Anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness
Several years ago when I was struggling with the anxieties of beginning college, my counselor told me something I never forgot. I had been beating myself up for being weak and spiraling downhill after a year of almost no anxiety.
“Emily,” she said, “You’re not getting weaker. You’re just climbing uphill.”
I was thinking about her words a few weeks ago when I went on my first bike ride of the summer. For the first half mile, I thought there was no way I was going to keep up with the others. My legs hurt more than usual, I was out of breath, my heart was pounding, and I was way behind everyone. When I got to a hill, I had to get off and push the bike up. That’s when I realized that my bike was resisting me. I checked the tires and found out that one of the breaks had been rubbing against the front tire the whole time.
Luckily, I and my friend had both brought along some bike tools, and he was able to repair the bike before we continued. I felt the difference as soon as I got back on, and I was able to keep up the rest of the time. Yes, it still hurt, and my body had a lot of catching up to do, but that is only expected when starting a new activity.
No one accuses someone of being too weak when starting a new exercise, yet many of us do think that we are weak when we don’t breeze through trials and anxieties without any problems. But, just like bike riding, it takes time to build up strength. It’s okay to struggle. And, sometimes, just like my bike, we have some things that need to be worked on before we can catch up.
This lesson is harder to grasp than it seems. Once again, I am facing a fear that has had me feeling weak and helpless.
I have experienced travel anxiety for many years, usually starting from the moment a trip is mentioned to the day we finally hit the road. Despite many wonderful vacations with almost no anxiety, I am always haunted by anxious thoughts during the preparation for a trip.
It seems like every time I have a victory over an anxiety, I can still find myself approaching new circumstances with the mindset that this one is different. This one is harder. Travel is like that for me. I can be doing really well, having success after success, and still feel like I am helpless when it comes to leaving home.
Because of this fear, I have never flown in a plane. That’s right. I’m 23 as I’m writing this, and I have never even stepped inside an airplane. As baffled as I am about the physics behind flying, I’m not afraid of planes themselves. I’m not afraid of them falling from the sky or exploding. I’m not even that claustrophobic as long as I have a window.
I’m afraid of my own fear, and I’m afraid of experiencing it in a tiny room several tens of thousands of feet in the air.
So, I thought, I can get by without flying for awhile. One day—a long long time from now—I might make it to Ireland or Italy. Until then, I was comfortable looking at pictures or videos of the places I’d like to see.
That was until about a year ago when one of my best friends asked if I would be in his wedding. At first I laughed—girls couldn’t be groomsmen!—but then I realized he was serious, and I fell in love with the idea of standing with my guy friends as we celebrated our friend’s marriage. I was on board, and then I asked where and when the wedding would take place. Hesitantly, knowing I had an issue with planes, he said the wedding would be in Mountainview, California on June 17, 2017.
The date was so far away at the time that I didn’t let myself think about it too much. Ever since, June 17, 2017 has loomed over my head as a date both to be celebrated and dreaded. I look forward to being with my friends and boyfriend, dressing up, getting pictures done, standing by my best friend at a gorgeous venue, seeing California for the first time, looking out the window in the plane and watching the country go by, and knowing that my friends will be beginning a new adventure together. It’s one of those things where you want to do something so much that all the anxiety beforehand is worth it (I believe wanting to do something more than you fear it is one of the best cures for anxiety), but then the darker side of my mind sees all that can go wrong. It is at these moments that I have to remember all of the things I have done that show that I can do it.
It’s okay to be prepared
I knew that some things needed to be done quickly to make the trip “doable” for me.
- I was told I could bring someone to stay with me since I was the only female groomsman and couldn’t stay with the guys, so I invited my mom.
- I shortened the trip for myself and booked my flight for a day later than everyone else.
- I talked to my counselor about it.
- I decided to wait a little longer to wean off of my medication.
These four things made me feel safer, but they also made me wonder if I was being too weak. Would I really feel like I had conquered my fears if I had all of these safety nets? Would other people see me as weak for not just diving in?
But then I thought about what my counselor said. If I struggled, it wasn’t because I was weak; it was because I was going uphill. If I hadn’t packed tools to fix my bike a few weeks ago, I would have been handicapped the whole ride. I also needed to bring my water bottle, wear comfortable clothes, plan for weather, pack a tire pump, eat a good breakfast, etc. Riding behind my friends with a messed up bike made me feel ashamed and powerless, but it turned out it wasn’t my fault at all. The bike just needed some maintenance. When I am dealing with something that causes me anxiety, it can make me feel the same way, but sometimes there are just things that need some extra care.
Being equipped for anxiety first comes from accepting that it’s okay to need a little support, just like a mountain climber or biker needs equipment to get them through obstacles. I have to accept that some people’s flat land is my uphill, and sometimes I’m riding with a faulty bike.
Being equipped means taking care of yourself. It means finding out what tools can get you through something, whether that’s essential oils, meditation, distractions, or your mom.
For this trip, I have a “toolbox” of both physical items and strategies to help me. One thing I have found is that I often don’t even need my toolbox because I feel comfortable just knowing it’s there.
- Breathing exercises – Breathe in four seconds, hold it in for seven, and exhale for nine. This really works to calm you down. Probably not safe while driving or operating machinery.
- Essential oils (for calming scents)
- Prayer prayer prayer
- A cozy book
- A cozy audio book
- Journaling – writing down positive things about the trip. Like I said before, wanting to do something is so important to facing a fear, so I am hyping myself up to have a great time.
- Thought blocking – I let myself worry occasionally, but most of the time I am re-directing my thoughts toward positive ideas about the trip.
- Postponing worry – Sometimes anxious thoughts come up, and that’s okay. I just save them for when I’m feeling more suited to deal with them.
- Research – I googled “travel anxiety,” “staying comfortable on a plane,” “foods you can pack on a plane,” etc.
- Blogging – That’s right. Even writing down these things helps me process and realize my fears are really not that scary and I’m not the only one who deals with them.
Sometimes equipping yourself can seem like you’re giving in to your fears, but in reality you are using your fear in your favor, molding it into something helpful instead of harmful. As a six on the enneagram, I am learning that preparedness is actually a gift! We should never make life harder than it already is by refusing to practice self care. It is still your strength that gets you through.
No one discredits a biker because they have plenty of water, the right clothes, an aerodynamic helmet, or an excellent bike. You still get credit for this. Even if you don’t make it all the way to the end of the trail, or if you struggle along the way, you still get credit for trying because no one fails if they tried. And if you did try, then you can bet that it will get easier every time.
Update: Five years after writing this post…
I went to California and watched my friend get married. Not long after, I married my husband, and we went to Colorado for our honeymoon. We went to Florida twice after that. While the pandemic has slowed down our travels, I look forward to our next trips. I don’t fear them like I used to.
I hope this is encouraging to you! You can overcome your fears. You will look back and see how far you’ve come and be proud.