There’s no doubt about it – Bryony Holland is inspiring. Inspiring beyond all belief. Like so many others out there she was once terrified of traveling, and her fear controlled her life.
Suffering from a severe panic disorder from an early age, and susceptible to extreme anxiety attacks, at one stage, she become completely housebound. Her anxiety, and the depression that came alongside it, had become too overwhelming and controlled her life.
When it got to the stage where she didn’t want to be around anymore, she knew she had to do something drastic, so faced her fear head on and booked an impulsive ticket around the world.
She is now a digital nomad, travelling full-time with a full-blown panic disorder. In 2013 she donated most of her possessions to mental health charities, packed up her flat in Brighton, and hit the road. She hasn’t looked back since.
Bryony Holland is living proof that it’s possible to live your dreams and fight your demons at the same time, and as such is our inspiring traveler of the week.
What do you love the most about travelling?
More than anything, I love the way that travelling makes me feel. Strong, independent, free, wild.
Just thinking about it gives me goose pimples!
Have you always been inspired to travel?
Not at all. I used to view the world as something to be avoided rather than explored. Travelling seemed like something needlessly terrifying.
I remember watching my friends head off on gap years and thinking that they were totally nuts. Why would they put themselves in danger? I couldn’t understand it at all.
At that stage I needed to live inside a little bubble, where everything felt familiar and safe.
You have a pretty severe panic disorder and around 12 years ago were completely housebound. Can you tell us a little about that?
I’ve suffered with anxiety ever since I was very young. When I was a child, the worrying manifested itself in something called trichotillomania – pulling out all of my eyelashes and eyebrows. As I got older, I started having regular panic attacks and my anxiety levels became increasingly unmanageable.
During the 9/11 attacks in New York, I was in my final year of university and even though I was hundreds of miles away from the disaster, I was totally terrorised.
I hid under the table when planes flew over the house, I was scared that assassins would climb through my bedroom window and I thought that fireworks were gunshots.
In the end, I stopped leaving the house completely. I almost left university to check into a facility for people suffering from mental illness, but at the last minute, I decided to fight my anxiety instead.
So you never thought travelling would be an option for you?
Not at all. Even a package ‘fly and flop’ holiday in Europe would send me into a headspin for several days beforehand.
I found everything about travelling stressful – the trip to the airport, the flight, the transfer at other end, the hotel, the food. I was scared of everything and everyone. At the end of every holiday, I was relieved that I had survived.
Coming home, back into my safety bubble, was the highlight of the whole trip. I feel so lucky that this changed for me. I’m grateful every single day.
You mentioned you finally embraced a “kill or cure” mentality and booked a trip backpacking through SE Asia. What made you book the trip?
I had hit an all-time low. I was struggling just to live a normal life and hold down a job. My anxiety, and the depression that came alongside it, had become so overwhelming that I just didn’t want to be around anymore. I was permanently stuck underneath a huge raincloud.
In the end, I knew I had to do something drastic that would either force me into a new way of seeing life. That’s what pushed me to book the trip.
It was impulsive and a bit reckless… and exactly what I needed.
What was your biggest worry about travelling and how did you overcome it?
My biggest fear was people. Until I started travelling, I really believed that the world was peopled with dodgy characters out to get me.
I was terrified of the people I would meet out there on the streets. Now, I realise that this view couldn’t be more wrong.
The planet is filled with beautiful people who will go out their way to help you.
How difficult was it to face your fears and embark on this trip?
It was really hard for me, but only in anticipation. I think so much anxiety happens in anticipation. I was scared of being scared, if that makes sense.
Essentially, it’s a fear of the unknown. Once you’re in the moment, living your dreams and facing your fears, you’ll find that it’s not so scary at all. Take it from me!
Would you say travelling has changed your life?
Beyond all recognition. I’ve learned so much and grown so much. I’ve become far more relaxed, capable of jumping the hurdles that crop up without drama, independent and at ease with people.
I no longer feel ashamed of who I am and how my brain works. Travelling is a real lesson in self-acceptance, that’s for sure.
Where have your travels taken you since SE Asia?
Since SE Asia, I’ve travelled across South Africa, driven through Namibia and spent 3 months exploring India alone.
I’ve backpacked through Central America, trekked in the Nepalese Himalayas, been island-hopping through Indonesia, camped across the USA from coast to coast, taken a hot air balloon flight over Cappadocia and lived the perfect Spanish summer.
Right now I’m in Vietnam. To me, it really is a miracle.
How do you deal with anxiety and panic attacks on the road?
I would say that I probably have about one panic attack per month right now. This is pretty good going for me. Only recently, I accepted that I will be prone to panic attacks all my life.
It’s unrealistic to expect them to completely dwindle away. However, just accepting this has brought a kind of peace with it. Now, when I panic, I try to tell myself that I’ve panicked before, I’ve survived, I’ve recovered and I’ve learned from it.
I tell myself that, like all things, it will pass. And it does. Most importantly, I no longer attach any shame to panicking. It’s just a part of me and I’m doing the best I can.
This helps me avoid the self-loathing that comes in the wake of a panic attack (especially the ones that happen in public) and move on with my life.
Why do you think travel was your cure?
I think that travel gave me the fight. It showed me that there is something worth battling the anxiety for and taught me that people are a force of good.
Would you suggest travel to others with a similar disorder?
Everyone’s fears, anxieties and panic triggers are different, so travelling definitely wouldn’t be wise for everyone with an anxiety disorder. It needs to work on a case by case basis.
For me, there was a love of adventure, people and places hidden far beneath my panicky surface. Travelling set it free. It helped me realise who I’m supposed to be.
I think that pushing yourself to do what you’ve always dreamed of is a path out of panic, even if it scares you. For me, it was travelling. For the next person, it might be singing or hiking or dancing.
It’s a long road to recovery, but it’s worth it a million times over for something that you love.
Do you have any tips for anxious first time travellers?
So many! I’m quickly becoming a expert in the art of anxious travelling, that’s for sure. I recommend giving yourself a soft landing for a first big trip, somewhere that’s minimal in culture shock yet high on excitement.
South East Asia, the USA and Australia are brilliant places to start. These destinations are all easy to get around, packed with friendly faces and there’s no intimidating language barrier.
Medication for anxiety and depression is potent stuff, so I definitely don’t recommend travelling in the first few months of a new prescription. It takes a while for your body and mind to settle into a new drug, so it’s best to be somewhere with a strong support network until you’re comfortable with your dosage.
Most importantly, talk to people about your feelings at every single step of the way. If you feel anxious while you’re travelling tell someone. Talk them through what you’re feeling and the history behind it.
Whoever you tell, I am certain that they will help you and treat you with kindness. The world is full of wonderful people. Remember that.
Three things you don’t travel without?
Headtorch, Kindle Paperwhite and my Macbook – my trusty steed.
Without my Macbook, my business would grind abruptly to a halt and I’d have to fly home to my teenage bedroom… at 34 years old. No thanks!
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m travelling in Vietnam. It’s the first time I’ve been back in 10 years and the change in the country is incredible. After this, I’m heading to Australia to see my nephews and celebrate my birthday.
I’ll be based outside Sydney, but I’m also taking some time to camper van around Perth. Then, I’m heading to Mauritius to check out budget travel options on the island before flying to Reunion Island.
I’m then off to live in Costa Rica for 3 months. It’s all go! I’m pinching myself every step of the way.
If You Liked This Post You May Also Like:
Featured Photo by Moyan Brenn