Lesson 16: Sing when everyone is watching

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In Vietnam, the Ha Giang Loop is one of the most breathtaking motorbike journeys, done on a four-day tour. You ride through winding roads, climbing higher through the mountains, experiencing stunning landscapes along the way. I joined a motorbike group tour comprising six riders and six tourists to complete the Ha Giang Loop I sat on the back on a motorbike, as the pillion rider, while an experienced Vietnamese took charge of the bike.

On the last evening of the tour, the Vietnamese riders organized karaoke for the group. I was the only one who joined in but did not sing. I was too self-conscious. I was extremely anxious and couldn’t get myself to join in. Most of the group could not sing. It did not matter. I just could not do it. Social anxiety was too strong to overcome. I had to let go of another excellent opportunity to be part of something enjoyable. It had happened too many times in my life, and it had happened too many times on my travels. I was socially anxious again and avoided being part of an experience. Many chalk up this behaviour to shyness or timidness, but social anxiety and avoidance behaviours are far more pervasive.

According to the American Psychological Association, Social anxiety disorder is characterized by extreme and persistent fears or anxiety and avoidance of social situations with the prospect of negative evaluation by others. The core of this disorder is the person’s concern that he may act in a humiliating or embarrassing way, such as appearing foolish, showing symptoms of anxiety (blushing), or doing or saying something that might lead to rejection (such as offending others). When people with this disorder are unable to avoid situations that provoke anxiety, they typically perform safety behaviours: mental or behavioural acts that reduce stress by reducing the chance of adverse social outcomes. Safety behaviours include avoiding eye contact, assuming roles that minimize interaction with others and more.

Avoidant personality disorder takes the concern of social anxiety, further into the core personality of a person. The person is socially inhibited, oversensitive to negative evaluation; avoids occupations avoids relationships with others unless guaranteed to be accepted unconditionally; feels inadequate and views self as socially inept and unappealing; unwilling to take risks or engage in new activities if they may prove embarrassing

When you meet travellers, you tend to meet people who have had a great time on the road. Many social media profiles reflect this type of persona. A person who struggles with social anxiety or is of the avoidant personality type has a very different perspective on the road. I fell in the second category for most of my journey. These issues weighed heavy on me. To get through social situations, I needed a coping mechanism. I drank, sometimes large amounts, of alcohol to relax in the past, and I used alcohol as my crutch to participate in social activities. There was no other option. Social anxiety was far too intense, and the feeling to run and avoid loomed large.

In my zeal to become fitter while travelling, I was determined to drink less and work on my health. I had to let go of my crutch. It felt like a battle between my social anxiety issues, avoidance and my determination to become healthier. I chose health over social anxiety, though I ended up avoiding more people than I would have liked. Looking back, I made the right choice. But, it also meant not being able to socialise on multiple occasions. Sometimes I made excuses on group tours to go to bed early. Sometimes, I sat quietly as part of a group without engaging with many. I found solace in either talking to one or two individuals in a group or retiring to my bed to either read or watch Netflix.

That evening in Vietnam took me back to numerous moments in my travels where I felt I missed out because I was too anxious and ended up avoiding interactions. I missed out on some great moments in the last few years. These losses have been quite positive in the grander scheme of things. Today, I have a much better capacity to understand people. I have spent countless hours studying human behaviour, pouring through articles, videos, books on psychology and mental health. I sought help from a psychologist who worked with me using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which I detail later in the book. The work put in has helped a lot.

Anxiety and Depression are serious illnesses that affect millions. Statistically speaking, both these illness are among the top 10 in the world. The Covid 19 crises have exacerbated these illnesses. We have yet to see the effect, which I fear will be intense in the coming years.

On the road, I have met numerous travellers who had the same struggles as I did. Depression was quite common for many travellers. Many travelled to escape their lives. Many pilgrims on the Camino sought spiritual and religious guidance to guide them. Some nursed a broken heart. Others were just tired of everything.

I have worked hard for almost four years to be in a better mental state. I applied the techniques I learnt from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and other modalities daily. I know many of my fellow travellers are doing the same. The work is hard, and the process is lengthy. The reward is there somewhere at a distance.

Today I am a strong proponent of psychotherapy. I am a firm believer in being vulnerable. If you are struggling with any mental health issue, it is alright to seek help. It is entirely ok to schedule counselling sessions with a therapist. It is entirely acceptable to feel shame, to be scared and to be vulnerable. In the opening section, I had said that I don’t intend this book to be of the self-help nature. It is not. My travels, meeting numerous travellers and people struggling with their issues, have confirmed that mental health and well-being are paramount for our fulfilment. These include fellow travellers showcasing their life to the world and you who is reading this book.

The work put in will eventually help. Maybe one day, I will sing when everyone is listening. And perhaps you too can do the same, if today you cannot.

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