How I Finally Learned to Manage My Anxiety While Traveling

aerial view of plane wing and New York City below

How many trips does it take to remember that packing only hours before a flight is an anxiety trigger? At least one more, I guess, because there I was, stuffing clothes into my suitcase and sporadically scanning a list of items I needed to bring.

The feeling that I must be forgetting something carried over to the wee hours of the morning when I opened my phone to call a taxi. Confirming the ride only made the anxiety come on stronger. In a few minutes I’d be out the door and out of luck if I had indeed forgotten something.

Waiting at the gate, I was mentally bouncing back and forth between what I could have left and the problems that could come up during travel. Would I arrive OK? Would there be delays? Will I miss my connection? Will there be taxis available if I arrive late? Am I going to get stuck next to somebody who snores on the plane?

The questions of worry flowed freely through my mind.

Fortunately everything went fine. That fact alone motivated me to do some digging about what I could do to make sure the return trip didn’t affect me so much. How could I reduce my anxiety when traveling?

Analyzing Travel Anxiety

Based on my experience and research, travel anxiety boils down to the following four main causes.

Cause #1: Leaving Your Comfort Zone

Think about what you are familiar with: your friends and family, your room, your bed, your pets — all of those daily things that eliminate anxiety because you know them so well. Leaving this comfort zone makes us feel anxious because our brains interpret uncertainty as possibilities of danger.

Cause #2: Tales of Bad Experiences

These come typically from hearing tales of travel secondhand and the American mainstream media does a good job of fear mongering. Their tactic leads us to believe the outside world is filled with uncertainty and danger: terrorism, drug gangs, kidnapping, disease. This mindset only serves to make us believe we are better off to stick around our familiar places. We’re also more likely to hear horror stories from friends than great experiences (kind of like how you’re more likely to leave a bad Yelp review than a positive one).

Cause #3: The Unknowns

Traveling inherently introduces a long list of unknowns we can try to control but inevitably have to surrender. Where am I going to have stable Internet to call my family? Is the time difference going to make it impossible to call? Will an unexpected storm roll in, making me need items I haven’t packed? Will I be able to speak the language? Will I know how much I’m actually spending with the exchange rate? Will my accommodations be as they were described when I booked them? These unknowns increase the amount of uncertainty regarding concerns that are important to the anxious traveller.

Cause #4: Fear of Flying

Our brains’ interpretation of danger is what sparks anxiety, so fear of flying is an obvious trigger — one of mankind’s most common fears. Fingers clinging to the arm rests. Hot flashes and sweating. A dry throat. These symptoms aren’t easy to shake if you have fear of flying.

Again, the main culprit here is uncertainty. Not knowing what is lurking around the next corner is our biggest enemy. Bags or reservations getting lost are just a couple of fears that stay top-of-mind on the list of worries when we’re on the road.

How Can You Deal with Anxiety When Traveling?

With my new found insight, I wanted to dig deeper into actionable tasks to reduce my anxiety when I travel. After all, I had a return trip to use as an experiment.

After weeding through a lot of information from a variety of sources—travel bloggers to therapists—I whittled it all down to four areas to focus on, each with multiple tips for how to control anxiety during the coming and going.

1. Pre-Planning

Pack a Couple Days in Advance So You Aren’t Rushed

Is it obvious why I am including this one? Learn from my (repeated) mistake. It helps ease the pressure and gives you time to make sure those “Did I forget that?” items are in the bag.

Put Some Anxiety Comfort Money in the Travel Budget

We all have bad days. It happens. Buffer your travel budget so you can treat yourself in case one springs up while you’re travelling. Try anything you find comforting, whether it’s ice cream, a new comfy sweater, or a massage.

Distract Yourself with Things You Love

Do have something that gives you a boost when the going gets tough? Take that favorite book pillow, sweater, friend, or whatever you can. The anxiety might slip away.

Research Everything About the Place

Leave no travel book, travel blog, or YouTube channel unturned! Get a boots-on-the-ground perspective from multiple points of view to help you create your own opinion. Videos are great for helping you get a visual so the location seems a little familiar.

Visit a Place During Off Season

Are crowds one of your triggers? Avoid peak season to reduce anxiety that comes from getting lost in the masses.

2. Taking Action

A Breathing Exercise

Time and time again, we hear about how breathing calms anxiety and brings us back to homeostasis. There are tons of apps to help us synchronize our breathing with a rhythm and get to a calmer state.

Distract Yourself with Comforting Music

Grab your headphones and throw on your favorite song, album, or playlist. Music has a great potential to uplift our moods, and nothing does that like our favorite tunes.

Identify Your Triggers

Grab a pen and paper, then take some time to reflect on a moment of anxiety or panic. Write down what you determine are possible triggers.

Put a Positive Twist on the Negative Thoughts

It’s all too common for our thoughts to get twisted up in the cloud of negativity that uncertainty and anxiety form over our travel adventures. Use your imagination to play the positive side and create a story where things work out seamlessly.

Call Home for Some Support

The Internet has opened up so many options for phone and video calls. A comforting conversation with someone back home is really only a matter of having decent wifi. All the options for messaging apps make setting a time a breeze.

3. Self-Care

Don’t Let Vacation Kill Your Health Habits

If you have a health routine, like drinking a few liters of water a day or going to the gym three days a week, don’t sweep it under the rug. Research shows these habits help reduce anxiety and stress.

Take Breaks During Travel

Travel is often a go, go, go experience — you want to see all of the sights after all — so it’s important to remember to stop and give yourself some time. Stay in bed as late as you want and say no to outings when you don’t want to go. Don’t feel guilty about hitting the pause button.

4. Vulnerability

Search for Similarity

It is so easy for us to focus on difference, and with difference comes uncertainty. Practice pointing out all the similarities you see between your travel setting and your home setting. Then, move on to trying this cognitive strategy with people. What similarities do you share with those in your new surroundings?

Difference makes us think we don’t fit in, and that can be isolating. Similarity, however, makes us feel a part of the group.

Embrace the World of Vulnerability

Sharing vulnerability with others, whether you’ve known them for years or hours, brings people closer together. An amazing part of travel is people who barely know you are willing to comfort you like an old friend simply because of shared vulnerability.

No Waiting for the Next Trip

It was a couple days before I was set to fly out. I was thinking about whether or not I should pack.

“That’s it!” I thought, and got up to go organize my stuff. Not leaving this for the last minute did make me feel better. It also helped me more efficiently organize my luggage because I had to decide what I would need for the next two days. It’s an effective planning exercise for anyone who procrastinates.

Sometimes taking action is the only thing we can do to control uncertainty. Anxiety might to rear its head, but the actions we take help us minimize the frequency and reduce triggers.

Before I got in the cab to the airport, I downloaded an app to guide me through a breathing exercise in sudden moments of anxiety. Also, I bought a notebook to write down thoughts, fears and triggers. Journaling them helped me rationalize some things I was giving too much control to.

Have anything to add to the list? Send us a social media message or email about the tasks you do to calm down or control anxiety while traveling.

Bio: Jairet is the marketing manager at Youper, the number one app for understanding and overcoming social anxiety. He writes about work relationships, making friends, presentation skills, and tools and resources for overcoming social anxiety.

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Jairet Crum

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