I think the most obvious questions to ask a backpacker with OCD are the following:
“Why do it?”
“What’s the point?”
“Aren’t you just asking for a panic attack?”
Well yeah, the idea of being dropped into a completely foreign landscape is enough to make my heart beat just fast enough to convince myself that I’m having a stroke. But the reality is that backpacking, to me, feels therapeutic.
Let me explain.
I, like many of you, work at a desk job. A desk job that after a few months becomes routine -- mindless, stale, and exhausted. It becomes idle, and there’s nothing more toxic to an anxious mind than an idleness. And sure, there are other less drastic things you can do to spice up an idle lifestyle, but I’ve found that travel can be the ultimate and most immersive problem-solving challenge.
To me, few things are as mentally stimulating, challenging, and constantly changing as travel. Each day brings a new challenge that, I guarantee, you’ve never faced before. If you wake up in Peru one morning, for instance, wanting to hike to a waterfall, you have to think of how to get there, how much of the local money to bring, how to communicate with the Spanish-speaking cab driver, and how you’ll get back to the hostel later on. In short, It’s positive and productive problem-solving. And it’s, no doubt, a much better use of my brain power than sitting at my laptop thinking about how that twitch in my finger is the first documented case of thumb cancer.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that travel is a replacement for actual real-life therapy, but when I’m focused on getting around, learning a new language, finding new places to go, and trying new cuisine, there’s much less room for undue and burdensome stress. Instead, my mind fills with pertinent, important and positive stress. And what’s beautiful about travel is that because every country, city and town is different, it literally can’t get boring. It’s a genuinely fun, interesting and ever-changing puzzle to solve.
I suppose I should mention that, as you may be able to tell, very few things are relaxing to me...and make no mistake, travel is decidedly not. It’s incredibly fun, adventurous and thrilling, but it is definitely not relaxing. And that’s okay! People like me have an immensely difficult time with the concept of “relaxation.” When the mind is constantly working, and the gears are always turning, it’s a tricky thing to find the “off” switch. A beach vacation, therefore, to me, is boring, expensive and under-stimulating. Conversely, trekking through ancient Guatemalan ruins is exhilarating, interesting and surprisingly cheap. Both are fun in different ways, but only one challenges me productively.
My point is that people like me -- Type A people who struggle with the notion of doing nothing -- can find genuine comforts from backpacking. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, and I know that it sounds scary to pick up and drop yourself into a completely foreign environment, but when you push yourself that far out of your comfort zone, you’d be surprised at your brain’s ability to adapt and find genuine joy from the puzzles of travel.
**As a quick aside, I'm not trying to suggest that travel is a replacement for professional therapy. All of the benefits I mention in this article are things I discovered as I worked together with my therapist on managing my anxiety and OCD. To find a therapist that's tailored to your individual concerns, you can check out the resources at the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. That's how I found mine! **