Travel As The Ultimate Mental Health Reset: My Lessons From Cape Town

By: Tahira Hayes, Unsettled Cape Town alumni

Anxiety – one medium-sized word that’s had an oversized impact on my life. Anxiety can feel a bit like you’re a hamster on a wheel – rapidly moving, but not really going anywhere. If there was a theme song to my life, it would be Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but with the chorus on continuous loop. I remain hopeful, but I can often get stuck in one place with the same thoughts on repeat.  

I’m not alone though, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting…18.1% of the population every year,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

When I was younger, I naively thought that my anxiety would be a phase I would grow out of – like teenage acne or something. In my mid-30s, I kept that same hope alive (remember the Journey theme song?). I assumed life would have settled, thinking my climb to the top of the mountain would have resulted in a steady walk across an even plain. Instead it was the opposite: there were peaks and dramatic valleys. Basically, it was normal everyday life as a member of the human race.

But, I was really feeling the turbulence, and it was all magnified by my anxiety. I had a relatively unexpected job change from a job I loved, a shoulder surgery that prohibited me from being as active as I once was, my dad was going through cancer treatment, and my mom was in and out of the hospital, even becoming septic at one point. The pressures of being single at 35, the constant stream of questions around kids and marriage, paired with a barrage of advertisements for fertility treatments on my Pandora music app became overwhelming. It was comedy at its best, society’s not-so-subtle reminders of the ticking of my biological clock.

Basically life was happening to me. I wasn’t special or unique, I know life challenges are things we all go through, but boy was I feeling it. The clock was ticking and I was just watching the arms move. My promise to myself of living with no regrets was faltering. I was literally questioning every decision I had ever made that had delivered me to my current state of existence, and my anxiety was at an all-time high, and I was reaching a breaking point.

Over the years, I’ve developed various coping mechanisms – I work out often, eat well, meditate, and lead an overall healthy lifestyle. I’ve even seen a therapist at various points when I felt it was needed – basically all the things that you’re supposed to do when trying to maintain your mental health.

Without fail, travel is my go-to anxiety fighter. It’s the one thing that always allows me to reset my mental health. I live in Washington, D.C., and like most people who live here, I have a type A personality.

As someone with anxiety, it’s easy to get caught up in the repetition of my thoughts. Travel allows me to escape my mental hamster wheel and disconnect. It’s fuel for my imaginative spirit. It also recharges me, helps to generate ideas for my writing, pushes me beyond my comfort zone, and allows me to learn and engage with the world beyond my immediate boundaries. Generally, somewhere along the way, I learn different and often better ways of doing things.

Distance from my daily life also provides clarity for me. It’s like viewing a painting, you stand too close to it and you’re not able to clearly see all the beauty in the art work. The same way is true with life – when you’re so intimately involved with the daily grind of your own life, you’re often not able to gain perspective and see the beauty of life.

With this in mind, I knew I needed a change of scenery and to fully disconnect from life, and so I chose to go to Cape Town, South Africa with Unsettled. To date, it remains the best decision of my life.

Intertwined between the days and nights of joyous music and my offbeat dance moves, were intense and silent lessons about the beauty of being present. In so much of my life I’m thinking about what’s for dinner, the debate of whether to go to the gym, my weekend plans and what I want my job to eventually be. For two weeks I was able to live presently.

After Unsettled: Cape Town, I became more acutely aware of the importance of living presently and hopping off the hamster wheel of anxiety. I know my anxiety will always be something I will have to continue managing, but traveling has offered me some additional lessons and tools. Examination is key to evolution, and I’m evolving with new perspectives every day.  

Perhaps the author Henry Miller said it best, “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Tahira Hayes is a communications specialist for a government consulting firm by day, and freelance writer and columnist by night. You can find more of her work on her website Tall Hungry Girl.


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