No longer travel-anxious, Sacramento woman globe-trots and writes about it

Her passport bears stamps from 41 countries, from the stern Cyrillic lettering of Russian bureaucrats to the smeared black-ink stamp of Argentina, from the all-caps bonhomie of Australia to the tiny, nearly indecipherable mark of Croatia.

Rita Anya Nara, dashing 36-year-old globetrotter from Sacramento, just happened to have her little blue book with her on this particular afternoon, since she’d recently returned from a 15-day, six-country Mediterranean jaunt that began in Turkey and ended in Greece. Still a little jet-lagged as she sat sipping an iced tea in a local Barnes & Noble – “Feels like midnight to me” – Nara beamed as she thumbed through the passport’s well-worn pages, recalling memorable experiences and summoning exotic images.

What makes Nara’s tales of travel in all seven continents extraordinary, an achievement far beyond the reach of your average avid traveler, is that she has suffered from extreme and acute anxiety, a litany of conditions ranging from acute panic attacks to social anxiety, to irrational fears of imminent harm to, when she was younger, agoraphobia (fear of open spaces or crowded areas).

How she transformed herself from a quivering homebody ruled by her fears to a bold woman unafraid to travel alone in countries as far-flung to Americans as Turkey and Estonia is quite a story, one Nara has chronicled in her self-published book, “The Anxious Traveler: How to Overcome Your Fear to Travel the World,” and her companion website, “The Brave Traveler.” In short, Nara said, she did it by confronting her anxiety head-on, staring down that dark night of the soul.

Before elaborating, though, she pointed out how fitting it was to be talking about travel anxiety in this very Barnes & Noble. Years before she took steps to overcome her fears, Nara said she would skulk among the stacks in the store’s travel section, pining away like the most ardent of armchair travelers.

“I was always such a curious person,” said Nara, a senior environmental scientist for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. “I wanted to learn different languages and learn about different cultures. But anything I thought would cause me stress or social anxiety I automatically blocked out of my life. Doing something new in my life, I’d recoil from. I’d just go back to reading National Geographic books at this Barnes & Noble and dreaming.”

Her story might have ended there – another dream deferred, more enriching life experiences snuffed out – as it has for many of the 40 million Americans suffering from chronic anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The institute reports that those most severely afflicted often realize their anxiety is excessive, yet are incapable of controlling it.

“When people have excessive anxiety, I always tell them, ‘Your body is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do,’” said Dr. Rob Dobrenski, psychologist and author of “Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch.” “The problem is, it’s a mind trick. It’s flipping a switch that doesn’t need to go on. Basically, we’ve got to retrain the body and mind to say, ‘This isn’t real danger.’”

Standard treatment includes anti-anxiety medication and behavioral therapy, both of which helped quell Nara’s fears but not to the extent where she could pack her bags and have a real vacation. She had made progress. She no longer was afraid to leave her house, as she’d been in her mid-20s. She was able to repel panic attacks in stress management classes she took, but that didn’t translate to the real world. Frustrated, she vented to her longtime psychiatrist. Is there any way, she asked, to make it so she could see the world?

“My doctor suggested,” Nara said, smiling, “I try a small trip with a family member.”

Call it full-immersion therapy. She picked a friendly country, not too far away. Canada, of course. Vancouver, the closest destination to Sacramento. Baby steps, she said.

So in 2007, Nara and her mother went north of the border.

“There were panic attacks, I admit,” she said. “I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t know how to get a passport, get a hotel, didn’t even know I could use my Visa card outside the U.S. Any little thing (affected her). I had obsessive thoughts about terrorism, about my personal safety, especially since I’m a woman. We hear so much about pick-pocketing and muggers and everything. You go to a place, you don’t know where the good or bad places are, you don’t know who to call if you’re in trouble.

“There’s an anticipatory dread, where I’m repeating the same thoughts, over and over, in my head: ‘What if? What if? What if?’”

Panic attacks aside, once Nara adjusted to the new environment, she found that she enjoyed herself, that she could tamp down the anxious thoughts.

“That was a turning point,” she said. “I learned that what I was most fearing was not out there. I was in the moment. When you’re traveling, you’re really into your heart and soul.”

Be overprepared

Buoyed by the experience, Nara next planned a solo trip to New Zealand in 2009. By planning, she means not just booking hotels and checking out museum hours. No, Nara prepared for every eventuality. She compiled a list of medical clinics and doctors she could consult if needed, pharmacies where she could get refills. She researched when the so-called “off hours” at popular attractions were so she wouldn’t get panic-stricken navigating through throngs of tourists. (All of which she details in her book.)

It turned out to be a successful trip, though not without a hitch or two.

“There was a time in the middle of that trip I got mentally exhausted and got overwhelmed and got that old feeling a lot of anxious people get,” she said. “They can’t process anymore and just want to be left alone. I regrouped and stepped back. I stayed in the hotel a day or two and then was able to get out again. It was just all the different people and strangers, trying to keep track of all I’d done and was going to do, that got to me. I mean, this is my vacation. This is my time to enjoy myself. After that break, I was able to have fun after that.”

Nara’s book and website do not purport to “cure” travel anxiety, but she said she hopes her practical steps will ease the level of anxiety enough for people to enjoy their trips. Both in the book and in her own experience, she almost takes it for granted that a chronic anxiety sufferer will have one or two episodes. She tells people to hole up, ride it out and eventually summon the courage to press on.

“It was so much about building confidence in small steps, and then taking something on a little bigger,” she said. “In a way I’m fortunate in that nothing terrible did happen to me (in early travels) to scare me off. But anyone with any kind of disorder shouldn’t leave the county without that medical information. I’ve only had to have one prescription refill in going to 40 countries. I dropped (pills) down the sink in Luxembourg. No problem. The more contingencies people can build into their plans, the more confident they’re going to be, and the less likely something will happen.

“For instance, there’s no reason to walk midday to an attraction and be overwhelmed. Don’t go to the Eiffel Tower at peak time. It’s when anxious people feel like they’re being watched or noticed ... (that) they really start to wig out. Just learn to blend in. It’s something you build over time.”

Expect relapses, too, Nara said. Even now, after spanning the globe on solo excursions, panic attacks will hit. She suffered one last year in Morocco so severe she couldn’t leave her hotel for days, “but I was still able to continue with the trip.” In June, three Russian men followed her all the way back to her hotel. After the police came and the men were ushered out, Nara admitted she was “a nervous wreck,” almost inconsolable. But then she realized this actually was a stressful event, not irrational anxiety, so her reaction was justified.

“I’m always determined to make a learning experience out of it,” she said. “It makes you stronger for the next time.”

One victory was how she reacted – or, rather, didn’t react – when she flew to Iceland in 2010. The plane was diverted to the south of the country because the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was sending plumes of ash over much of the tiny country. Passengers were then bused five hours to Reykjavik.

“I didn’t have time to think of all the little (anxieties), like what to do if I couldn’t speak Icelandic or what if my hotel neighbors kept me up at night,” she said. “The volcano was almost a blessing in disguise. Just getting there, even 36 hours late, and seeing all that raw beauty made it worth it. ... I want people with anxieties to experience that.”

‘No one could calm me’

For others, overcoming fears when traveling has proved much more difficult. Meghan Connor, a 21-year-old student from Philadelphia, has long suffered from panic disorder, which she says prevents her even from leaving her college campus to get groceries for fear of “being caught out and having a panic attack.”

Airplane travel is difficult for her because of acute claustrophobia. She doesn’t have a fear of flying, per se, but frets about “feeling of having a panic attack thousands of feet in the air when you know they won’t land if you’re having trouble breathing. ... I feel claustrophobic being in a box hurtling through space.” In the past she had forced herself to travel, since her family is spread out throughout the country.

But, this past summer, on a flight from Seattle to New York, she suffered a major panic attack while the plane was taxiing before takeoff. The plane was forced to return to the gate to drop off Connor and her parents. (She was able to endure a flight back a day later.)

“No one could calm me down,” she said. “I felt absolutely awful for all my fellow passengers, and they made me feel dreadful for it, too, when they all groaned because of the delay. I wouldn’t fly somewhere for fun with my friends because of my travel anxiety, but if I want to stay an active member of my family life I have to fly. I am already worrying about flying to England for Christmas, and it’s only October. My fears have meant that my family is less inclined to invite me on, say, a fun trip to Spain or Miami. No one wants to fly with the girl who throws a fit every time a plane takes off.”

Connor calls her anxieties “unpredictable.” She can be calm and composed on one trip, wrought up on the same trip the next day. She pointed to a two-hour car ride she took with her parents in early October.

“I got in the car with a blanket over my head, watching the movie ‘Wedding Crashers’ and didn’t look up until two hours later when we were home,” she said. “Later that day, I got on the same highway with no distractions necessary and looked out the window the entire time.

“What you have to do is be prepared. I make sure I have distractions in hand, I remember tools I have learned in therapy such as breathing exercises, and I keep the Xanax handy at all times. What I am still working to remember is that the answer to the fear is inside myself, and I need to stop looking to outside forces to save me.”

Tools such as those Nara emphasizes in her book and the relaxation techniques Connor mentioned can ease the burden. But Juniper Russo, an Alabama-based writer who has contributed to the Yahoo! Health website, said anxious travelers need to be vigilant in practicing relaxation techniques, watch what they eat or drink (caffeine or alcohol can be triggers) and, with a doctor’s blessing, increase medication dosage.

Russo, who has suffered from panic attacks since kindergarten, said the public tends to misunderstand the triggers for anxiety and the severity of suffering for those afflicted. What she calls “minor annoyances,” such as “fussy kids, an empty stomach or realizing halfway through a drive I left something at home,” become huge issues for anxious people.

“I think there’s a general misunderstanding that ‘anxiety’ is just another word for stress, and a lot of people don’t understand that it’s a medical condition that sometimes has little to do with the amount of stress affecting us,” Russo said. “I’ve more than once heard things like, ‘You’re on vacation; why don’t you just relax more?’ The implication is that anxiety is something that can be consciously controlled by just choosing to have a good time.”

If only it were that easy.

Nara said that, although her “immersion” technique has allowed her to travel extensively without being debilitated, she acknowledges a “just do it” approach won’t work without meticulous planning, support from a therapist and family members and a person’s acceptance that, occasionally, you must pause your sightseeing in mid-trip to deal with panic attacks.

“Getting from Point A to Point B is the ultimate test for someone’s ability to manage anxiety,” she said. “There are so many people dreaming of travel and not doing it. I didn’t want to miss out on it.”

As she thumbed through her passport, ticking off countries, Nara paused when asked which destination was her favorite. Then she smiled, knowingly.

“Switzerland,” she said. “For one thing, it’s incredibly safe, so I can let my guard down.”