How Travel Helped Cure My Anxiety

·Managing Editor
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My grandmother at a horse show in Denver in 1967. Me on a cruise ship to Bermuda in 2014. (Photos: Jo Piazza)

This story is part of a new Yahoo Travel series, #StressFreeTravel, dedicated to making travel better in every way possible.

My grandmother refused to fly out of Denver, where she had lived for the past 50 years, for any of my graduation ceremonies. One time, my mom was in the hospital in Philadelphia and she told us she just couldn’t get on a plane to come and help take care of me.

My mother travels, but when she does it, she does it with caution. With few exceptions, she goes where she is comfortable and has been before, then she rarely deviates from a specific itinerary. When she visits me in New York City she prefers the diner across the street from my apartment building to any number of world-class restaurants just blocks away. Still, when I can convince her to venture out of her comfort zone she is delighted, like the time we ate April Bloomfield’s famous burger at the Spotted Pig or the time she munched on her first lobster roll in Red Hook. But convincing her to do these things takes prodding and pleading, and she still says no most of the time.

Both my grandmother and my mom were afflicted with crippling anxiety — a constant but irrational loop in their minds of all of the things that could go wrong if they do something new. It is physically exhausting. The battle with your own brain wears a person down, making you feel incredibly tired after accomplishing the simplest of tasks. A constant pit lives in the stomach, but deviating from a plan makes it twist and turn like a balloon inflated with too much helium ready to pop. Your nerve endings tingle with uncomfortable excitement. The refrains that run through your mind are familiar, like a book you’ve read 1,000 times. And for those reasons, my mother and grandmother prefer to stay at home. Being in a cool dark room or distracting themselves with mindless television shows about other people searching the globe for their dream house can be incredibly soothing.

Related: How to Conquer a Fear of Flying

I get it. The three of us share the same DNA, and I suffer, too. It’s much less these days, though, a twinge here or there that reminds me exactly how terrible my grandmother must have felt before she passed away and how terrible my mother feels on a daily basis. My own recovery has come through a careful regime of mindfulness, meditation, medication, diet, exercise, and therapy. But it is also due, in large part, to travel. In the past year, travel has been one of the major things that has helped to cure my own crippling anxiety. For more than 30 years that anxiety has lived with me like a shadow, making everything just a little worse. I didn’t understand how much worse until it started to go away.

“Jesus! This is how people with normal brains feel every day!” I thought when it began to fade on a regular basis. “This is better than Christmas and sex rolled into one.” And it was. That isn’t an exaggeration. People who’ve never experienced anxiety are condescendingly dismissive of it.

“Get over it,” they sneer.

“You’re anxious? What does that even mean? That’s made up!”

Anxiety means you feel like crap, pretty much all of the time. It’s similar to depression and the two can often come hand in hand, but it is also its own unique beast.

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The author, hiking in Kosovo. (Photo: Olivia Balsinger)

I was still pretty anxiety-ridden when I took this job at Yahoo Travel last April. The difference between my grandmother, my mother, and me is that I have never let it actually stop me from getting on a plane. It’s stopped me from doing plenty of other things — being truly happy and having a healthy relationship to name a couple — but not from getting out of the country. But over the past nine months, as I made a decision to try to fight that shadow inside of me, travel has been a major component of keeping it at bay. (Of course, medication and regular exercise help.)

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Hugging a wild mustang in St. George, Utah. (Photo: Russell Powell)

But traveling all over the world and having adventures like diving with manta rays in the Maldives and whale sharks in Cancun or hiking the highest peak in Kosovo, kissing a giraffe in Nairobi, eating fondue in the French Alps, or surfing in Ireland (in October) has helped to save me in a lot of ways.

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For me, travel is not about running away. It is about being incredibly present and mindful in whatever new thing you may be experiencing. This mindfulness and gratitude for the present moment helped to halt the wicked cycle of cynicism souring my mind. For some people, mindfulness means sitting very still. For me, meditation equals movement. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness, training the brain to stay in the moment by letting go of both the future and the past, helps reduce both anxiety and depression. You have no choice but to be present when you travel, especially as a single woman. Your survival often depends on keeping your wits about you all of the time — and for me, as a journalist, my success in gathering stories requires me to pay very close attention to everything happening around me.

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Feeding the giraffes at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

I’m not alone. Our editor-in-chief Paula Froelich also credits travel to helping cure her own anxiety, which is partially genetic and partially due to being raised by two catastrophists who made Chicken Little look like a zen master. After leaving a toxic job, her anxiety got so bad that she literally couldn’t leave her apartment.

“So I started traveling,” she told me. “It forced me to confront certain fears, from the deep to the mundane. I would take lessons my shrink was teaching me and try them out in a new world where nobody knew me or had preconceived notions of me. Traveling helped me confront my anxieties and see them for what they really were — tiny annoying gnats, not the huge monsters under my bed who were ruling my life.”

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For me, travel has also provided a big “eff you” to my silly broken brain. It has given me the confidence to stand up to it and promise it every day that it won’t beat me. I feel bad that my grandmother never experienced this gift. As for my mom, I think there is still time. As for me, I am grateful every day that I am able to keep getting on those planes.

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