18 February 2015

I am digital nomad, travelling the world with both my backpack and one heck of a pesky panic disorder.

Ever since I was very young, I’ve suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks. When I was little, I pulled out all of my eyelashes and eyebrows, something called trichotillomania that is symptomatic of anxiety.

As I got older, the panic attacks kicked in. At one point, I became so anxious that I couldn’t leave the house for six terrified months. My life was one permanent panic attack and my horizons shrunk to four small walls.

Travelling changed all this.

It has literally saved me from a life lived in fear - a life half lived.

In my mid-twenties, I decided to play chicken with my panic disorder, to plunge headfirst into adventure and see whether I would sink or swim. That’s when I started to travel.

Thankfully, I swam. Phew. It could have been a disaster. But it wasn’t. My horizons suddenly started to grow.

I’ve worked in travel ever since, first selling safaris to South Africa, then joining a start-up adventure travel company and eventually running it myself.

In September 2013, I left it all behind. I packed up my flat, donated my stuff to mental health charities and started to live nomadically by copywriting for small travel companies.

I’ve never looked back. It’s a totally wonderful way to live.

It’s not always easy travelling with a panic disorder and don’t wish to whitewash that fact.

Sometimes, even after 18 months of life on the road, I hit a bad patch. But I wouldn’t change it for world.

I’m grateful to be out here everyday, following my dreams and fighting my demons. It’s more than I could ever have hoped for. I still have panic attacks, but they are far less frequent and I move past them faster these days.

I now take medication for my anxiety and I’ve had several bouts of counselling and CBT to help me cope.

For me, the combination of talking therapy and medication has made all the difference. Medication for anxiety, and for the depression that comes alongside anxiety, tends to get bad press. Many people believe that taking pills is a dangerous personality-zapping and emotionally-numbing option. I can understand that outside point of view. It’s potent stuff, that’s for sure. And it feels very scary at first.

However, I would not be where I am today without medication.

My anxiety was very severe. I was unable to lead a normal life. My brain needed (and still needs) balancing out, with a mixture of medication and therapy.

It hasn’t flattened my emotions or irrevocably changed me. It has just given me a little platform to a place where I’m able to use the CBT tools and calm myself down. I don’t regret the medication for a minute. Today, I hop between continents barely batting an eyelid. Most of the time, anyway. It’s a bit of a miracle.

CBT is just brilliant. It’s solution-focused, kitting you out with an invisible utility belt of coping mechanisms.

Nowadays, I can stop fixating on negative thoughts by swerving my brain back to something-resembling-rational, using my magic belt. It involves talking to myself A LOT, repeating the positives and lulling the panic with gentle logic.

The negative thoughts - I’m going to die, this plane is going to crash, I’ve got cancer - still parade through my brain, but I’m able to put them neatly aside and go on happily with my day.

Another essential coping mechanism for me is breathing. Really breathing. Right into the back of my stomach.

If I begin to feel anxious, I don’t even realise that I’m taking short, shallow breaths until my fingers start tingling and I’m convinced that I’m about to drop dead. Really breathing slowly and deeply into the back of my stomach helps not only with the panic but only to ground me in the moment without thinking about the future or past. Essentially, it’s mindfulness, but whatever the technical term, it’s a real life-changer. Try it.

And then there’s the shame.

I was always painfully ashamed of my wayward brain, constantly wishing that I could be normal and handle life like everyone else.

But I’m not everyone else. I am myself.

I have learned to accept and be grateful for all the things that I AM, not the things I AM NOT. Now, I am much more open about my disorder and I refuse to live my life feeling ashamed.

If I start to feel anxious, I tell people. Even if they’re people I’ve only just met. When I’ve needed help and asked for it, I’ve been treated with kindness without exception.

I believe that my history with anxiety makes me a more grateful, open and kinder traveller.

I am easily amazed by the little things. Sunsets, fresh fruit, forests, insects and birds all make me smile.

I am simply happy to be out in the planet soaking up its beauty, almost free of fear. I look back at my journey and I want to cry with joy. I can handle the odd panic attack (or two) when I think about how far I’ve come.

Maybe, in a twisted way, I need to thank my disorder. I feel lucky every single day.


This is a guest post by Bryony Holland. Thanks, Bryony, for your honesty and we hope other people will be inspired by your story to travel too!

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