I’m An Asian Australian Woman & My Travel Anxiety Is At An All-Time High

I'm bawling alone on some church steps in the middle of a European city. I haven’t cried this hard in months. What triggered it seems insignificant: I had missed a Pilates class. I was 15 minutes late and they wouldn’t let me in. I'd had left 45 minutes before the class for the 20-minute trip to the destination. But I’d gotten on the wrong tram and got lost in the process. I had done all the right things to be on time, but in the end it wasn’t meant to be. 
I sat there sobbing, waiting for my husband to come and find me, and messaging my best friend back in Australia to get her to distract me from the spiralling episode I'd been sucked into. I wondered why I was having such a visceral reaction to a tiny inconvenience. I was living the dream. I was in the very privileged position of being on holiday, and extremely grateful for it. But at that moment, I just felt like shit.
Image supplied
The more I sat with these feelings, the more I realised how much mental energy it had taken to get on public transport in a foreign city by myself. I recalled all the energy I had spent thinking about making myself physically smaller (I am barely 160cm and I have a petite frame) in public spaces despite having a larger-than-life personality. I realised that I do this to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes people have about Asians as tourists.
After COVID-19 broke out, I was much more aware of the possibility that when I left the house, my perceived ‘bad behaviour’ that day could reflect negatively on my race as a whole, not just on me as an individual. For a long time after the pandemic started, I wouldn’t cough in public in case it triggered an unwelcome look or comment. There were so many day-to-day, mundane activities that other people could unthinkingly engage in that I had to rethink.

I realised how much mental energy I had spent thinking about making myself physically smaller (I am barely 160cm and I have a petite frame) in public spaces despite having a larger-than-life personality.

I was racially abused on my way to work one morning last year. They told me to “Go back to your own country” multiple times. For weeks after that, I felt unsafe walking around in my Sydney neighbourhood. My meltdown was a result of these feelings compounding over time into a heightened level of travel anxiety while on this overseas trip. I wanted to know if I was alone in this feeling. Sadly, it turns out I’m not.

So, what is travel anxiety?

It’s technically not an official disorder, but travel anxiety “describes an intense feeling of anxiousness surrounding the many variables involved in taking a trip”, according to Headspace.
Asami Koike, a music therapist and founder of Shapes and Sounds — an organisation that provides mental health services for Asian Australians — says that anxiety is sparked in different people by different situations.
“It could be, specifically in your case right now, the trigger is travel, the trigger is being alone, the trigger is being alone on public transport or being alone in spaces where you physically cannot see any other Asian people,” she tells me.
“It’s not just the travel that’s causing that anxiety; it’s incredibly layered.”
Koike also believes the anxiety I’m feeling during my travels is a “trauma response”.
“Your body feels unsafe… and this act of kind of disappearing — it’s what we like to call a fawn response. Essentially that’s one way in which human beings or animals avoid threat,” she explains. “So when you’re in danger, you can run away… or [what] most humans do is we fawn, we become really lovely and pleasant.”
Koike shares her own experience as an Asian-Australian woman, describing a sense of extreme anxiety not just while travelling, but living her daily life in Melbourne — like going to the park or going shopping and feeling “always on edge”.
“Is someone going to yell at me in the supermarket if I'm grabbing the toilet paper?” she says. “I have often felt unsafe in Australia as a woman of colour. Many of us have lived with that low buzz of fear of being racially abused when you're out on the street.”

Why Asian women are targeted in a majority of racial attacks

The Asian Australian Alliance has been collecting data for a global COVID-19 racism incident report. Working with Stop AAPI Hate and other advocacy groups, the organisation has recorded more than 12,000 incidents of racially motivated attacks in Australia, the US and Canada. 
Erin Chew, co-founder and national convenor of the Asian Australian Alliance, says that Asian females made up about 61 per cent of victims in reported incidents across all three countries.
“It shows that basically the majority of racist attacks, and we just looked at within the last couple of years, have been targeting women,” Chew said.
Chew herself often travels between Australia and the US. She shares her recent experiences while travelling around the “middle of nowhere” in the state of Washington.
“I remember the first thought that came to my head was… are we going to stand out, and are we going to experience any racism?” she tells me via Zoom. “So even when thinking about nothing else, even about preparing for going on the trip, that was the first thought that came to my head by default.”

As long as we look Asian… or we don't look like the majority, we are always othered.

Erin Chew
Chew says Asian women feeling a heightened sense of travel anxiety can be linked back to the negative stereotypes they have been subjected to for decades. Ones that portray them as easy targets because they are “meek”, “obedient”, or “always looking for some type of white saviour”.
“In Hollywood and in Australian media, just look at how Asian women are portrayed,” Chew says. “We’re always seen as this type of… exotic object in many ways.
“It makes a lot of people, particularly men, feel that we are easy targets and that we are easy to pick up, and we get subjected to sexual racism.”
Chew says that a lot of Asian women she had spoken to feel the same way. “They all feel this kind of insecurity about themselves,” she said.
According to Chew, another factor is Asians as a whole are often made to feel “perpetually othered” or like the “perpetual foreigner”.
“It doesn't matter how many generations we spend in Australia — it doesn't matter whether we've been in Australia for half a year, two years, a couple of years, decades or even centuries, as long as we look Asian… or we don't look like the majority, we are always othered,” Chew explains.

How to cope with travel anxiety

Koike suggests turning to sensory experiences to soothe your nervous system.
“We often think that mental health is something that you can talk your way through, cognitively reframe things, but actually trauma doesn't live in our minds; trauma lives within our bodies,” she says. “Imagine yourself just as a nervous system that runs through your whole body, and it's picking up cues from the environment all the time.
“Find things that physically help you to calm down… a lot of people use weighted blankets, as an example, or drink hot tea. Also, they have to make sure they don't wear any tight clothes, so they feel really free.”
Once you’re able to soothe your heart rate and slow down your breathing, it can lower your threat response, Koike says.
Another strategy to cope with your anxiety is to look around the room and name five things you can see.“Our eyes are a really great sense to pick up threats,” Koike says.
She says that even the simple act of looking behind you and ascertaining there is no actual physical threat to you at that moment can help lower the threat response.
Koike says there were also coping strategies for the Asian diaspora to support one another as a community.
“I feel like it's a fantastic opportunity for us to be able to actually come together as a community and to heal… with one another.
“I feel like a lot of that Asian Australian experience, we're all very isolated, we don't really know each other's stories, but there are so many common threads. Stories like this help break down that shame and help us share our own stories.
“Recovering from trauma is not an individual responsibility, but a community response.”
Speaking with other Asian Australians has really helped me have open, meaningful and validating conversations. I hope this continues, and not just with me. While there's a chance this anxiety will creep up on me again while travelling abroad, I know there's no shame in my tears, or talking about it.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636). Support is available 24/7. 
Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here.

More from Mind