How I Overcame Anxiety and Depression By Dropping Out Of College At 18 And Backpacking Through Central America

Danka & Peter

Up until my first semester of college, the word “anxiety” didn’t mean much to me. I gained a new appreciation for it, however, as it became the word to explain what I was feeling: constant apprehension, lack of confidence, inner conflict and an overwhelming pressure from a source I couldn’t identify. I was severely anxious, and at the time, didn’t know why. It was as if everything was causing me anxiety—not just an upcoming test, or a party or the weather. I felt trapped. The demons in my mind were running wild, controlling my thoughts, and therefore, increasing my already present state of anxiety.

On top of the anxiety—or possibly as a result of it—I started breaking out in hives and rashes almost daily, which continued for months. This exacerbated my anxiety to such an extent that I spiraled into a depression. By a month or two into the semester, I had made some friends, I was a member of a business club, I was thinking of joining a fraternity and I had solid grades. On the outside, everything seemed perfect. But deep down, I was miserable.

At the time, I didn’t know that anxiety disorders affect almost 20% of people in the US. I didn’t know that roughly 1 in 3 college students have felt so depressed that it was “difficult to function”. And I didn’t know that over half of Americans are unhappy at work.

I started to question the “why” in almost every aspect of my life. Why is this happening to me? Why am I even in school right now? I don’t have the faintest idea of what I want to do the rest of my life, and here I am spending thousands of dollars to copy and paste what my professor tells me to in order to attain a “number” (grade point average) that helps distinguish my comparative worthiness from that of other students. This so we can all be employed by people who value and compare these “numbers.” Perfect logic.

I also started thinking about how if I were to die in a year, would I be happy with the life I was living? Would I go out knowing that I was living a life pursuing my passions?

If I were to die in a year, would I be happy with the life I was living?

I had always been deeply fascinated by the wonders of the world. I had a burning desire to go explore other cultures. The thought of traveling invigorated me and adrenaline would course through my veins as I sat in bed and stared up at my ceiling, imagining myself trekking through foreign lands. I started to consider taking a semester off to travel. But this other voice of fear settled in. I was scared to leave school. I was scared to leave the comfort zone that a degree and being in school was supposed to guarantee. My heart was pulling me in one direction (to travel and explore different cultures), while my head was pulling me in another direction (to stay in school and do what was expected of me.)

One night, I had a sudden realization: What if my anxiety and depression are warning signs that something is off in my life and I need to make a change? This thought led me to an “aha” moment: I was living my life based on the expectations of others and pursuing a path I had no interest in. As a result, I was in an intense state of anxiety all the time. I wasn’t living for myself. There was a mismatch between my current and desired reality—and this was creating a conflict that manifested both mentally (anxiety) and physically (skin problems). I decided to take a leap of faith, leaving college to pursue my dream of travel.

What if my anxiety and depression are warning signs that something is off in my life and I need to make a change?
Listening to my inner voice and following my heart, I hopped on a one-way flight to Guatemala with just a backpack and no cell phone, yearning to live in the moment and disconnect from a society dominated by social media. With no plan really, I arrived in Guatemala and had to get from the airport to a rural town that was 9 hours away by bus. Even with the language barrier and being stuck on a one-way road for 8 hours, making it a 15-hour journey, and arriving at 3 a.m, I eventually made it to my destination.

I spent four months backpacking through Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, trying to experience as many ways of life as possible. From camping in the jungle and teaching English to poverty-stricken kids to meeting inspirational people from around the world, my quest took me to exotic locations beyond the fringes of civilization.

Upon returning home from my pilgrimage, I had a realization: there are limitless ways to live and people can create their own destinies through self-reflection and then taking action. The journey wasn’t about arriving at a “destination.” It was about following my intuition and pursuing my dreams.

It was about going past the limits of what my mind deemed possible and having faith that things would work out, even if I had no idea how.

I’m now launching a Kickstarter campaign for the book I’m writing called Off the Beaten Trail, about my journey leaving college and backpacking though Central America. My goal is to inspire people to have the courage to listen to their inner voice and pursue their true passions. I have a huge vision for my book and the impact I believe it will have. However, no matter how many books I sell and no matter what people think of it, I know I have already succeeded. Why? Because no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams. It’s the process of this entire journey and trusting my gut that has made me the person I am today.

There are limitless ways to live and people can create their own destinies through self-reflection and then taking action.
As life coach Tony Robbins said, “Nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning you give it.” It may sound odd, but I’m so grateful for the anxiety and chronic skin condition that I faced. They were warnings from my inner GPS system, signaling that I needed to change course.

Hardship is inevitable—we all go through rough moments in life, whether it’s anxiety, battling sickness, a break up or loss of a loved one. It is our mindset—how we interpret the struggles we go through and choose to respond—that ultimately shapes us and the destiny we’ve chosen for ourselves.

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