Sometimes inconsequential matters of nothingness send me into mental freefall.
So when I spent all night vomiting, before taking a 12-hour taxi, boat and bus journey across Albania to find myself alone at dusk in a city I didn't know, looking for an Airbnb that didn't exist, my stress-levels should've been as high as I was dry.
Except they weren't.
Solo travellers have to keep an even keel in times of calamity, but that wasn't really it.
In this city where I knew no one, spoke - badly - a single word of the local language, and now had nowhere to sleep, I didn't feel afraid.
I was travelling alone. But, I quickly discovered, I wasn't alone.
A stranger at a hairdressing salon helped me, offering her phone. More strangers, emerging from doors across several floors of an apartment building, helped me.
Neighbourhood kids, running down the street to fetch the local high school English language teacher, helped me.
And Irma, the teacher, also a stranger, helped me. She took me in without hesitation.
I put more than the going room rate into her hand, but she wasn't interested in my money. She was talking about spending hers.
"I'm going to get you some medicine," Irma said.
"Don't worry about money, I'll buy it for you. And then my mother and I want to make you something to eat," she said, looking directly into my face, this woman who'd known me barely five minutes.
I didn't need medicine, and food would feel like poison for three more days, but none of that mattered because Irma was giving me what I really needed - a safe place to sleep and a dose of kindness after a gruelling day.
For all its horror stories about adventures gone wrong in faraway places, one of the best things about travel is the connections you make with people you don't know, and will probably never see again.
But you don't have to cross an ocean to have this experience.
Who among us hasn't bonded with a stranger stuck in the same never-ending queue, sung alongside one at a live gig or thanked another after they gave you their unexpired parking ticket as you near the pay machine?
Sometimes words don't even come into it - kindness between strangers can be as subtle as a shy half-smile in passing.
But even the widest of grins can't connect when it's shielded by a mask, blinding us to one of the most simple acts of empathy we can show to the 7.8 billion others sharing our planet.
Physical distancing and fear add to our collective disconnection.
And without meaningful, regular interaction with people we don't know, whether through acts of kindness or even just simple solidarity or decency, where is our humanity?
The smile that's as nice as chocolate
This should be our year of perfect vision.
Instead, the global spread of a wretched virus has forced us to adapt again and again, including to a new, smaller world, and a society where our favourite sight - us - often looks different to what we're used to.
Young children unashamedly stare at the faces of those they don't know, yet to master the adult skill of moderating an impulse that, University of Auckland behavioural scientist Dr Sarah Cowie says, is in all of us.
"Yes, most definitely, we're our favourite thing to look at. It comes from our need to belong and feel like a community.
"Our facial expressions are a huge source of information … one of the ways we can pick up what other people are thinking and feeling, and what they're likely to do, is by looking at their facial expressions.
"And a lot of that is subconscious. We don't have to actively stare at somebody to work out, 'Are you friendly? Should I come closer, or leave?' Just seeing emotion on other people's faces is enough to spark similar sorts of emotions in ourselves."
The University of Auckland senior lecturer in psychology noticed changes in her own behaviour after community transmission of the virus returned to Auckland last month , sparking increased face mask wearing.
Within a week or two she realised she'd stopped talking to the checkout operator at her local supermarket, Cowie says.
Both were masked and, as a result, couldn't read the cues they were so used to relying on.
"And you're not necessarily standing there deliberating, 'Should I say something?' It's just that you miss out on that conversation that flows almost effortlessly."
Two people who don't know each other didn't talk for a minute or two about a TV show, or a sports match, or the weather. Does that matter?
Yes, Cowie says.
Small talk with strangers is good for us. Big talk too, if we're up for it.
"Something as small as just saying hello to somebody, like the driver of a bus as you get on, a really small, seemingly insignificant action, they have a big impact on how we feel about our happiness and our wellbeing… the interaction we get with other people automatically triggers the reward part of our brain.
"So when you see someone smile, it's not just that you smile back, but the reward area of your brain will light up just as if you were receiving a nice piece of chocolate."
The rich inner life of strangers
The research agrees.
Experiments in Chicago and London by two United States academics, where people were encouraged to talk to strangers on public transport, in taxis and in a laboratory waiting room, found that while study participants believed only about 40 per cent of strangers would want to talk to them, in reality every person approached was willing to do so.
Study participants involved in the first experiment, on a train into downtown Chicago, also reported a significantly more positive commute when they spoke with a stranger compared with when their journey passed in silence, despite predicting the opposite.
Studies have shown people, with our lizard brain need to find safety in community, are healthier and happier when connected to others.
One, out of Britain, found chronic loneliness carries the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Another reports isolation increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by a third.
Beyond the physical health benefits, the experience of talking with others might be positive simply because it makes us realise others "have a rich inner life of thoughts, feelings and emotions, just like us", University of Chicago professor Nicholas Epley, one of the academics behind the experiment, told the BBC.
"These brief connections with strangers are not likely to turn a life of misery into one of bliss. However, they can change unpleasant moments - like the grind of a daily commute - into something more pleasant."
Saione Greer hasn't seen Epley's research, but he has seen what happens when you park 20 strangers opposite each other and leave them to talk.
The modern-day matchmaker owns Speed Date NZ and has watched thousands meet over a small table, to the buzz of a five-minute timer, at his weekly speed-dating sessions.
While some speed daters have found partners and spouses, and even gone on to start families, those aren't the only measures of success, Greer says.
"A lot of people, it's their first time doing something like this and, by the end, they find it quite empowering to get over that mental hurdle, but also they find they've met some interesting people they never would've met before … sometimes they've become friends."
Stunned mullets and a Lady in Pink
Talking to a stranger doesn't have to lead to a relationship, whether that be a friendship, or something more.
The connection, in that moment, can be enough.
The internet is littered with examples of moments strangers' lives criss-crossed, for the better, before continuing on their own paths.
Sometimes strangers remain strangers.
Four Silverdale Volunteer Fire Brigade firefighters were left speechless after a warm-hearted "lady in pink" breezed into Orewa bakery Dear Coasties and paid their brunch bill in January last year.
"Suffice to say the four of us were absolute stunned mullets at the time and couldn't get out the right words to say [thank you] before you left," one of the firefighters, who were taking a break from a 24-hour shift battling a vegetation fire, wrote on a community Facebook page.
"So, Lady in Pink - a very heartfelt thank you from Sunday's Red Watch crew at the Silverdale Volunteer Fire Brigade. You are a beautiful human being."
A Tauranga couple and their young family were also the recipients of a kind-hearted act last year, after a mystery donor settled their $100 Cobb & Co bill before the family had even finished their meals.
Mum Claire, who didn't want her last name used, told the Bay of Plenty Times the gesture left her wanting to repay the favour.
"I will definitely pay it forward again in the hope of starting a chain reaction and getting more people to help others without expecting it back in return."
And US mother Rachel Martin wrote this month about her gratitude towards a stranger who helped when Martin's 8-year-old son went over a waterfall.
As others watched without moving, or even scampered away, a frantic Martin found herself locking eyes with a mask-wearing stranger, the only person who'd come to her son's aid.
"She looked at me so deeply, like she was trying to take every bit of energy, love and strength in her body and push it out through the only part of her face I could see," Martin wrote in The Atlantic.
Later, after learning her son had escaped serious injury, the Washington DC mother realised part of the reason she'd been so drawn to her helper was because the woman had "stepped into what has been a painful void in my life during the pandemic".
"I miss strangers … I need to feel like we aren't all floating around in our own bubbles, concerned only with the health, pocketbooks, and survival of ourselves and the ones we love."
She feared for our collective ability to empathise if we stopped being able to connect with those we didn't know, Martin wrote.
"And then where are we as people?"
She and her helper, a nurse named Lisa, have made their own start, sharing their numbers and, since, their fears for their children's futures in a time of Covid-19.
"In this world that has violently shaken all of us upside down, that has dizzied and bruised us in our own isolation, we are strangers who are less strange."
'It felt like somebody turned all the lights on'
Could our ability to empathise with those we don't know, like an unused muscle, waste and weaken from lack of use?
We can certainly lose our confidence to start a conversation with new people, says Greer, the speed-dating guru.
"We get people who haven't been dating or socialising with strangers for years, so they're not only nervous coming to these events, they're unsure how to interact ... small talk is a lost skill for a lot of people."
Greer tackles that by putting conversation prompters on the tables between the speed daters.
But there's no prompter fairy in the rest of the world.
In the virus-ravaged US, the New York Times wrote this month that we were "subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations - whether we are aware of it or not".
"The signs are everywhere - people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting to or misconstruing one another's behaviour, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others."
Research on people separated from society - from prisoners and hermits to astronauts and polar explorers - garnered reports of increased social anxiety, impulsiveness, awkwardness and intolerance when they return to normal life, the Times reported.
Nelson-based Department of Conservation scientist Graeme Elliott has been going to sub-Antarctic islands for up to three months at a time since 1990, enjoying only the company of his partner, fellow department scientist Kath Walker, resident wandering albatrosses and South America-bound Qantas flights spotted through binoculars at 10,000 metres.
The couple are fairly hardy to life on Adams Island, part of the Auckland Islands' group 500km south of Invercargill, and the Antipodes Islands, 850km southeast of the same southern city.
But returning to the mainland can feel intense, most especially when they once came back by helicopter, landing at Queenstown Airport during the height of the ski season.
"That was the time I've most felt like, 'Ugh, God', because it felt like somebody turned all the lights on. It was bright and sparkly and there were people making a lot of noise," Elliott says.
"I was like, 'Oh, crikey, I wish they'd all go away'."
The 63-year-old's not sure if months spent on an island in the company of only one other person affects his ability to relate to new people.
He loves talking to, well, anyone, he says.
But even the lure of fresh ears doesn't trump the comfort of a simple life away from challenges new and old.
"I'm never particularly keen on going home. I've sort of got this notion that I want to talk to some other people, but on the other hand you've got used to just being a couple of you and things tick along just fine.
"Everything's more complicated when you get back to New Zealand."
Thumbs up to thumbs up
But Elliott adapts.
That's what people do, Cowie says.
Yes, there can be negative responses to prolonged isolation, among them impacts on the ability of our humanity to come through simply because we have to spend more time apart - to varying degrees - from others.
Humanity matters - lack of it can lead to the many horrors we've inflicted on each other throughout history.
But humans also haven't come this far without being crazy adaptable.
"Behaviour is really adaptive, so when things happen, like we have to socially distance from people and we can't do the things we normally do to keep ourselves happy, we tend to look for other strategies and accidentally come across those," Cowie says.
One person told her of using the thumbs up gesture to say thank you, because the words couldn't be heard, and the smile couldn't be seen, through a face mask.
"It's amazing how socially acceptable that's been when six months ago it would've been seen as the most naff thing in the world to give somebody the thumbs up."
That acceptance is part of our collective understanding that we're all in the same situation, Cowie says.
"There's something that kind of counteracts that removal of empathy … knowing that you're part of the team of five million, or however we call it.
"And wearing a mask is almost a display of empathy - I'm helping myself, but I'm also helping the people around me, people I don't know."