Expat Life: Overcoming Anxiety in Eilat

I once heard that to live a fulfilling life, you should do something that scares you as often as possible. I don’t mean jumping in front of oncoming traffic or anything, but that you should step out of your comfort zone and try something new.  These could be small things – striking up a conversation with someone new if you’re usually pretty shy, going to a new class at the gym that you know you might completely suck at, or they could be big things – sky diving or traveling to a new country.

Like many people, I used to dread leaving my comfort zone, and, obviously, often I still do. I’ve never believed that I’m not brave – people are brave in many different ways. But I definitely worry about things. A lot. In my head I consider it preparing for all possible outcomes of a situation, but it really boils down to thinking about every little thing that could possibly go wrong.  But moving to Israel has meant that most of the time I need to step out of my comfort zone multiple times a day.

When I first got here, even ordering food by myself gave me anxiety – like sweaty palms, hear my heartbeat in my ears anxiety (yes I know this is ridiculous). But every time I successfully ordered a meal, or even just a drink, I felt this strange sense of accomplishment. Hooray for small victories right? Today, my food ordering skills are thankfully greatly improved, and I can even – slowly – order off the Hebrew menu!

I’ve had a lot of experiences like the one above in Israel – for instance learning to drive around some of the most terrifying drivers I’ve ever seen. Living here has forced me to turn of that little “what if” voice in my head giving me anxiety before doing these things and to adopt a go with the flow approach. I’ve learned to try to turn “what if” into “I’ll take each problem as it comes and figure out a way to deal with it,” and I’m forever grateful for this lesson.

Earlier this summer, fiancé and his family and I took a trip down to Eilat, a coastal city on the Red Sea that borders Jordan on one side and Egypt on the other. This location is something that I for some reason found weirdly fascinating, probably because of how safe and calm it is despite the occasionally less than cordial relations between the countries. One thing Eilat is known for is a reef in the Red Sea where you can scuba dive with dolphins. These aren’t the kind of dolphins you swim with in Mexico or see at Sea World. They’re wild dolphins who are free to leave at any time, but usually stick around for the gratuitous feedings by humans a few times a day.

I kind of love dolphins, and I was really excited about this prospect, except for the fact that I’ve never scuba dived before. It’s not that I don’t think it’s safe, and I have a ton of friends who love it, but my struggles with asthma as a child make the sensation of being unable to breathe one of my greatest fears. Which means the idea of being unable to breathe AND under the water is an absolute nightmare.  But, with some gentle coaxing from fiancé and with fond memories of always enjoying snorkeling in mind, I signed my life away in waivers and prepared to breathe from a tank.

The dolphin reef in Eilat is really cool because it’s a guided scuba experience, meaning you dive on your own, but you have a personal guide near you at all times who adjusts your pressure and whatever other technical things they do to keep you alive under water. My first time putting my head under with the mask, having to kind of suck the air in instead of breathing normally made me panic slightly, but my fear of looking like an idiot in front of a group won out over my fear of suffocating to death (because that’s rational), and I sucked it up and put my head back under.

Within ten minutes I forgot that I was even breathing from a mask, since I was completely entranced by the fish, coral, and eels, and the fact that I could not only see the dolphins swim by from time to time, I could also hear them “talking” to each other all the time. The way the sound carries was incredible! Unfortunately, that’s not the only sound that carries. A boat that came close to the reef completely drowned out the sound of the dolphins, and I can only imagine how loud it is to their superior underwater hearing. It was really something I’d never thought much about before.

Our hour underwater ended too soon, but not before my guide convinced me to pet a sea urchin. I didn’t want to do that either, since they’re something I’ve avoided touching (well stepping on) since childhood, but he kind of insisted. Despite it’s rather menacing looking appearance, it didn’t seem to mind gentle petting, and the spines moved with my hand.

At the end of the dive, I felt that same sense of accomplishment I used to get from ordering food correctly except on a much greater scale. I guess that the size of the fear you face directly correlates with how accomplished you feel after. I now really hope that in the next year I can get scuba certified myself, because I don’t want to miss out on this experience in new places where a guide isn’t available. So I guess you can say that my anxieties about scuba have been officially conquered.

If you’re like me, and you find anxiety and “what ifs” holding you back sometimes, you don’t need to move halfway across the world or don a wetsuit to overcome this. Instead, I recommend two approaches that I’ve found work for me. First, sometimes it helps to think through the “what ifs.” Usually if you really ask yourself “what if?” you find that the results really aren’t so bad – it’s the unknown that scares us. Think them through, and realize that they usually aren’t the end of the world.

Second, try making a list of ways you want to step out of your comfort zone, and start checking them off. Start small and work up to big things. Fortitude is like a muscle, the more you use it, even for small things, the stronger it gets.  Soon you’ll find that life really is more fun outside of your comfort zone. I’ll leave you with a quote by George Addair I find inspires me when I’m feeling nervous about trying something new: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”

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