Anxiety abroad

I’m paralysed. Stuck to the spot. I’m waiting for the right moment. The right moment to ask. To ask where the toilet is.

Now you might be thinking what is so difficult about asking where the toilet is? And you’re right, there is nothing difficult about it. However, it took me two hours of desperation to finally ask.

This crippling anxiety is seeping into every part of my travels, reverting me back into my five-year-old self. Tasks such as crossing the road, going to the supermarket and walking by myself are now all deserving of a gold star and a lollipop for bravery.

Anxiety is a daily battle for me whether I am in Norwich, Malawi or Timbuktu. I feel like a person in two halves.

On one end I am the extroverted risk taker who does things like quitting their job to travel round Spain and Portugal in an Indian Tuk Tuk; but the other half is so introverted that I turn into a mute when I go to the hairdressers, only able to communicate through the fear in my eyes. Never quite a mix of the two, I tend to be one extreme or the other. And so far, I am falling on the more introverted side.

Malawi, also known as the warm heart of Africa, has been so welcoming! From the minute I got here, even with all the drama of the first day (no luggage, no transport, no electronics, no friends, no plan), I have felt right at home.

There has never been an awkward, dull or sad moment. Despite this, I still found myself creating situations to worry about. How would I get to work? What would I eat for lunch, who would I sit with? How would I get home? These are all questions that plagued my mind 99 percent of the time and yet, I always had a way to work, the food was amazing, I got so many offers for lunch that I had to turn some down and I was never stranded at the office overnight.

On one of my sleepless nights I was flipping through the scrapbook that my wonderful friends made me before I went to Malawi, and I came across a quote that really resonated. It read “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I thought to myself, am I pushing myself? Have I done the things I want to do? Am I seeking discomfort?

The next morning, I woke up extra early, put on my running shoes and started the arduous 20 minutes walk to the office. Getting to the office (without the use of Google Maps) felt like a massive achievement and since that morning, my anxiety has improved.

I’m still plagued with anxiety every time I need to pee, but I’ve crossed the road by myself, I’ve been to the supermarket twice now and I spoke to my boss about my anxiety.

Wait! I did what? I spoke to my boss about my anxiety? Talking about my anxiety is not something I take pleasure in. I would rather stew in my self-worry than speak about how I feel.

Unsurprisingly, speaking about my anxiety, even just a little, has helped me and them to understand what I’m going through.

I have also started saying yes to more things. This weekend I attended two Malawian weddings. At a Malawian wedding there is no such thing as an invitation, if you want to be there you turn up! The condition is that you must throw money at the bride and groom several times throughout the service.

After the weddings, I was whisked to an exclusive black-tie event with a Malawian celebrity. I only had half an hour to get ready and no chance to go home first. My anxiety had hit the jackpot!

However, instead of worrying about things I could not control, I decided to enjoy my Cinderella moment. Just like in the fairy tale, I had my very own fairy godmother who lent me a dress and shoes that fit like a glove. Anxiety does not disappear when the clock strikes 12, but I am learning to work with it rather than against it.

I have come to realise that a lot of my anxiety is self-created, which has helped me to start to overcome it, or at least not be paralysed every time I feel anxious.

I know everybody experiences anxiety differently but I hope that by sharing my struggle with anxiety, particularly while travelling, it will help others and continue to open up conversations about mental health.



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Mia Shah

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October 2021
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