Unpacking my anxiety on a dream vacation

How one woman handled unanticipated anxiety attacks while traveling in Thailand
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 04/23/2018 at 10:20 AM EDT
Mario Azzi/UnSplash

My head pounded with the increasingly fast-paced beat of my heart as a trickle of sweat rolled down my neck, pooling in between my breasts, which had turned beet red. My palms, as well as the soles of my feet, had become clammy, slicked with sweat. And beneath my skin, I felt a current of electricity, as if something was eager to jump out of me in hopes of escape. I concentrated on my breathing, attempting to return to a familiar, somewhat normal rhythm, and I closed my eyes to the glorious Wat Phra Kaew—also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Avital at Wat Phra Kaew, in the midst of an anxiety attack

It may have been the lingering jet lag—after all, it had only been a day and a half after an 18-hour journey took us across the globe to a country with an 11-hour time difference. It could have been the heat. Bangkok is a steamy city, one with an unrelenting sun and temperatures that flirt with three digits at times. Or, it could have been the overstimulation. The population of the capital city of Thailand is almost 8.5 million, not including tourists. Honestly, it was probably all three of these things, coming together to create the perfect storm of an anxiety attack, right in the middle of one of the most amazing and holy places I have ever been in.

I probably should have seen it coming. After all, my battle with anxiety is nothing new. I’ve been on an SSRI for a few years now, and I had even upped my dosage by a bit in the weeks leading up to the trip as I could feel myself becoming a bit more unsettled. The unknown of the trip, the chaos of travel, the excitement and anticipation—it had become a lot to handle.

Yes. I know. Poor me. I am privileged enough to travel on a two week vacation to Thailand with my family, and all I got was this anxiety attack. Cue the world’s tiniest violin.

But dammit. I’ve lived with my anxiety on a daily basis for years. It messes with my work, my relationships, my parenting, my life. Is it too much to be able to take a vacation and not have it come along?

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Here I was, among art and architecture hundreds of years old. I should have been marveling at the intricate mosaics or the fact that I was only feet from a Buddha carved from jade and clothed in gold. Instead, I was on the verge of passing out, while thousands of tourists and Thais roamed around me.

Thank goodness for understanding family who made sure I stayed in a shady spot and had as much cool water as I could tolerate. And for not questioning me when I said that I really needed to get back to the hotel.

And so, for the next few days I maintained. I wasn’t anxiety-free, but as anyone who lives with this debilitating mental health issue can tell you: life goes on, so you figure out ways to be along for the ride to the best of your abilities. Our next stop was Krabi and the southern islands, and if you have to be somewhere with your anxiety, then the crystal blue waters of the Andaman Sea is pretty much the perfect place to be.

The view from Poda Island

Until it isn’t.

One of the days was a dream. We spent it on a boat tour of the various islands, snorkeling, swimming, relaxing on pristine beaches of white, fluffy sand. The next day my son ended up getting heat stroke and crumpled in a heap outside of a 7-Eleven. While he bounced back after a quick vomit, lots of fluids, and a good night’s sleep, I was a wreck. Medical issues trigger my anxiety, and I spent the next couple of days asking my son (too often) how he was feeling, as my own stomach twisted up into knots and I had daily mini vomiting sessions—all anxiety provoked.

Do you know how sad it is to devour the most delicious mango sticky rice, drizzled in a salty, sweet condensed milk, only to send it back to the toilet an hour later because your own brain is a damn traitor?

I’m not sure why I assumed my anxiety would take a vacation when I did. Possibly because there’s a prevailing (erroneous) thought that anxiety is only linked to stress, and when you take a trip, ideally those stressors are left behind. But the reality is, a lot of this has to do with my brain chemistry, and traveling to a whole other part of the world isn’t going to change that.

My anxiety didn’t ruin my vacation. It was still a truly amazing, magical experience. I just wish I could have left it behind, like those extra shorts I didn’t have space for in my luggage.

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