The Story of an Unlikely Traveller
Posted by
17th May 2014

SANE supporter Bryony Holland has suffered from a panic disorder since a very young age and saw travelling as too much of a risk. For #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, she explains how she developed a beautiful relationship with travel and how it has in fact helped her condition.


My panic disorder is defined by a constant impending feeling of doom – a fear that something bad will happen to me at any moment. It’s weirdly egotistical when I think about it – the idea that doom will gather around me like a personal raincloud over my head. The thinking isn’t rational, but even if my head knows it, my heart doesn’t believe it. So, the day-to-day reality can be really tough.

I’ve often thought that I would never be happy. Anywhere. For a long time, I believed that I wasn’t wired to enjoy life like other people, that I would always be trapped in a constant cocoon of worry and fear. Many a time, I wanted to be done with it all. Just for some peace.

I have no idea where this disorder sprung from and why it picked me, but it started way back in my childhood somewhere. From the age of 6 or 7, I was terrified that someone would come and kill me in the night. My Mum was still checking the cupboards for me when I woke up scared and crying at 14 years old. Embarrassing huh.

My stress surfaced in odd ways when I was a child too. I pulled out all of my eyelashes and eyebrows consistently until my late teens. Yep. All of them. Strangely, I was only vaguely aware that I was doing it – it was almost like being in a trance. Not ideal when you hit school-disco age and you physically have no eyelashes to flutter. I had a little bald face and a little worried soul.

I went on to exist in a state of near-terror throughout my teens and twenties. I was scared of everything. If I heard about a mugging or murder on the TV, I became convinced that it would happen to me if I left the house. If I read a news report about a rise in cancer, I became convinced that I was dying.

So, until fairly recently, even the prospect of a package holiday to Europe would send me into a panic for days beforehand. I was scared of the journey to the airport, the flight, the transfer to the hotel, the people I might encounter – everything. I would still travel, but very little of the experience would be enjoyable for me. I felt as though I was ‘getting through’ every trip that I took. My friends took off on gap years before university to trek, teach, volunteer and wander to far-flung lands. I honestly considered them mad. I was genuinely surprised when they arrived home in one piece.

My all time low was 2001, just after 9/11. I was going into my third year of university and although I was thousands of miles away from the disaster, it completely floored me. I was terrorised. I couldn’t leave my house, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was going to happen. It haunted me every second of the day. When a plane passed overhead I hid under the furniture. When fireworks went off I thought they were gunshots. When I tried to sleep, I thought that assassins would come through my window. My heart would beat so fast that I thought I would die. It sounds ridiculous, but it was my reality.

How do you get up from an all time low? Well, I very nearly didn’t. I nearly dropped out of university to check into a facility for people with various mental health problems. I tried to take anti-anxiety medication but I couldn’t get through the side effects that typically characterise the first few weeks. I was drunk every day. I felt totally hopeless. I didn’t want to be around anymore. Then, in the end, I summoned up every tiny bit of strength I had and just decided that I could not let it win.

This wouldn’t and doesn’t work for everyone. I’m not at all dismissing medicine and therapy, or preferably a combination of the two. I openly advocate both – they’ve been a crucial part of helping me turn things around. But at the time, I decided to try and tackle it head on myself. I swallowed down my fears and refused to listen to the negative stories whipped up by my brain. It was a case of mind over, well, mind. It was tough but it did work, at least for a little while. I finished university, completed an MA with distinction and felt as though I was finally moving on.

But such deep-seated issues don’t just go away. Dammit. By taking matters into my own hands and denying the need for medical help, I had patched up a bad patch rather than addressing the root of the problem. The following year I had a gap before beginning a PhD at Cambridge and the clouds began to gather again. The same feelings of anxiety, attached with the depression and low self esteem surrounding the anxiety, started to hover on the horizon. I couldn’t go through it again. I didn’t think I would have the energy or determination to weather it a second time. I got to the point where I was scared of being scared.

So here’s the interesting bit. I suddenly embraced a kill or cure mentality and impulsively booked a trip to backpack around South East Asia – alone. Yep. Alone. My parents thought I was nuts, that I would arrive in Bangkok and experience total shutdown in a budget hotel somewhere. I was 25yrs old and I’d never really travelled beyond Europe, let alone travelled solo. And I was terrified of flying. It wasn’t a logical move, but as you can probably tell by now, my brain doesn’t move in logical ways.

Off I went into the sunset, hardly the portrait of an intrepid traveller. I had no idea how I would feel when I arrived or how I would handle being alone. Shockingly, amazingly, thankfully, I immediately fell in love with it. I remember stepping out of Bangkok Airport into a wall of tropical heat and feeling so euphoric. I think I was high on the very idea that I was finally doing it – that I was out in the world alone. I guess I was proud of myself. That first flush of independence and strength now sums up exactly what I love most about travel.

That was the beginning of my beautiful relationship with travel. My trip to South East Asia wasn’t all easy and I definitely had significant dips along the way, but overall my experience was just brilliant. I came back from South East Asia to begin my PhD and after a year at Cambridge, I decided (or they decided, I’m still not quite sure) that the PhD wasn’t for me after all. I eagerly spent a couple of months in South Africa with my boyfriend at the time before heading home to find a job. I had no idea what I would do.

Luckily, as a result of my time in South Africa I landed my first job in travel industry, selling tailor-made safaris to South Africa and Namibia. I loved the company and the job, and I’ve worked in travel ever since. However, after a year of significant personal upheaval, I could feel the panic closing in again. My heart felt jittery every day, I stopped eating and I was so angry with myself for letting it happen again. I lost both a shed load of weight and my entire sense of humour. I tried to hurt myself. I was signed off work for weeks on end. It was pretty bad. In the end, I had to quit my job. I was lost. Again.

So… I booked a trip to India for 3 months. Again, I was going it alone. Gulp. I was all kinds of nervous, but this ended up being, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. India, as I’m sure you all know, is intense. Chaos piles upon chaos, personal space is totally compromised and you are constantly assaulted with colour and noise. It’s a huge, magnificent jumble. There’s no way of controlling anything in India, giving you no choice but to relax and accept what happens. And this was exactly what I needed.

I felt changed by India. It wasn’t an easy trip by any means, involving the massive daily highs and lows that any traveller to India experiences, but it taught me to let go of things that I can’t control in a very vivid way. It also gave me faith in the idea that, in the end, most things turn out alright. This has been the key to my recovery.

When I got home from India in 2008 I began working at Rickshaw Travel, a start up adventure travel company at the time. I started out selling trips to Thailand, then set up and sold Vietnam, India, Nepal, South Africa and Mexico. When it got big enough to need advertising, I taught myself digital marketing and ending up running a marketing department. Over the past six years, the company has grown from 3 to 25 people and now sells 17 destinations in Asia, Latin America and Africa. I am massively proud to have contributed to this success.

Eventually, I worked my way up to Senior Manager at Rickshaw Travel, a position that I held for two years – up until October 2013. I was responsible for the marketing team, strategy and budget. During my time at the company, I’ve travelled to Thailand, been trekking in Nepal, climbed volcanoes in Guatemala, travelled across the US from coast to coast, driven through Namibia, been island-hopping in Malaysia and slept in caves in Morocco.

In October 2013, I left the company to go freelance and become a full-time digital nomad so that I can move freely across the planet. I will be travelling until…well… who knows? Since leaving my job, I have wombled around Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro, pottered around Poitiers, been hot air ballooning over Cappadocia, rolled cigars in Cuba, climbed Mount Bromo at sunrise and snorkelled in the Gili Islands. As I put this website together, I’m sitting under a mosquito net on Ko Lanta, Thailand.

This means that during the past decade I have transformed from the most unlikely traveller into someone running an adventure travel company and now a professional wanderer. Looking back, this almost seems unreal, as though something wonderfully impossible took place. When I think about how grateful I am, I want to cry. It is more than I could ever have hoped for.

So, you see, travel really has saved me, both in a personal and professional sense. It has saved me from a life characterised by fear. Travelling has surfaced a strength and sense of adventure that I never knew I had. I have also found a real joy in people all over the world, 99% of whom are a force of pure good and will open themselves up to travellers like myself. Now I see the world as something to be celebrated, not feared.

The shadows of panic will always be there, ready to pounce. This is something that I’ve learnt to accept. It’s my brain and it’s in my head to stay, no matter how much I want to trade it in for better, less screwed up, model. Now, I take the medication and I talk to people about how I’m feeling.

Sometimes I have bad days and I guess I always will. That’s life – or my life anyway. Self-loathing is my default setting and I’m only ever a few notches away from being totally swallowed up by it. I try so hard to laugh at myself kindly and tuck my troubles safely to the back of my mind – but I cannot honestly claim that it always work.

I know that I am not alone in this kind of struggle. Nearly 10% of people in the UK experience a bout of general anxiety or depression in their lifetime. Around 4.7% will develop an anxiety disorder and 7 out of every 1000 people will be diagnosed with a panic disorder similar in severity to mine.

This website is a totally laid-bare account of what travelling is like with a panic disorder constantly on your tail. It’s not all going to be pretty, but it will always be truthful. You see, even though I’m managing to travel and work in a way that I never thought possible, I still have to work hard to keep the worries at bay. It’s kind of like having another full time job.

My intention is not to patronise, over-dramatise or tell anyone how to manage their own anxieties – god knows I’m not qualified for that. Mostly, I want to beg people not to feel ashamed of their worries and fears. I guess in some way I hope to inspire others to try and make the leap out there, without saying that it’s easy ride. I also hope to raise a bit of awareness about anxiety itself as something real and debilitating for the people that it clutches.

My only advice is this:


Easier said than done I know, but trust me – it’s worth a try.

Visit Bryony's blog to read more about her adventures or like her Facebook page! You can even start a conversation on Twitter @WanderWorryWork.

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