How Fear of Fatigue Helped Me See the World

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How Fear of Fatigue Helped Me See the World

I recently learned I was a kopophobic traveler.

Before I explain what makes me a kopophobe, I should tell you what the term means. Kopos is Greek for “fatigue,” and kopophobia is a fear of being mentally or physically exhausted, a fear of fatigue.

This fear has affected me all my life, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I identified it—once it was making it hard for me to do my job. I’m a travel writer. I am on the road at least twice a month, sometimes back to back. I love every minute of it, but like most professions, it can be stressful and scary.

What’s so scary about seeing the world? Looks at the numbers. Aviophobia—fear of flying—affects 6.5 percent of Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A survey conducted by InsureMyTrip found that 73 percent of travelers worry about falling ill or getting injured while traveling. Twenty-six percent are afraid of natural disasters occurring during a trip and 11 percent fear terrorism.

With nearly half of Americans never having left the country, it’s safe to assume fear plays some sort of role.

The phobia no one speaks about that can have a major impact on travel is fear of fatigue. Think about it: what is more exhausting then planning for weeks, packing for hours, traveling for days, and adapting to different time zones?

A recent scientific paper addressing the darker sides of hypermobility points out that it can take up to 11 days to adjust to jet lag. “Rarely depicted is the accumulated physical tiredness that also goes together with frequent travel,” says the paper, published in Environment and Planning A. “This interference with the body’s rhythms reflects a widespread disruption of many biological processes.” Frequent travel can lead to extreme “physical and mental fatigue,” the text purports.

“This ‘creeping tiredness’, repeated jet lag and accumulation of travel stress may turn chronic, and has been described as ‘frequent traveller exhaustion.’”

I don’t know about you but that sounds terrifying to me.

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Photo by Mario Tama/Getty

My fear developed during the days of sleepovers. After countless nights spent lying awake in homes that weren’t mine, I began to dread them. I’d fake sick to get out of them, and that was only if I said yes to the invitation in the first place. I can’t remember what went through my head during those nights back then, but since everything is scarier at night, I can’t imagine they were pleasant thoughts (there was a lot of Nick at Nite, however). As I got old enough to understand exhaustion, it became the No. 1 reason I avoided sleeping anywhere but my own bed.

In middle school, I agreed to go on school trips to Boston and Washington, D.C., because everyone else was going, and then freaked out the night before each. While I didn’t express this to anyone, at that point I distinctly remember fearing being up all night and then having to go, go, go the next day during tours while suffering from exhaustion. I was not mature enough at the time to just sit myself down and say: “So, I’m tired for one day … what’s the big deal?” My answer to the problem was avoid, avoid, avoid. I missed out on a lot because I was terrified of spending a day tired, or worse, missing cool daytime activities because I was too tired from the sleepless night prior—more school trips, countless slumber parties, and sleepaway camp.

“The anxiety about not being able to sleep was so often paired with sleeping in a new place that any new sleeping place became a conditioned stimulus for laying awake,” says Michael Grandner, Ph.D., who is the Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona.

“It could potentially lead people to engage in a number of behaviors that are intended to avoid fatigue because of an intense, unrealistic, irrational fear of bad things happening when this occurs,” Dr. Grandner says. And even when I was in my own bed, if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for some reason, I refused to go to school the next day. The thought of being miserably tired at a desk made my muscles tense.

The odd thing: at the same time, I developed a fascination for hotels. I loved everything from the big beds to the room service to the movies that were still playing in theaters. But it was hard to hotel-hop if I didn’t actually want to sleep in them.

The issue came to a head in middle school, when my parents surprised me with a night at a nearby luxury hotel as a birthday gift, complete with room service and an in-room rental. They didn’t tell me where we were going, just to pack a bag. I was terrified and crying. The anxiety was overpowering and I begged not to go. My parents promised I’d enjoy it, so I trusted them and went.

To think, my fears almost kept me from my first room service. The fear of not sleeping still lingered, but was dimmed by utter excitement and the options—what would I order from the menu? What movie would I watch?

Then, the sun went down, and the demons came out. “A phobia is an irrational fear. It starts to dictate our behavior in ways that don’t make any realistic sense and are outside of the bounds of what is really happening,” says Dr. Grandner.

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While I never discussed the fear with my parents, I think they caught on to the constant sleepover-canceling and also hoped this little trip might help. When it didn’t really solve the problem (although I did have a great time), my mom suggested therapy. She saw all I was missing out on and worried, and I, being a mature 13-year-old, agreed. I was sick of suffering from this ridiculous phobia and wanted to have fun with my friends and see all the hotels I could (I still feel that way).

Therapy didn’t help. One because I was 13 and totally lied to the doctor (I wasn’t THAT mature), and two because she would fall asleep during sessions (thanks for rubbing it in, Dr. Rose). My fear of sleeping out didn’t diminish, and I went through high school avoiding it.

At the same time, something in me wanted to partake in travel—the most exhausting activity out there.

“That’s human nature. Humans are constantly fascinated by what we fear,” says Dr. Grandner.

Because of this fascination, I packed my bags went to Europe for the first time with three friends during my senior year of high school. There were some panicked moments before, and even late at night in that cheap French hotel, but mostly, that first big trip fed my craving for culture.

Throughout the years I continued to explore the world, but my phobia was really heavy baggage I had to lug with me on every trip, making things difficult.

I remember hearing about a big Euro trip a group of my friends took, during which they stayed up all night every night, and fell asleep leaning up against statues in famous museums during the day. While they don’t regret a minute of it, the thought of it made me shiver (and it still does). I immediately made a mental note never to go on a big trip with them.

Luckily, my heart led me to study abroad in London, moved me to Italy to teach English and took me to places like Morocco and Israel (one thing I’ve never been afraid of is war, apparently).

It was a constant battle between my head and my heart. My brain was terrified of fatigue in an unfamiliar place where I couldn’t just return to my bed for a nap, but I was also falling hard for the open road.

Through my desire to travel, I unintentionally tamed my fear. I still avoided sleeping anywhere but my own bed when at home, but it was OK if it was for the sake of seeing the world.

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Fast-forward five years: my job requires me to travel frequently, enduring exhaustion and dealing with it. The fear is still there; it keeps me from experiencing foreign nightlife and staying in hostels known to be loud and rowdy at night. It prevents me from taking trips back to back; just last summer, I turned down an opportunity to go to Tanzania because I was going to London a few weeks before, and Greece a few weeks after. I was exhausted just thinking about three international trips in such a short time.

I make sure to get a good night’s sleep before any trip so that I’m energized plenty when I arrive. I don’t stay up during an overnight flight just to watch all the movies. And because of my fear, I’ve become a master at beating jetlag (it’s simple: if you arrive during the day, don’t nap, don’t even close your eyes. Do not go to sleep until it’s nighttime in your current locale).

At the same time, I’ve been everywhere from Cape Town to Berlin to Peru to Dubai and can’t recall many times I’ve been severely exhausted. My fear has taught me how to take care of myself on the road, and turned me into a more healthful traveler (if not the most fun one for my lack of nighttime partying, but that’s what day drinking is for).

“Fear is often a good thing,” says Dr. Grandner. “It exists for a very important reason: survival. It keeps us alive, as it did for our ancestors and our ancestors’ ancestors. But the problem is that fear is so important for survival we place a lot of importance on it, even when it makes no sense. What’s the worst that can happen if you’re exhausted? Many people live their lives exhausted and get by fine. Sure it’s not good for you, but the answer to the obesity epidemic is not mass starvation, it’s balance and moderation.”

With each trip, I became more aware of how much was out there waiting for me, and my fear began to fold. After some rough years fighting for what I loved, I finally convinced my body and mind to allow me to follow my heart across the globe. But there are limits, and as I’ve learned to tame my fear along the way, I’ve also learned how to live with it.

Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel writer.

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