Bryony Holland reveals how the chaos of India helped her overcome her panic attacks – and how it can help you find some inner peace too
I was 27 at the time and I hit crunch point at breakneck speed. I had no idea what to do, how to help myself and how to free myself from the crippling shackles of my mind. I felt stuck and I felt like giving up.
But I didn’t. Instead, I did something very impulsive. Something that shocked everyone I knew and, most of all, shocked myself.
I booked a return flight to Delhi. For 3 months. Gulp.
This was an odd decision in oh-so many ways. My panic disorder had me firmly in its clutches and I had inexplicably chosen possibly the most chaotic place on the planet. I had never even considered travelling to India before, let alone doing it solo. In fact, many deliciously panic-free people wouldn’t consider travelling alone in India themselves. It’s a country veiled in a mysticism that seems too overwhelming, too different, too cluttered and too challenging to the outside eye.
But, I was going. For 3 months. Gulp.
Initially, I was looking for a flight to Italy and suddenly I was going to India. I’m still not quite sure what made me do it – but I’ll tell you what, I’m sure as hell glad I did.
What happened to me in India was magical. It turns out that I could not have chosen a better place to still my mind and seek my peace. The lessons that I learned in India, both about life and about myself, will stay with me forever.
India is criss-crossed by people that have come to their own personal crossroads. Travellers wander from north to south, east to west, all looking for something inside themselves. Many of the travellers in India are there to heal personal wounds, fight personal battles, find personal truths.
When you travel through India, the people that you meet will fall open like books. They’ll listen to your story and tell you their own. This kind of gentle, honest sharing is something that I haven’t found in any other destination (except perhaps Nepal). These encounters all contribute to the healing process, and they make you feel cared for. It’s a wonderful way to travel.
I have always been terrified of death. At the very bottom of my panic disorder lies a huge phobia of death, a terror that something bad will happen to me and I will die. India really taught me to try and let go of this fear.
Praying on the banks of the Varanasi (Shutterstock)
In India, life and death nuzzle together in ways that seem totally surreal. On the ghats of Varanasi, smoking cremation pyres cloud the skies and death is, quite literally, in the air. Yet, alongside this, you’ll see young boys playing cricket, smiling and laughing as though there’s no tomorrow. All the while, gentle chanting hovers in the background and cows wander up and down the steps. Death isn’t hidden away in India. It’s everywhere. It’s normal. It’s just another part of life.
Being there, being part of it all, made me look at things differently. This has really helped my recovery.
Most anxiety and panic disorders centre around the idea of control. Anxiety is triggered by alien environments, unforeseen changes of plan, the inability to control everything that happens around you.
Everywhere I used to go, I would quickly identify all the terrible things that COULD happen, all the things that I COULDN”T change about my circumstances and the things that COULD go wrong. That was the root of my travel anxiety, my fear of flying, my terror of mountain roads and potential assassins in the night. It was a pile up of ‘coulds’, all planting worst case scenarios in my brain.
Students from the Parmath Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh (Shutterstock)
In India, all this goes out the window. There is no way of controlling anything in India. Everything is completely out of your hands. It’s a constant, colourful, clammering jumble of a thousand things happening at once. Nothing that you do personally can make a blind bit of difference.
I guess this could have been disastrous for me, but it wasn’t. Instead, it forced me to let go – to let life happen to me rather than trying to pin it down. This was a huge lesson for me to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever been more laid back than those few months in India.
This, again, is closely linked to the idea of control. When I was crumbling under the weight of the ‘coulds’, I always imagined a horrific ending. The idea that it COULD all work out just fine, would never cross my mind – until I travelled in India.
I got stuck in some awful situations. I was chucked off a night bus alone in the middle of nowhere at 3am, where there was one creepy man and a growling manky dog. I was assaulted on a train and had to beat a man with my flip-flops. I was chased home by a pack of dogs in Dharamsala, manhandled by monkeys on a bridge in Rishikesh and stranded by a bus that broke down in the middle of the Thar desert.
Brahmin priests perform the aarti ceremony to the River Ganges (Shutterstock)
BUT. Everything always turned out alright. The highs outnumbered the lows a thousand times over and I dealt with the dodgy situations that cropped up. Yes, a few bad things happened, but a bucketload of brilliant things happened too. Most things do turn out alright.
The best of times, the worst of times – that’s how many travellers to India remember their adventures. Lows follow upon highs at alarming speed, and it’s a bit of roller-coaster ride. You can’t control it, so you may as well sit back and enjoy it.
Crumbs alive, I’m pretty sure that India is the most frustrating place on the planet. Getting a straight answer can be like trying to write a poem on a grain of rice. Tricky. Expect head-wobbling. A lot of head-wobbling. And some very blatant untruths.
Finding accurate travel information can be really agonising because everyone has their own agenda. You’ll probably be told that every hotel in the town has burnt down except – conveniently – the one owned by your driver’s cousin. You might also be asked to pay tourist taxes to get into a town – another total fiction whipped up by a chancer. You might equally be asked to pay extra for the seat on the bus that you’ve already paid for. It’s entrepreneurship at its most rough and ready.
Wooden Statue of Krishna (Shutterstock)
I saw so many travellers losing their rag at the locals during my trip. I soon realised that most of these ragers were new to the country and I have no doubt, that (if they stayed) they would mellow with time. Once you let go of the anger, you’ll really start to enjoy yourself in India.
There’s no point in railing against a system that isn’t yours. If you’re being obviously exploited in India, you have to stand up for yourself – calmly, firmly, unwaveringly. That’s all it takes. And you’ll feel bold, calm and independent in the process.
I heart Indian people. Big time. They are bursting with warmth and kindness, and there’s always a cheeky little glint in the corner of their eye. Sure, they’ll take their chances and try it on – which is really entertaining once you work through the rage – but they’ll also really look after you.
I travelled alone in India, mostly on public buses. On many of my journeys, I was the only Westerner and sometimes I would go for days without seeing another tourist – especially up in the north. But I never felt unsafe. I felt cared for.
Buying flowers in a Delhi market (Shutterstock)
Once, I fell over in the street and two old ladies who could hardly walk themselves rushed to help me up. When I found myself surrounded and terrified by the teeth-baring monkeys in Rishikesh, a husband and wife took my hands and led me across the bridge. After I was assaulted by the man on the train, a family took me under their wing, shared their meal with me and offered me a place to stay.
These are the things that I remember the most. Kindness where it really counts. A sense of humanity and community. Many backpackers (usually the ones that swear they’ll never go back to India) travel with their guard up in India, waiting to be ripped off, ready to pounce on problems. Don’t do that. If you open yourself up to the people, they’ll open up right back.
So, there you have it. My six reasons why India is good for the soul. Now, I’m definitely not suggesting that everyone experiencing problems with panic jumps on a plane to India. Dear god, no.
I did it because it was right for me at that time in my life. I needed a push – an extreme, exotic push. And India awaited me with open arms.
"I'm a digital nomad, creating content for travel companies from the road. Along with my backpack, I carry about an anxiety disorder that I am fated to do battle with on a daily basis. My site is about the highs and lows of travel, mental health and living a life of no fixed abode. It's my search to find a happy place... in more ways than one"