It can feel like a tangle of butterflies in your stomach, electricity down your limbs, tense shoulders, shaky hands, or dry tongue. Most people know what anxiety feels like. And when it comes up around travel, it can impact not only your mental health, but your enjoyment of a long-awaited vacation and even whether you decide to travel again.
Whether it’s while you’re planning, before you leave, or during your trip, travel anxiety comes up for many of us. Personally, I’ve experienced travel anxiety in the days leading up to a trip, and I’ve even struggled with panic attacks and heightened anxiety during travel.
I’m currently on a year-long trip through South and Central America but… I still have anxiety. Instead of quitting travel, though, I’ve learned techniques to cope with it.
Why do we experience travel anxiety?
Travel can be stressful and full of more unknowns than our daily lives at home. This alone won’t cause anxiety, but it may be a trigger for anxiety if you are already prone to it.
The recipe for your own anxiety is as unique as you are. In addressing your travel anxiety, it can be helpful to examine why you might be experiencing it in the first place.
Some of the reasons we might develop travel anxiety include:
- Childhood fears: As a child, did you watch a parent who was afraid of flying or particularly anxious around travel, and learn that behavior?
- Past experiences: Traveling again after a bad experience can bring up feelings of anxiety. One bad travel experience – like a turbulent flight or getting pickpocketed on a trip – doesn’t mean all travel will be bad. You may know that logically, but sometimes it can be hard to feel that internally.
- Horror stories: Similarly, reading or hearing about other people’s bad travel stories may subconsciously convince you travel is inherently dangerous.
- Phobias: Transport-based phobias like a fear of flying are more common, but you could also have a phobia of certain animals or situations you might encounter while traveling.
- Uncertainty: There is so much more uncertainty surrounding travel than we are used to in our daily life at home. Will your train leave on time? Will you be able to find your hostel? What will the new city be like? Will the tour pick you up at the right place? Is it safe to walk around at night? The list of uncertainties goes on. Difficulty adjusting to this new level of uncertainty can lead to anxiety.
- Catastrophizing: When faced with uncertainty, some people “catastrophize,” which means imagining the worst possible outcome. For example, “If I miss my flight, I will miss my entire vacation and lose thousands of dollars and be stranded.” Constantly envisioning the worst can trigger anxiety.
- Nervous system in overdrive: Anxiety is not just our thoughts; it’s also a biological process in our bodies. The stress of travel can put our bodies in “fight-or-flight” mode as we try to stay alert and navigate new environments. This is a normal process. However, the adrenaline and cortisol that is released when we are stressed is also a trigger for what we feel as anxiety, and many people have difficulty “turning off” this process.
- Pre-disposition to anxiety: Some people are more prone to anxiety based on genetics, family history, and other factors. If you have an anxiety disorder or tend to feel anxious in your daily life, then this can get heightened even further while traveling.
Flip your mental script
In dealing with travel anxiety, the number-one thing that has helped me is flipping my mental script.
Most times, we feel anxiety as an overwhelming physical sensation. It can take some practice to identify the thought patterns that lead up to and worsen our anxiety. Changing these thought patterns, though, can change how we feel in our bodies and how we behave. This is the philosophy behind Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which is the most evidence-based type of therapy for anxiety.
The first step in flipping your mental script is identifying when you are catastrophizing. Try to notice when you are imagining worst-case scenarios: it may be more often than you expected.
In my example above about missing your flight, instead of imagining the worst, practice imagining alternate and better scenarios. For instance, “If I miss my flight, the airline will rebook me on a flight later today and my vacation will continue as planned. I have travel insurance, so I can get my money back in a pinch.”
Most people aren’t even aware that they catastrophize. Personally, a therapist had to bring my attention to this habit and now I try to be more observant of my thought patterns and how those affect my behavior (and anxiety levels).
Other ways to cope with travel anxiety
Changing how you think is easier said than done – take it from someone who has dealt with travel anxiety for many years. Sometimes, it is easier to change something more physical, and address your anxiety from that direction instead.
Here are a few travel anxiety coping mechanisms that often help me:
- Meditation and breathing techniques: A regular meditation practice can really calm your overall anxiety, but it’s also a useful on-the-spot tool to use while actually in an anxiety-inducing situation – like a plane flight. Try an app like headspace, or a free YouTube video or meditation playlist on Spotify.
- Mantras: Reciting mantras can be a type of meditation that focuses your attention on one saying, repeated over and over again. Personally, I use a Sanskrit mantra that translates to “pain that has not yet come cannot be felt.” What this means to me is that it doesn’t make sense to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet; when we worry we are causing ourselves unnecessary pain. Repeating this in Sanskrit – where I can focus on the feeling of the sentiment and the sound of the syllables rather than the words themselves – is very calming to me. A mantra, though, can be anything that’s personally meaningful or helpful to you. During flight turbulence, it could be something as simple as “I am OK,” or “This is temporary.” When overwhelmed in a new city, ask yourself “What am I excited to see today?”
- Worry stone: Having a “worry stone” (a bracelet, necklace pendant, or other small physical object) can be very calming if you have travel anxiety. Hold it in your hands and turn it over and over, drawing your attention to the physical sensation. Keep the object with you and do this in particularly stressful situations. Personally, I use the medallion on a necklace that I always wear.
- Sleep: Travel can really mess up our sleep schedule, and when our body doesn’t get quality sleep it can result in stress and anxiety. Make an effort to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning, and practice sleep hygiene if you are having trouble sleeping while traveling.
- Eat healthy: Food is one of my favorite parts about traveling, but I also know that my diet can affect how I feel mentally. Irregular meals, long periods without eating, or really sugary meals can all affect our blood sugar, which in turn directly causes irritability and anxiety. Try to eat regular, balanced meals and bring high-nutrient, low-glycemic foods with you as snacks.
Balancing avoidance vs. traveling anyway
Finally, I want to address the topic of avoidance vs. pushing through when you have travel anxiety.
Oftentimes, we are taught that the best way to deal with anxiety is to force ourselves to do something anyway.
This is true to a point. When we avoid something we are afraid of, we can build up the anxiety surrounding the activity. For example, the first time I snorkeled I had a scary experience. I was surrounded by barracudas, and suddenly I discovered a fear of deep water and panicked! I replayed this experience in my mind for years afterward and never snorkeled again, even when the I had the opportunity.
Just a month ago, I finally went snorkeling again. The anxiety in my body was intense, but I challenged myself to do it anyway. I ended up snorkeling 10 times in a week (even with barracudas!), and the anxiety lessened each time. I know now that if I had just gotten back in the water after that first time years ago, I wouldn’t have built up my fear as much in the years since.
But on the other hand, as someone with anxiety, I don’t always believe that “pushing through” is the right answer. At a certain point, we have to be kind to ourselves, forgive ourselves for our anxiety, and accept the part of ourselves that is anxious. If you are constantly pushing through your anxiety, you are not going to enjoy your vacation either. You will just be full of nerves, albeit maybe proud and relieved that you did something you were afraid of. Personally, I have to find a balance of challenging myself to do something despite anxiety, vs. letting myself rest, listening to my body and mind, and being at peace with the signals my body is sending me regarding anxiety.
If you have travel anxiety, please know that you are not alone. Many people will experience some level of anxiety around travel – even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. It’s natural to be worried when you are put in new situations. With a little practice, hopefully these tools can help you to ease your anxiety and enjoy your trip that much more!