Anxiety…and travel (read: my passion)? Do these two things truly belong together?
Usually my weekend travel retrospectives feature foreign meals, or describe how wonderful a particular trip was. I’m not going to do that today. As much as I would love to continue my Nicaragua (or Europe!) theme, anxiety has been a pressing issue lately. So I’m sharing my anxiety and near meltdown from the last time I was at an airport, the Wednesday that I flew home from San Francisco.
The date: Wednesday, June 12.
The place: LAX, waiting for my connection flight to start boarding.
The conditions: I have just discovered, on the flight from San Francisco to LA, that my period started. I have said goodbye to one of my closest friends after a fantastic vacation I feel I did not deserve, and am looking forward to seeing Andy again after our four nights apart. I am emotional, queasy, nervous (as I usually am on transit days), and generally out of sorts.
I quickly run to the ladies’ room upon disembarking, immediately observing how unclean and unappealing the facilities are compared to those at SFO, San Francisco’s airport. My luggage barely fits inside the stall, the smell is unpleasant, there is a long line of fellow women travelers, all tired and mildly impatient, as I am.
The minutes are slipping by; flight connections are rarely simple or un-rushed. Do I have my camera? Is my wallet still in the pocket I left it in?
And the departing gate, which one is it? 23, okay, take a seat, breathe for a few minutes. I have a few minutes, right? Yes, okay.
A flight attendant is asking the first class passengers to start boarding. Wait, it’s too early! I check my boarding pass for the fifth time to see if I’m at the right gate. The numbers match up, but the destinations don’t. I’m at the same gate I arrived at and this plane is now headed back to San Francisco!
Now I’m dashing through the terminal, glancing furiously at all the signs, looking for New York and my flight number. After a frantic three minutes that feels like three hours, I find the right gate, and breathe again. I reach into the front pocket of my bag and…no phone.
I get up and look under the seats, my eyes trailing across the floor. Boarding (this time for my flight) starts in five minutes: just enough time for me to scramble back through the terminal, around the crowds of people and suitcases, retracing my steps from the first gate, to the bathroom, and back to my departing gate. My search turns up nothing, and before I even have time to think straight, it’s time for me to board.
A note about my physical state: My heart is beating all to fast, which I’m sure gives me a nice flush (read: bright red and sweaty) to my cheeks. I am hot and tired and out of breath. There’s so much nervous energy built up inside me, residing squarely in my chest– I don’t know what to do with it. I keep telling myself to calm down, so what if I lost my little cheap flip phone? It’s probably the most basic phone in existence right now. No big deal (Ha!).
I’m resigned. My boarding pass now scanned, I enter the jetway. I’m glad the line is moving slowly, because I’m in no hurry to get on that plane: no fresh air, window seat (what seems attractive most of the time just feels claustrophobic in my state of anxiety), tiny bathroom I will inevitably have to use multiple times.
Then, out of curiosity more than anything, I reach into the back pocket of my bag, where I’m sure I did not place my phone.
But it’s there! I have my phone after all! There won’t be any worry over how Andy will find me at JFK, and I won’t have to buy a new phone after all! Best of all, I can relax. Everything is okay now. Shock and relief!
Shock, yes. Unfortunately, I’m not feeling that much-needed relief. In fact, finding my phone somehow has led to feeling even more anxious. In childbirth, they say that interventions beget more interventions, like a cascade of events compounding each other. This is sort of how anxiety works when it escalates to panic: the mind gets carried away in its frenzy, producing more physical symptoms (headache, sweating, shaking, sensitivity to light and noise, etc), and the onset of increased physical symptoms gets the mind more worked up, unable to extricate itself from the cycle it’s trapped in.
I feel tears welling up in my eyes (in retrospect, I probably should have just let myself cry), and put my face in my hands, as if I could wipe away my distress. I’m simultaneously super anxious and self-conscious, all too aware that I’m in a public place. The passenger in front of me on line, Mr. Pink-Shirt-Grey-Hair (first mentioned here), glances at me and I realize how unbalanced I must look.
Throughout my muddled state, it is somewhat of a help that I am part of a group of people, engaged in an orderly activity with an objective in mind: to get on the plane and fly to New York. I am not alone. Needing to be a part of this schedule is important to my functioning: one of my worst full-blown panic attacks occurred (ten years ago, thankfully) when I was alone in my bedroom- and that lack of outside influence/societal ‘interference’ was what made that moment so scary for me.
I tell myself to practice slow, deep breathing. The glimpse of concern from Mr. Pink-Shirt-Grey-Hair seemed to have some kind of calming effect and I’m now able to think outside of my anxiety-haze. Nothing lasts forever, I remind myself. I’m still worked up and sweaty, but with each passing moment, I’m able to gain more perspective.
We’re now passing through the plane doors, then first class. The cabin is full, and I start a new worry: will there be room in the overhead compartment for my suitcase? I’m also still trying to figure out why I got so upset, and realize the anxiety over waiting at the wrong gate and believing I lost my phone both stemmed from my fear of failure. (I could’ve missed my plane if I didn’t find the right gate in time, and that plus losing my phone would have been a total nightmare. I’m in LA! I don’t know anybody! And on and on.)
Who needs to go through all of this internal processing when they’re just trying to board an airplane?
I’m at my row and nod to the guy in the middle seat, silently asking him to get up so I could get to my window seat. But first I had to figure out where to put my suitcase.
“Why don’t you try back in that compartment? Here, would you like some help?” Mr. Pink! He hasn’t even taken care of his own luggage yet, and as I manage a startled “Oh yes! Please”, he takes my suitcase and stows it. He moves efficiently, like the businessman he probably is, and immediately turns around to head to his own seat. Thank you.
What better to pull me out of my panic mode than a small moment of human connection? Mr. Pink’s kindness and generosity mean the world to me. I sit down in my seat and pull out my notebook, scrawling as fast as possible to record everything that I have just been through, still taking deep breaths to relax.
Anxiety has been an issue for me as long as depression as- since I was a teenager. I know that the meat of anxiety stems from irrational thoughts. It thrives on what ifs, should haves, and could haves. I have books all about combating anxiety, I’ve practiced mindfulness and have gone through phases where I’ve practiced meditation– I know that these things help. (I’d like to truly start a regular meditation practice- will let you guys know if there’s any progress on that front!)
Writing, and sharing my story with others, are also excellent ways to cope and reduce the stigma that accompanies panic and anxiety disorders. (I’m so grateful for this space to do just that)
Here’s a link featuring some basic coping methods for anxiety and depression.
A couple of useful books that I own: Overcoming Anxiety: From Short-Time Fixes to Long-Term Recovery and The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.
The practice is simply this: keep coming back to your breath during the day. Just take a moment. This will give your mind a steadiness and your breath a gracefulness…. There’s so much to let go of, isn’t there? Your nostalgia and your regrets. Your fantasies and your fears. What you think you want instead of what is happening right now. Breathe. —Rodney Yee