. I would’ve survived, and I’d still be rewarded with the Island of Capri. Throwing up on the boat ride to Capri could, in some alternate universe, be some type of rite of passage for the anxious.
These little victories carried over into my normal life upon returning home (by the way, I love boat rides now). When faced with a triggering situation, I’d think, “If I could travel Europe by myself for a month, I can get through this.”
Austern says this is a common phenomenon associated with exposure therapy. “When it comes to anxiety and related problems, we really get the most enduring benefits and learning from exposures,” he says. “One of the benefits that’s so important is the increased sense of confidence and mastery. It generalizes.” When Austern creates an exposure hierarchy with a patient, they don't actually have to do every item on it. If they start to do a bunch of them, he tells me, that learning generalizes to other situations. And they start to feel more confident that they can take on whatever, even in unrelated areas in their life.
That’s how I feel now, like I can take on formerly overwhelming tasks with more confidence and less anxiety. This would not have been the case if I’d just stayed in my comfortable New York City bubble. The saying, “Bloom where you’re planted” must have been meant for people without anxiety. I had to go far away from where I was planted—all by myself—if I stood a chance.
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