by Cherrill Hicks, The Telegraph, July 10, 2017
It happened half way up a gentle climb to a lookout post on beautiful La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary islands. The walk we’d planned was only two hours there and back, the path clearly waymarked. There were no signs of bad weather – and reassuringly, there were several other walkers taking the same route.
All in all, a civilised expedition. Certainly nothing to worry about, I told myself at the start.
Yet 30 minutes later, I found myself paralysed by fear that something very bad would happen. I’d be mauled by a ferocious dog or get bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick; we’d get caught in a storm and be blown off the lookout point; we’d get lost and die in the night from hypothermia. Mouth dry, heart racing and breathing shallow, I had to turn back – much to my husband’s irritation.
The holiday season, with its tempting vision of silver sands and cloudless skies, is upon us. So why is it that those longed for summer breaks, designed to relax and revitalise, make so many of us feel more rather than less, anxious?
Anxiety is understandable in some situations. Yet La Palma is an island of moderate climate, with neither poisonous insects nor rabid animals. Although beautiful, with a large national park, it can’t be described as wilderness. And it wasn’t as if I was attempting Everest – or even Ben Nevis.
Although never formally diagnosed with a disorder I’ve suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember. Situations that might cause mild concern in most people – a strange dog in the street, offspring out too late, walking home alone at night – can induce in me blind panic.
The problem has certainly worsened with age and is definitely exacerbated when on holiday. Oddly, it is often associated with the thing I like doing most in the world – walking in the countryside, whether here or abroad, with my husband. The pleasure of which, even in the UK, is often marred by fear of cows or dogs (but thankfully not sheep – at least not yet), of getting lost, of hostile farmers with shotguns, of losing our way as dusk descends.
Where does it come from? Anxiety certainly runs in my family, but my therapist had an interesting explanation: anxiety, she thought, was a way of ensuring I didn’t enjoy life too much. A remarkably effective method of thwarting pleasure.
And while in the past I would battle to overcome my worries and do what I wanted in life, I fear anxiety is now making me timid, fearful – and dreadfully dull.
We’d chosen La Palma for the variety of its landscape: tropical forests and deep ravines in the north, pine woods, and volcanic craters further south. With a traumatic house move behind us, we needed to get away.
My anxiety symptoms kicked in with a sleepless night worrying if we would get up in time – a nightmarish 2.30am – for the early morning flight. Then, of course, there was the flight itself. Would we drop out of the sky? Had the pilot had enough sleep? Would they remember to let down the wheels for landing?
Once we got there, the endless “what-ifs” continued. Most days, my imagination ran riot; I found myself at the mercy of distressing visions of disaster. What if one of us collapsed on a mountain trail or fell down a ravine (this on an organised hike with two extremely competent guides)? Got swept out to sea (on a day when the Atlantic was calm as a millpond)? Slipped on a rock and sustained a fracture? What if our hire car toppled over one of the island’s many hairpin bends?
Everything, in this state, becomes a source of terror – beautiful, multi-coloured lizards, gorgeous views, gentle waves. I see the grandeur but, even more, the dangers.
It wasn’t just our expeditions that caused me problems. I also had separation anxiety from our sons (both well into adulthood). I dreamt I’d “lost” them, waking up in a sweaty panic. Fear of illness was another issue – my first-aid kit bulged with pills and potions for every conceivable health risk.
Also, I was anxious about having a less than marvellous holiday. It’s interesting that people prone to anxiety like myself are also likely to be control freaks who need everything to be perfect – and holidays by their nature are rarely that, despite all those lovely Instagram posts.
Why do I put myself through it? Why not simply stay home, within my comfort zone?
When I spoke to London-based clinical psychologist Jessamy Hibberd, she urged me not to give up. She reassured me that by facing my fears head on and finding out that (hopefully) nothing bad happens, I would “update my thoughts”, becoming less fearful in future.
This “updating thoughts” is key to any progress. For example, my intense fear of meeting strange dogs. “Once you have met one and coped, you will log that mentally and it will alter how you feel.” Anxious people, she adds, “make a lot of fearful predictions and most do not come true, thankfully”.
Holidays exacerbate anxiety, says Dr Hibberd, because they signify the unknown. “Our homes and our routines represent safety,” she explains. “On holiday, you’re no longer in control – you don’t know how things are going to turn out. You have to process new information, which can put you in a state of high alert. Being jet lagged or tired can also make things seem worse."
There isn’t an easy answer. I’ve found that preparation, objectively assessing risk, helps: making sure you take sunscreen and enough water on a walk, for example; researching how to behave with strange dogs (don’t look them in the eye, and never, ever run away).
However, too many precautions can result in a “maintenance cycle” of anxiety, warns Dr Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in east Lancashire. “It’s a question of balance – if you start thinking about taking an oxygen mask on your hike, that’s definitely unhealthy.”
Cognitive behavioural therapy which adopts a “three-pronged” approach, addressing unhelpful thoughts, behaviour and physical symptoms, is recommended. Deep, slow breathing certainly helps me.
“And, remember: when you feel anxious, this is not the reality,” adds Dr Hibberd. “Your thoughts aren’t facts.”
There’s a happy ending to this particular story. The next day, we returned to the spot where I’d had to turn back, well prepared with water, food and sunscreen. We made it to the top – where sadly, the view was obscured by clouds – and back. On the way down, I managed to stay calm when a fierce little dog, inexplicably on the loose, raced up to me yapping furiously. It soon lost interest; I felt triumphant.
A pity, then, that on the flight home, the plane had to make an unscheduled stop for refuelling… Is there anything more guaranteed to trigger anxiety than fear of your plane running out of fuel?
Details: anxietyuk.org.uk; drjessamy.com; drrachelandrew.com