Managing travel anxiety: Chronic illness, Covid rules and body image

This blog post is more of a diary form and a lot of it was written during my journey to Italy. So if the tenses seem a bit muddled up then that’s why. My experiences are interspersed with advice and tips for anyone else who is worried about travelling abroad. For context I am a plus size and chronically ill (mentally and physically) girl. I used to travel a lot before my accident in October 2018. I have been to 38 countries so far and especially loved solo travelling. In summer 2018 I spent almost a month backpacking solo around south east Asia (see photos below). Then in a flash everything changed. I face challenges now that I never did before and a lot of things are harder. But travel was a huge part of my life and I don’t want to loose it. I want to show that disability shouldn’t stand in my, or anyone else’s, way of an adventure. So with that come and join me (and my thought stream) on an adventure. I hope reading this can encourage anyone that is thinking about booking a holiday to go ahead and do it.

My first big worries were if the seatbelt would do up and if I would fit in the seat. In the interests of honestly I did actually have a cry on the plane seeing how much space I was taking up and how I have to stretch the seatbelt to the very end of its length for me to fit in. I thought I would have to ask for a seatbelt extender and that filled me with shame. Which is stupid because I would hate anyone else to be upset at the start of their holiday because of their size. Everyone deserves to travel. And airplanes, particularly budget ones, are pretty tight space wise.

Then there is the anxiety around flying itself. I have found flying absolutely terrifying from the age of about 16. I don’t understand why because I have been on so many flights, on so many different planes, and in a huge range of countries. But still for me boarding a plane feels like impending doom. I have written a blog post before about how to cope with flying anxiety which I will share on this post at the end. But for now here are some quick tips from me and Sam the dog (my travel/medical appointment/life in general lucky mascot).

It’s really good I am doing this first abroad adventure with my family so I have people to help me. Partly with practical things like carrying stuff or walking the extra distance to the water fountain to fill my bottle. But also with the emotional stuff. Someone to talk through my anxieties with; to help ground me when I start to panic; a hand to grip tightly during take off; and a reminder that my disability is not my fault. Over the years since I became disabled I have got better at communicating what I need and my family have got better at reading clues as to what I need when I am struggling to communicate. It’s okay to ask for help, I am not the best at it, but I am trying.

If you are travelling on your own think in advance who could help. Who would be a good person you can trust to remain calm and be practical to phone if your flight is cancelled or another problem? Do you fix times of communication so you know you don’t have to worry about finding a suitable time or if someone will be free. Then you can break your trip into segments between calls or texts or however you communicate. Speak to cabin and ground crew as well. My experience has almost always been that they are kind and professional. Especially if you have practical questions.

If you are with people then maybe tell them some of the clues that show you are getting anxious. For me some of those anxiety causes are: Tapping my fingers; wringing my hands; hands and arms start shaking; finding it hard to sit still; struggling to focus on anything; disengaging with conversation; moving things around and taking stuff in and out of bags but never doing anything; going to the toilet more; constantly asking for confirmation of plans and reassurance I am doing the right thing; being more irritable and short tempered. I am sure there are more but you get the idea. If you have a list of your anxiety signs that can help you to realise you are getting worried and take steps to deescalate your emotions. For others it means they can help earlier as they see warning signs or if things are getting a bit much. It’s can also be useful to add helpful things that people can say or do when you are anxious.

I found out mid flight that Italy is super strict about everyone wearing an FFP2 face mask and nothing else is allowed. To be fair this was my fault for not closely checking the rules. However as I knew face masks were compulsory and I am fine with a surgical one I just didn’t think to research further. I also assumed that the medical exemption to masks would apply in Italy so either way I would be fine. It seems maybe not though. I don’t remember at any point of the trip seeing anything about mask exemption. I know it sounds silly but I just can’t put on those white masks. My PTSD just goes crazy. I can’t even put the thing on my face without panic setting in and flashbacks banging through my head. I have so much medical trauma around things near my face due to coming to from anaesthetic after a surgery and not being able to breath. I thought it was going to die. All the alarms were going off and the staff kept changing me to more and more intrusive/strong oxygen until eventually they were bagging me. It was fine in the end but not nice. There are a couple of others trauma things to but that’s enough of that.

For all of that though I must take moment to say that the EasyJet staff on this flight from Edinburgh to Venice have been so kind. They allowed me to board first as they saw my sun flower lanyard and walking stick. They then took the time to kindly explain to me the mask situation when I asked as they could see I was worried. From their perspective they can get spot checks once the plane lands and they get a big fine is everyone isn’t wearing the right sort of mask. Que a very big panic.

I tried to get myself into a bit of a normal morning routine to help me settle my mood a bit but also manage my nausea levels and decrease the likelihood of me being sick. I had half a slice of brown toast from home and then bought a porridge and coffee from the plane shop. By half eight, I had my book out and was settling down for breakfast in the sky. I was focusing on trying to take some big deep breaths and remain calm (or at least sort of calm). It helped that the cabin crew kindly said that this surgical mask on the plane will be fine.

To reassure anyone at this point who is worried. My surgical mask caused no problems at all. No-one in the airport queried it or indeed at any other point of the holiday. Overall though people here are much more vigilant about mask wearing than in Scotland (which is stricter than England). It’s more like Scotland was right at the beginning of Covid in 2020. It’s not just any masks either it is the FFP2/3 ones. It’s unusual to see any Italian not wearing one of those. And to be fair a lot of the rules do say that you should. Even outside people are wearing make a lot of the time. The biggest difference though is even quite small children are wearing the FFP2/3 masks. For the whole of lockdown children under 12 have been exempt from having to wear a mask. I guess some of this comes from the fact that North Italy was hit hard with Covid before it spread across Europe. This was before people fully understood what Covid was, how it spread and how to treat it. Those memories must loom large in peoples minds.

These are weird and wonderful times we are living in and there are a lot of extra complications when it comes to travelling particularly with a chronic illness. I was definitely extra overwhelmed that I would have forgotten a critical rule. It’s really important to check exactly what paperwork you need, when it needs to be filled in (not too early or too late); are Covid vaccinations compulsory and if so what evidence is needed to prove your vaccination status. For Italy we needed to fill out a passenger locator form which gives the information needed for the Italian government to trace people in case of a Covid outbreak. Like the track and trace we had in the U.K. then you need evidence of your most recent vaccination dose with a QR code to scan. For some countries your most recent does has to be within a certain number of months so that’s another thing to check! To help manage my anxiety I made sure I had my vaccine evidence both on the NHS app and an official printed sheet.

With all that said it is time to round up this post. The take home message is that whoever you are you deserve to travel and have adventures. No-one should be shamed out of experiencing life. It’s okay to be anxious (I remind myself of this often) just try and think of coping strategies in advance. Adventures don’t have to be epic missions. I have had some wonderful experiences near home. My first solo trip post accident was a couple of days in Stonehaven which is less than 30 minutes drive from Aberdeen. It was a really confidence building step and I had a wonderful time. Whatever you are planning I wish you all the best.

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