Sometimes you don’t know how it’s going to be until you are actually there.
You can anticipate the temperature and prepare for it. You can anticipate the comfort and prepare for that. I prepared for nearly a year, coming up with several renditions of my plan until I was sure I would be warm enough, comfortable enough, whatever enough. I even did test runs spending the night in my car.
The tests seemed fine. Sometimes I would call one off early, justifying it with something like there’s no reason to be alone right now when I can be snuggled up next to my wife. I’m sure some part of me realized that I would face intense loneliness when I started living in my car for real, but I ignored those instincts and believed they would resolve on their own.
I was wrong.
I am definitely in the midst of an emotional transition in addition to a physical one. During the holidays I got to spend time with my family, then suddenly spent my nights alone with no sense of security. To get to the town where I would live and do my next clinical rotations, I had to travel for 36 hours by shuttle, plane and bus… and I can’t sleep on shuttles, planes or buses. I told myself that I would sleep when I’ve finally made it to my car, but something else kept me up: loneliness, disorganization (where is all my stuff?!), a cold face, the sound of cars driving by, and uncertainty about if I was safe.
For five nights in a row, I slept terribly. And one night it all culminated into panic.
That night, one of the coldest nights of the year, I had just met a homeless person around my age at Starbucks. It was closing time, and she was searching to find a place to stay for the night. As I packed up my things and drove away, I couldn’t get the image of her out of my mind—this poor person with nothing but a few coats, a hat and gloves to keep her warm.
Along with feeling terrible for this person, I was desperate for sleep. I had survived the first few days of my rotation running on the sheer joy of working with patients again after a long holiday break—but I couldn’t last much longer without some rest. It made me anxious.
As I got ready for bed, the wind picked up and dropped the “feels like” temperature to -19ºF. I took some melatonin and wriggled around in my sleeping bag, trying to ignore the fact that the wind was strong enough to rock the car.
I didn’t think to cover my face, so an hour later I woke up in shock from the cold hitting my cheeks. Then the anxiety set in again. Can I fall back asleep? Did that woman find somewhere to stay? Where am I? What am I even doing here?
I wanted to call my wife, but my car was so disorganized that I couldn’t find my charger. I started to feel tight in my chest. She and my son seemed so far away. Luckily I got her on the phone and she kept me company while we talked through the next steps I should take, which you can read below.
If you’re new to living in your car and the adjustment makes you anxious, there are a few things you can try to help your situation:
Get to a safe place where you can rest and recharge. I was lucky enough to have some money saved for a hotel room, but you could also try a friend’s house or find a willing van dweller who can be your parking buddy for a night or two. By the time I had a full night of sleep again, my outlook totally changed and I felt way less anxious.
Once I felt rested, I had the energy and motivation to get my car in order. My first few days of living in my car made my setup a total mess, so decluttering helped me clear my mind more.
Write and meditate
Tracking my feelings in a blog post helped me calm down, too. Consider journaling, meditation, prayer, or whatever reflective activity you prefer to calm your thoughts.
Talk to someone
Find someone—anyone—to talk to. If you can’t call on family or friends, I highly recommend posting in forums like r/vandwellers, Squat the Planet, or Cheap RV Living. You are not the first person to experience emotional distress living in your car, and if you reach out someone will help.
Research suggests that practicing gratitude can lead to lower stress levels. While most people wouldn’t dream of trying this lifestyle, I’ve been thinking a lot about how lucky I am to even have a car, or food, or a warm coat. Become aware of how much you do have instead of what’s still missing.
I’ve been using the emWave2 from HeartMath on and off for years now. This tiny box helps me train my heart rate variability, a biofeedback marker showing how balanced my sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems are. I find that when I consistently use this for 5-10 minutes every day I am more focused throughout the day and don’t feel the generalized anxiety that comes with medical school and van dwelling. This little tool is so important to me that I wrote a whole post about it!
I still have some adjusting to do, but these steps helped me get my head back to normal. If for no other reason, give them a try just to keep yourself mentally healthy.