How one anxious traveler stays grounded

  • Article by: JOSH NOEL , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2013 - 12:51 PM

Though she faces panic attacks, author forges ahead with the international trips she loves.

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When Rita Anya Nara went on a cruise to Antarctica, “I had real issues. … I felt like I was falling off the face of the Earth.”

Photo: Eric Mohl • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Travel is inherently uncomfortable. The long lines, longer waits, tight spaces, unfamiliar terrain, communication difficulties and displacement from our routines can make travel unnerving and exhausting, even as it stimulates and educates.

When anxiety is part of your daily life, travel can become an even greater challenge. For Rita Anya Nara, who has had panic attacks since age 11, travel has led her to worry about matters both large — what if she is injured while traveling? — and small.

“I worried about making small talk with people who worked at the hotel,” Nara said. “I had a hang-up about meeting a service person and then seeing them a next time. Should I make small talk? Or pretend not to see them? What should I say?”

Travel was deeply anxiety-inducing for Nara, 36, an environmental scientist who lives near Sacramento, Calif. But the thing is, she loves traveling. So Nara kept doing it, taking three or four international trips per year and confronting her nerves along the way.

What Nara has learned about coping with her anxieties, travel and otherwise, is the subject of her debut book, “The Anxious Traveler,” released in June. Learning to cope with her anxieties, Nara said, has allowed her to wring the most out of travel while also improving life back home. In the book, she also credits her psychiatrist with encouraging the travel.

“Anxiety is rooted in fear of what might happen in the future,” Nara said. “When I’m traveling, I’m too busy being in the moment; there’s no anticipatory dread. Sometimes things happen that I feared would happen, but I don’t have the time to worry about them, and I have to think on my feet.”

Yet she still struggles to control her nerves. Nara said she usually grapples with “one major episode per trip.”

“When I went to Antarctica, I had real issues on the cruise ship with the idea of leaving the southern tip of South America and going into this great wild,” she said. “I felt like I was falling off the face of the Earth.”

But she has no intention of ending her travel habits, citing the theory “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”

“Travel makes my life,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I stopped traveling. Every time I have a scary episode, I overcome it, and I think about what I could have done. And then I think I’m going to try something even more different next time.”

Here are five tips from Nara for lessening travel anxiety:

 

Be present

“Get out of your mind and into your body and five senses. When you’re too focused on your head and the ‘what ifs,’ you’re focusing on the future and the past. You don’t have the energy to focus on the present, which could be a whole lot of nothing and usually is not as bad as you think.”

 

Stay connected

“I keep in contact with my parents and sister as much as possible. Every day, one time a day, I call. When I call home, I feel like I’m with them, and that helps me ground myself.”

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