Note: I’m posting this to contribute to Geek Mental Help Week 2016. Find out more on their website where you can read articles, find out about events and contribute your own experiences. What I’m writing about isn’t a serious mental health condition. But I’ve found it common – if not near-universal – and I wish more people spoke about it.
Tl;dr: I have a real anxiety about illness and travel. It’s perfectly explainable. It manifests both physically and mentally. I’m learning to deal with it. Anxiety is NORMAL AND COMMON. Remember that…it could be affecting someone you know.
I’m booking a train to London online.
I can’t afford the peak-time ticket.
The first off-peak service is always packed. But I need to get it because otherwise I won’t make my meeting.
I request an aisle seat. I hope it’s not in the middle of the carriage.
On the day of the journey I board the train and find my booked seat. My stomach is already churning. The seat is occupied. That’s OK. I’d rather stand. But I’m in the huddle of people in amongst the carriage seats. The vestibule (I hate that word in the same way some people hate the word ‘moist’) is rammed.
I think ahead. Will more people get on at Reading? Maybe not so many. This train won’t be their first off-peak service. It’ll be their second or third. Will lots of people get off at Reading? Hmm.
The nausea increases.
At Reading I pretend to get off, pushing through the non-existent gaps to disembark.
But when I do I walk down a carriage or two and get back on, ensuring I’m the last person. At least, now, I’m by the window of the vestibule.
Headphones on. Find a game. Read Twitter. Occupy my brain. I’ll not notice the next half hour.
11 years earlier…
It’s the day before my stag do. There’s a large gathering: I won’t say who or where. Because I don’t want them to feel bad about what happened. And they shouldn’t. I really don’t hold this against anyone.
There is food.
A few hours later, in the early morning of my stag day, I vomit. I have food poisoning.
My stags are awesome. Some of them come anyway. 5 or 6 of my best friends ever. We sit and watch sport on TV most of the day.
In the following weeks I will repeatedly bail out of events, trips, meetings and commutes due to nausea – genuinely feeling like I’m going to barf at any moment. My commute is by train. I spent a lot of time on trains feeling nauseous.
The worst was a four hour trip to Leeds. Trapped in a window seat. Staring at the door of an out-of-order toilet in a busy vestibule. Horrid. But I made it.
I eventually see my doctor to no avail. She says I feel sick because I’m stressed. You’ll come to see the irony of this.
Eventually I self diagnose as lactose intolerant. It seems the food poisoning took something out of me. Damaged my gut in some way.
The lactose intolerance is temporary.
But the anxiety about being sick while travelling seems permanent.
I genuinely hate long journeys. I’ve never been physically sick on a long journey, but my brain has become wired with an expectation that I will be…or that I may be…
You’ll hopefully see from the stories above why this is: repeated train journeys with undiagnosed lactose intolerance – usually with a latte in hand. Not a great mix as the sugar in the milk can’t be digested properly and you become bloated, gassy, and nauseous. It’s really uncomfortable. And it made me want to hover near a bathroom just in case. And it made me cancel journeys and events.
This anxiety is very real. It affects me physically and mentally.
I understand why my brain has become wired that way. And it probably doesn’t help that I’m “highly sensitive” (which is worth reading about too). But unwiring this from my brain seems much harder.
Anxiety is normal
As life has gone on, I’ve come across anxiety more and more. To the point where – and I’m not a doctor and this is purely based on empirical experience – I believe that anxiety is a normal part of the human condition for everyone.
Yes, everyone gets anxious. Sometimes it’s about big things, like job interviews or performing on stage. Sometimes it’s about trivial things that are perfectly normal everyday activities for other people. Some people get anxious about work meetings, or social events. Some people get anxious about driving a car or riding a bicycle.
And it’s a hidden trait. Unless someone chooses to tell you, you may never know that they are anxious. They may have developed a complex coping strategy. But they’re still all knotted up inside and on the verge of a panic attack. They may be using a significant proportion of they’re mental energy just surviving.
Again, I’m no expert, but I’ve found a few ways of coping.
- Do it anyway. Every time I travel and make another long journey without barfing in the vestibule I have an extra piece of evidence that I can do this; that being ill while travelling doesn’t actually happen to me – has never happened to me. I need to gather this evidence to help re-wire my brain. I must confront my anxiety.
- Make it personal. I heard this tip from someone else. Our fight or flight response that causes anxiety is there to help us. Personify it. Talk to it. Thank it for keeping you safe, but tell it, politely but firmly, that you don’t need it right now because you’re not being chased by a lion, you’re just on a train and everything’s fine. Identify it, acknowledge it; address it; put it back in its box.
- Talk about it. A few people know about this trait in me, and they have my back. I can message them while on a journey, and they know what’s going on. They can help me through. And they do help me through. And I do this for others too.
Be aware – and care
The people around you – your family, your colleagues, your friends, all probably have anxieties. You may never know it. They may have coping strategies. But they may also just avoid certain situations. If they behave weird about a certain thing, perhaps that’s their coping strategy.
Be aware that there may be things that you consider routine, normal, easy, that some people find totally paralysing.
If I’ve travelled to a meeting with you and I’m exhausted, it’s probably not nerves about the meeting. It was the mental effort needed to get to you.
But this isn’t about me – it’s about everyone else. Go easy on people; sometimes you literally don’t know what they are going through.