Tag Archives: Travel

Love & Anxiety # 47: Lost in a Strange Land!

fullsizerenderHello Friends. I have desired to blog the past 2 months but life keeps reminding me that I only have time and space for a FEW priorities. Luckily, since I love to travel, October’s priority was traveling overseas to present some educational workshops, one which was in Italy!

In a previous blog I shared that traveling is great for our bodies, and for opening us up to expansion and newness, as well as to other viewpoints.  But today I want to talk about a travel experience we all love, getting lost in a strange place! I am being facetious!  There are a few hardy people who are so confident, and have such great nervous system regulation, that they actually enjoy getting lost, but most of the rest of us hate the experience. Being lost in a strange landscape exposes our vulnerability, our fears, and our “alienness” or lack of belonging to that place. The street signs are in a strange tongue, the sights are totally unfamiliar, and the locals are all busily buzzing on their own trajectories and often appear indifferent at first glance.
But today I will share the good news about being lost in a strange place!  How navigating this experience benefits our body and Autonomic Nervous system, and how asking for help from strangers can improve our confidence, decrease anxiety, and even provide some Attachment healing/ feelings of nurture.

I write from my recent personal experience in Italy. After presenting the workshop in Naples, I ended up traveling alone for 5 days in Southern Italy. Prior to this experience I had never ventured south of Rome, and now I was headed south of Naples. I was excited to see some new territory and experience a slightly different culture. However, my Italian language proficiency is limited to a few important phrases such as “where is the bathroom, how much does this cost, where is the Hotel _____?”  So I was also a little anxious about the whole experience.

I determined on day 1 to know where I was going and to have an organized plan. The unknown feels unsettling, and most often produces anxiety in a human being. Our brains prefer knowing what to expect at any given moment. So, the idea I had a plan, mentally helped with the anxiety of the unknown—but the plan fell apart, as plans tend to do when exposed to actual life! Getting on my first train, all I knew was the name of my stop, Piazza Cavour, so I thought I was set. However, it turns out, the train’s screen malfunctioned and after 10 minutes it reported each new station stop was Piazza Amador. My belly began to tense. I knew this couldn’t be good for my plan. After the 3rd ‘P. Amador stop’ my fight or flight energy kicked in and I started trying to get off the train and find help. (I own a car in San Diego, so I am never on a train or subway system, it is an unfamiliar situation no matter what country I am in.)

Surprisingly, help came from unexpected quarters. A sweet 3-foot tall Italian grandma saw me looking stressed, and frankly a bit panicked. Though she spoke not a word of English, she pointed at me, at the screen, and said Piazza Cavour,  and then pointed the opposite way the train was traveling. I gathered from her excellent charade skills that I had missed my stop, one of the P. Amador’s was actually P.Cavour. Then, an urbane and well-dressed older gentleman who spoke a tiny bit of English, told me to follow him. I was at the point of “any port in a storm”, so I followed him off the train. He walked me to a platform about 5 minutes away and told me to get on this train and go 2 stops. Then he smiled and walked away.
After that experience my anxiety about traveling alone in Italy dropped away. If without asking for help I got the support I needed, maybe I could just ask for help at any point on my journey? So, when I got lost in Sorrento, I asked for help. When I couldn’t find the train station, I stopped a stranger and asked him. When the SITA bus to Positano dropped me off at the top of the town and I had no idea where my hotel was, I asked another stranger.  A few people could not help me or didn’t know the answer to my questions, but they all tried to help. Southern Italians are amazing, warm, kind and friendly. I was blown away by all the support and kindness I received. Even on the Circumvisiana train (where travel guide books provide dire warning about pickpockets abounding, paste your valuables to your body, etc.), Italians made conversation with me and I met many wonderful people. By my second ride I was not treating my wallet like it was one of my kidneys. My fears dissipated and I really enjoyed this “dangerous” train experience.

By the end of my trip, looking back, I could not believe I had any anxiety about traveling alone. Though this was my first time doing so overseas, my confidence in navigating around a foreign country had skyrocketed. Thanks to Steve Jobs and my iphone, I had no trouble finding transportation (no uber in South Italy), booking hotels on the fly, and deciding where I wanted to go next. I had wonderful dinner conversations at every restaurant. People talk to you when you travel alone in Italy. I made friends with Colombians, Australians, Britons, Spaniards, and even some wonderful strangers from Ohio! I felt so much safer in my body and in my own experience. This always happens when you face a fear or something that brings you anxiety. Triumphing over the fear brings out sensations of our natural empowerment and increases our sense of safety. It is impossible for your anxiety to keep telling you that you cannot do something that you are actually doing! It kicks the fear right in the ass.

In closing, the best news is that asking for help from strangers brings more love/care in your life. If you don’t believe me, believe Barbara Fredrickson  and the research that she includes in her wonderful book, “LOVE 2.0.” A simple encounter with a stranger when you are present and connecting, synchs up both of your brains, begins a flow of oxytocin (the love/bonding hormone, not to be confused with oxycontin the drug), increases your vagal tone, which promotes heart and overall physical health, and calms and soothes your Autonomic Nervous system! All that in just a brief encounter. Oxytocin is the hormone that counteracts the stress hormones that many of us have coursing through our bodies on a regular basis. So my mini encounters also helped me physically and emotionally.

My experience was that when strangers treat you as if you really matter and provide the help that you need, it increases your own sense of value, as well as deepens your awareness of how we are all connected as a human race. I felt more self-love during and after the trip just from the experience of so much help and care coming from so many strangers. I have wonderful friends and feel very loved on a regular basis, but there was something new and powerful that emerged as I repeatedly experienced being cared for by strangers.

So, my encouragement to you is to ask for help more often. Ask strangers for restaurant suggestions, directions, etc., when you travel. Whether you are going to Nebraska, Saskatoon, or Taiwan, let people help you when you need it. See what you notice in your body, mind and heart. Please let me know how it goes.

Going deeper:

1.) Have you ever traveled alone in a strange country? If so, what was your experience like? What sources of support did you use to find your way around? Did you ask any strangers for help? How did that experience work?

2.) Do you have a sense of your own confidence and competence in navigating the unknown? If so, what is your source of support or comfort? If you do not, can you imagine stretching yourself and trying something new, unknown or a little scary, but asking for support in the process?

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Blog 36: Love & anxiety: Get off the Beaten Path!

Way off the beaten path. Children's village, Uganda Africa
Way off the beaten path. Children’s village, Uganda Africa

It may seem odd that I blog about benefits of traveling, right after one praising stillness and becoming internally peaceful. But I have noticed an interesting correlation. After experiencing times of external and internal stillness, being with, and befriending all of my being, including those parts I find harder to love, this practice fills me with renewed energy and desire to risk engaging with Life and novelty. Travel is a wonderful way to do this.

These thoughts are fresh in my mind as I just returned from traveling for the past few weeks. It was  work travel but I still found it engaging and stimulating. I know some personality types find travel and novelty much more enjoyable and stimulating than other personalities. However, we can all occasionally get off the beaten path even if it’s in our own home town.

Humans seem to struggle with the tendency to fall into ruts. At least those of us living in the developed world. We go to the same coffee shop, take the same road to work, sit in the same seats at the conference table or meeting. The familiar is comfortable to our brains. There is a sense of predictability in sameness that can feel like safety. However, there is a cost to being in a rut. Boredom can set in, and it is so much harder to be fully present when we do the same routine daily. Sleepwalking, or just phoning it in, is so easy when we are on autopilot. Living this way for years at a time can cause some people to make unhealthy choices just to feel something new or to offset the deadening sensation of boredom.

Barbara Brown Taylor http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com talks about this in her wonderful book, “An Altar in the World”, in a chapter on the spiritual practice getting lost. She compares our behavioral ruts to those of dairy cows who walk the same small path back a forth from the barn to the pasture every day. She enthuses about what you can learn about yourself when you are lost, or out of your typical element, and how this can connect us in a sense of shared humanity and Oneness with all things. While it’s easy to notice when we are physically lost, what about when we are emotionally lost? Like after a big unexpected problem, such as an illness, job loss, divorce, etc. From her perspective, the same skills are needed for either kind of lostness. First we must manage our fear and panic, then we locate our existing resources or look for help and support. And, finally we see what this unexpected detour might have to offer. She suggests the loss of control we experience when lost, is well worth the possible gains of greater presence and more self awareness.

I agree with her assessment. That’s one reason I love travel. I find engaging in travel to provide a similar experience to getting lost. Going to a whole new place feels like being lost. We are not sure of all the turns to our destination. (Our GPS, knows but we do not). We need to find new places to fuel our bodies —restaurants or grocery stores — we see things we have never seen before, especially when leaving our own country and entering someone else’s. Here you get to have the experience of being the one butchering their language (unless you are like my friend Margaret who studies the host country’s language before she travels). You are the one who may need to stop and ask for directions, or the one who does not know the local customs or who hands over the wrong brightly colored paper money.

This whole experience of traveling can increase our anxiety levels and for some people this is why they don’t travel. The not-knowing and the possibility of looking foolish is too much for their Nervous System and comfort levels. But even with the increased anxiety, which will usually dissipate quickly if you can just go with the flow, there are so many gifts available in this process. These include; increased resilience, cognitive gains, reversing the coagulation of life caused by chronic sameness (boredom), a better sense of how connected we all are as a human race, and hopefully a dash of humility which tastes bad going down, but is so good for our souls in the long run.

To close I will focus briefly on travel’s gift of increased resilience. What we exercise and work gets stronger, what we don’t atrophies. While most of you have realized this is true of your muscles, from your own experience of exercising, or not exercising. This is also true physiologically. It’s true of our ability to gain increased self-confidence and a greater sense of self-efficacy, which translates to feeling safe in our bodies. Physiological resilience operates just like our muscles, use it or lose it!  Anxiety by its very nature causes most people to narrow their lives and limit their experiences. The more anxious we feel, the more we lose a sense of self-efficacy and safety, and the more we limit and attempt to control our lives. This is moving the wrong direction, away from resiliency and closer to collapse or depression.

Travel is a great way to build the muscle of your physiology and Autonomic Nervous System regulation. The more you “risk” new experiences, not knowing, not being fully in control, and you discover you are fine and in fact feeling more alert and alive than normal, the more your ability to regulate your physiology grows. This translates to increased resiliency. Developmental psychologists have long known that if a child is handed everything he or she desires and never experiences frustration or any minor hardships, that child really struggles to succeed and thrive in adulthood. It’s the very act of being appropriately frustrated and learning how to handle that sensation without a major meltdown, that grows increased resiliency in children. That “muscle” is being developed in them. We are not children anymore, but we all still can benefit from exercising the “muscle” of our ability to tolerate novelty, frustration, uncertainty, and not having things go the way we wanted them to.

I encourage you this week, if you are in a rut, step out of it. Try one of these suggestions. Go to a new coffeeshop, go have a totally new experience, get lost and see how you handle yourself, and/or plan a nice long trip somewhere you have never been. I would love to hear how it goes. 25th comment on this or providing an answer to any of the questions below, gets a Starbucks gift card. 45th comment gets to choose a title and receive credit in blog I create to go with their title.
Going Deeper:

1.) How is your frustration threshold? How do you handle being lost, out of control, or of your usual comfortable element? How does your body respond to novelty? Is there a joy and a sense of vitality, or more of a rush of anxiety and fear? Remember if you can breathe into any uncomfortable situation long enough, it will settle down unless you are in actual danger.

2.) What was your instinctive response to this blog? How much resilience does your ANS have? Are you able to easily bounce back from frustration, disappointment, not getting your way, or not knowing where you are or exactly what to do next? If your resilience is low, never fear, just like your muscles, you can increase it quite quickly if you put in the effort.

Join one of my Real Life Solutions 3 week anxiety reduction workshops held here in San Diego, CA. Mention this blog for a 20% discount.