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When I announced to friends and family that I was going to travel the world, they told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life.
“You’ll never survive,” they said. “People like you don’t travel.”
They had a point.
I had never travelled before, outside of my two-week-long holidays to fancy resorts with my family when I was younger. The thought of doing it solo, or leaving for more than a few weeks at a time, was more than daunting.
My lack of travel experience, though, was just the tip of the iceberg.
When I decided to take the leap, I was also battling an anxiety disorder that had kept me in its grasp for the better part of a decade. It was an illness that, at its worst point, had left me housebound for a period of six months.
My anxiety brought with it panic attacks, multiple times a day for months on end.
I was fighting an eating disorder, too, as my first reaction to anxiety quickly became to stop eating. At one point, I weighed 38 kilograms and was surviving solely on fruit.
That’s not all.
A sheltered upbringing and a determination to avoid anything that could trigger a panic attack meant I had no life experience and possessed little common sense. I didn’t know how to function in everyday life.
I had never been on a bus before.
I had never eaten rice.
My friends were right: I wasn’t the type of person who travelled. But I decided to leave anyway because travel was always something I’d dreamed of. I was miserable at home and felt I had nothing left for me there.
Surely having a panic attack on a beach in Thailand had to be better than having one at home?
That was four years ago.
Since then, travel has changed my life in so many positive ways.
I was six months into my trip when I suddenly realised I hadn’t had a panic attack in weeks.
Two major things contributed:
The combination has done wonders for my mental health.
Travel didn’t get rid of my anxiety for good – I’ll likely battle it for life – but it equipped me with coping mechanisms to handle it.
When I recently experienced a bout of it, rather than letting it take control like I had in the past, I gently pushed myself to try new things, discover new places, and take time for myself.
So many people name food as one of their greatest motivations to travel. For me, it was my biggest barrier.
I’d never even tried Chinese, Indian, or Thai food before.
For the first few months on the road, I floundered. I subsisted on food bought from supermarkets – pringles, chocolate bars, and bottles of Coke. I was afraid to try new flavours.
Heading to Vietnam changed everything.
A friend coerced me into trying a steaming bowl of pho and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. From that moment on, I gulped down bowl after bowl after bowl, eventually branching out to try other soups and gleefully discovering I loved them all.
I suddenly discovered what I’d been missing out on.
Vietnam kick-started an obsession with trying local food, to the point where it’s now one of my favourite aspects of travel.
In fact, I’ve even overcome my fear of strange foods, having now sampled kangaroo in Australia, cockroaches in Laos, crickets in Thailand, lizard in Vietnam, and brain tacos in Mexico!
It didn’t take long after leaving for me to discover that choosing to remain within my pea-sized comfort zone had been holding me back in life. Fortunately, travel is all about leaving your comfort zone, often on an hourly basis!
There were many, many things that intimidated me when I started travelling, but I was doing so alone and didn’t have anybody to rely on except myself. There was no escape.
Repeatedly leaving my comfort zone introduced me to new experiences – many of which ended up being the highlight of my travels.
Learning to surf in Bali. Camping overnight in the Sahara Desert. Riding in a hot air balloon over Lake Bled. Accepting a stranger’s kind offer to show me around Taiwan.
Anxiety is all about irrational thought processes, many of which revolve around panicking that everything is going to result in your death.
Travel helped me stop worrying that everything was going to end in disaster because everything I did quite often did.
I would leave my hostel for the bus station with a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be able to find the bus I’d need and it would leave without me.
Guess what? It happened.
And when it did, I spoke to an attendant and he changed my ticket for me and told me where to wait for the next bus.
Sometimes I’d worry about getting lost, would end up in the middle of nowhere, and then hail a taxi to take me back to my hostel. Or used a cached map on my phone to navigate. Or wandered around until I found a landmark I recognised.
Sometimes, though, something would happen that was even worse than the thing I’d been worrying about.
I thought I would struggle to find something to eat in Shanghai, but ended up getting scammed instead.
I only needed to experience these travel disasters a few times before I started to realise it was pointless worrying about what might happen.
Because sometimes the worse case scenario really does happen. And when it does, you’ll take a deep breath and figure it out. It’s almost never as bad as you think it’ll be. You’re more than capable of dealing with it.
Given my struggles with mental health and my lack of experience, you won’t be surprised to hear the pre-travel version of me wasn’t the most confident of people.
I was quiet and shy, preferring to hide from the limelight than let myself shine.
Conquering my anxiety made me feel like I could do anything I put my mind to.
Having things go wrong on the road showed me I was more capable than I’d thought.
Meeting new people in hostels every day helped me hone my social skills.
Trying new things and falling in love with them convinced me to push my boundaries as often as I can.
All of this combined led to a newfound confidence when it came to travel, people, and navigating the world.
I never thought I’d be truly independent.
I thought I was too broken to ever rely only on myself. I was the type of girl who jumped from long-term relationship to long-term relationship with barely a month between.
Travelling solo was all about finding the independence I’d always craved. It was about finding out who I was as a person, what I liked, and what I didn’t. It was about learning how to make decisions without having anyone else to rely on.
It was about being selfish.
Despite now travelling with my boyfriend, I try to spend a minimum of two months of every year travelling solo. I love the independence and freedom it gives me.
When I left to travel, I was a nervous, shy girl with no life experience and zero common sense. I had no sense of self-worth, no confidence, and didn’t know how to make friends. I had panic attacks every few hours. I was scared of anything with flavour.
Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving; nobody expected me to last.
Now, as I write this post in my guesthouse in Cambodia, I’ve been travelling for four years and counting. I’ve visited 60 countries across five continents. Anxiety no longer rules my life. I’ve fallen in love with food. I now seek out new and challenging experiences because I know that stepping out of my comfort zone will help me become a better person.
I barely recognise the person I used to be.
Travel changed my life.
How has travel changed your life?
Lauren Juliff is a full-time traveller and professional travel blogger at Never Ending Footsteps, where she writes about the many misadventures she’s had on the road. She recently released her first book, How Not to Travel the World, which chronicles how she conquered debilitating anxiety through being the unluckiest traveller in the world/">How Not to Travel the World, which chronicles how she conquered debilitating anxiety through being the unluckiest traveller in the world.
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