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How an anxious traveler stays grounded

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

6:34 PM EST, November 5, 2013

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Travel is inherently uncomfortable. The long lines, longer waits, tight spaces, unfamiliar terrain, communication difficulties and displacement from our routines can make travel unnerving and exhausting, even as it stimulates and educates.

When anxiety is part of your daily life, travel can become an even greater challenge. For Rita Anya Nara, who has had panic attacks since age 11, travel has led her to worry about matters both large — what if she is injured while traveling? — and small.

"I worried about making small talk with people who worked at the hotel," Nara said. "I had a hang-up about meeting a service person and then seeing them a next time. Should I make small talk? Or pretend not to see them? What should I say?"

Travel was deeply anxiety-inducing for Nara, 36, an environmental scientist who lives outside Sacramento, Calif. But the thing is, she loves traveling. So Nara kept doing it, taking three or four international trips per year and confronting her nerves along the way.

What Nara has learned about coping with her anxieties, travel and otherwise, is the subject of her debut book, "The Anxious Traveler," released in June. Learning to cope with her anxieties, Nara said, has allowed her to wring the most out of travel while also improving life back home. In the book, she also credits her psychiatrist with encouraging the travel.

"Anxiety is rooted in fear of what might happen in the future," Nara said. "When I'm traveling, I'm too busy being in the moment; there's no anticipatory dread. Sometimes things happen that I feared would happen, but I don't have the time to worry about them, and I have to think on my feet."

Yet she still struggles to control her nerves. Nara said she usually grapples with "one major episode per trip."

"When I went to Antarctica, I had real issues on the cruise ship with the idea of leaving the southern tip of South America and going into this great wild," she said. "I felt like I was falling off the face of the earth."

But she has no intention of ending her travel habits, citing the theory of, "That which does not kill you makes you stronger."

"Travel makes my life," she said. "I don't know what I'd do if I stopped traveling. Every time I have a scary episode, I overcome it, and I think about what I could have done. And then I think I'm going to try something even more different next time."

Rita Anya Nara's 5 tips to lessening travel anxiety

Be present: "Get out of your mind and into your body and five senses. When you're too focused on your head and the 'what ifs,' you're focusing on the future and the past. You don't have the energy to focus on the present, which could be a whole lot of nothing and usually is not as bad as you think."

Stay connected: "I keep in contact with my parents and sister as much as possible. Every day, one time a day, I call. When I call home, I feel like I'm with them, and that helps me ground myself."

Keep perspective: "What makes me strong when I'm feeling weakest is thinking about what I've accomplished on past trips. I really believe in the concept of building confidence and not only learning from your past mistakes but celebrating past successes. I think, 'I've been in a bad situation before; what can I do now?'"

Take something familiar: "I bring a certain scarf my mom gave me on every trip, and I don't care if it clashes with half the things I pack. It's close to my face and smells like my house in a way I can't explain. I pull on it when I'm a little nervous, even if it's 95 degrees in Morocco and I don't feel like wearing it."

Consider medication: "I would never encourage someone to abandon pharmaceuticals as part of a balanced approach to managing anxiety. It takes a combination of things, including working through fears, but also acknowledging there is a biochemical basis for anxiety and stress."

jbnoel@tribune.com