I think that being fortunate enough to travel is a great blessing. The more of the world we see, the more our minds open; we are exposed to different cultures and customs and can see first-hand that there are a million paths to choose from. Being able to experience a lifestyle different from our own is a great way to remind ourselves never to stop learning and never to become complacent about “the way things have to be.”
Whether you were an avid traveler before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic or whether you were more of an occasional wanderer, there is a good chance that you are just getting back to traveling after two years. This may include the joy of connecting with family domestically or internationally. You may finally be going on that honeymoon you have delayed. Maybe you are celebrating college graduation by visiting a bucket list place, like an international trip to Thailand, or for a domestic adventure in Miami.
What is travel anxiety?
Travel anxiety is common for the same reasons that all unfamiliar situations cause us stress: there are a lot of unknowns and a lot of things beyond our control when we are traveling. From the travel itself (someone else is flying the plane, driving the bus, etc.) to being somewhere we aren’t familiar with, where we may not speak the language. Every corner reveals a new view, something we’ve never seen before.
Not only is it normal to have travel anxiety, but you may also see an increase in it, given that we have not traveled much in the past two years. This is because, even if you go somewhere new every time, the act of travel itself can become familiar if you do it enough. How to pack efficiently, how to prepare your bag for airport security, going through airport security itself, and navigating terminals and connections; these are all aspects of travel that take thought and planning, and that’s before you’ve even departed on your adventure!
You can identify the signs of travel anxiety by being familiar with them and checking in with yourself as often as needed. You may feel restless, “on edge,” and/or agitated. You might have difficulty sleeping or issues with breathing and/or digestion (which could include nausea or diarrhea). You may find that you are shaking, sweating, increasing heart rate, experiencing muscle tension, and maybe even chest pain. You may experience these as you plan your trip, when you think about your trip or in the days leading up to your trip. They might not set in until you are at the airport or on the plane. You might experience anxiety earlier on some trips than on others; or more or less on some than on others. You may use different anxiety-coping tools more or less or need to summon them with less notice than you expect sometimes.
5 Ways to Tame Travel Anxiety
1. Get to know your anxiety:
If you have an anxiety disorder, you might feel like you know your anxiety really well since you have it 24/7. If you do not generally struggle with anxiety, but traveling causes it, you may still have a lot of experience dealing with it. Having anxiety (or experience with it) is not the same as knowing your anxiety. When it comes to travel anxiety, I want you to get to know your triggers. Which part of the trip do you get most anxious about? Is it flying, or is it being in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language? Are you afraid that you may run out of money? Do you experience anxiety when you are on your trip, and you try to do too many things in a day, or possibly when you have too much “downtime”?
How do you recognize anxiety in your body? Do your physical symptoms change from time to time; is there one that you always have? Is there a specific symptom that gets your attention more than others do? Is there a pattern to your thoughts that begins to emerge? Or do you have one specific thought that acts as an alarm?
Are you able to create a roadmap of triggers and warning signs that can enable you to plan your trip as effectively as possible? Do you know your anxiety well enough to be able to create daily itineraries that work well for you? If you are not in a position to be in control of your day-to-day plans on your trip, do you have access to a way to self-soothe?
2. Create your Anxiety Toolbox:
Being able to comfort yourself in the face of your anxiety is a real game-changer. What tools can you use when coping with anxiety, and will they work on your travel anxiety? One of our favorites here at Embracing You Therapy in Woodland Hills is to have a consistent routine.
Whether you create a morning or evening routine, we recommend that it includes activities that center you and inspire you to be more international. This may mean you start each day by listening to a quick meditation you enjoy. It might mean that you start each day by laying out and looking over everything you’ll need for that day’s plans while thinking about how the day is scheduled. It might mean you take time at dinner or the end of the evening to reflect on the day. You might journal, go for a walk, or read a book that you enjoy.
Is there something you can bring with you for comfort? This might be something small that you’ve picked up for the express purpose of anxiety management. You can physically hold something in your hand as a great focus point for your energy and attention. You can consider how it feels under your fingertips. How it looks; what color(s) is it, what shape(s) is it or are on it, and how long vs. wide is it? Does it make a sound if you shake it? Does it have a smell? It could be a small cloth item that you put essential lavender oil on. It could be a keychain. It could be a photo of someone or something you love.
When it comes to managing anxiety at the airport or on the airplane, you will most likely feel a sense of limitation as to which tools you can use. So you want to plan accordingly. For example, it will be easier to walk around in the airport than on the plane, whereas doing meditation can be easier while most people sleep on the plane than at a noisy gate.
Plan ahead but don’t go overboard by planning out every detail; that may kill the fun. It may also lead to disappointment if you aren’t able to utilize your toolbox the exact way you wish to at the exact time you thought you would.
3. Make value-driven choices, not fear-based:
I have to say, this is most definitely one of our favorite tools to share with our clients here at the Embracing You Therapy practice. This principle of making a value-based decision is part of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach, which encourages you to notice your thoughts and emotions and yet take actions based on values. When it comes to traveling, your anxiety might catastrophize and create worst-case scenarios. If you listen to your fear, you probably stay home and never go anywhere. However, if you turn towards your values, such as adventure and diversity, you will find yourself motivated to move past your anxiety and explore the world.
Knowing and prioritizing your values can help you through every stage of your travel anxiety, from deciding to go all the way through your trip. For example, you can find yourself motivated by deciding to go because you want to learn and see new things, understand people better, contribute
to a tourism-reliant economy, etc. When planning your trip, your values can determine what is most important to
do, see, experience, and pack. If you value learning about certain aspects of a culture, such as food or art, your trip plan may revolve around those things. As your trip approaches, you can go back to your “why”s if you begin to experience doubts or fears.
Once you are traveling, there may be day-to-day issues that arise; choosing between two options, deciding whether to participate in a certain activity, whether or not to fit something else into the schedule, etc. Knowing your values doesn’t only mean that you prioritize travel experiences. It also means that you take your self-care into consideration. If rest and quiet time are important for feeling refreshed and enthusiastic, then you should permit yourself to prioritize that when needed. Don’t get caught up in the idea that going somewhere means that you have to spend every minute of the trip on the go! Human bodies need rest, and brains need space to process no matter where on the globe they happen to be at the time.
4. Be kind towards your anxiety:
I’m not saying that you should just flip a switch and love having anxiety. I recognize that anxiety can become a very debilitating emotion. It can cause you to flee scenes prematurely; even worse, freeze up unexpectedly. While it is hard to live with anxiety, hating on it doesn’t make it go away. Instead, you want to be kind and compassionate towards the part of you that is feeling scared and nervous. Because at the end of the day, anxiety is a normal emotion to have. And it is believed that at our core, we all need some level of anxiety to survive.
When I say to be kind to your anxiety, I mean to honor it for what it is telling you and be gentle with yourself. For example, your anxiety may tell you a bunch of things that aren’t true or aren’t likely. But amongst those things, there may be some clues about how to have the best time you can. If your anxiety is telling you about a catastrophe that is going to happen on your trip, your anxiety is probably wrong. But if you are experiencing anxiety on a day that is too full of people or activities, it may be doing what is needed to slow you down and refocus you. Trust yourself to consider the information you are receiving and communicate to those with you to find a solution.
5. Seek support:
You might feel embarrassed or nervous to talk about your travel anxiety, but there are so many people who feel the same way. There is no shame in reaching out for help. Depending on your level of anxiety, you may want to consider medication or therapy that includes Cognitive therapy and/or exposure therapy. You may already be accessing these tools for daily anxiety or need to seek someone out.
Sometimes seeking support might mean traveling with trusted friends or family members. These will be people who are aware of your anxiety and have a proven record of handling it in a way that feels safe and healthy for everyone involved. If your anxiety limits the kinds of activities you like to do on vacation or where you prefer to travel to, you might have a person (or people) in your life who feel similarly, whether they have anxiety or not. They can be great travel allies; it is not beneficial to worry about someone else’s resentment on your trip. Making sure to travel with people who have similar wants and desires is a good rule of thumb, whether you have travel anxiety or not!
Outside of bringing support with you, you can also find community support at your destination. Let’s say you are in your first year of recovery and feeling anxious about your sobriety when traveling. You can find AA meetings or any other support groups in the area that you are visiting so that you can have consistency in your support network.
If you are reading this blog, it’s probably because you want to travel and struggle with anxiety. I want to commend you for seeking solutions, tips, and tools to facilitate your goals! You might feel frustrated that your anxiety makes travel difficult, and that is understandable. But by approaching your anxiety proactively, you will be able to do what you want to do. Remember that traveling is a value you hold; you deserve to find a way to experience it. Just because you have to make adjustments, or plan in a specific way, doesn’t mean you can’t go or aren’t worthy of these experiences. Give yourself time and space to determine what will work best for you, who can support you, when it’s ideal to go, and where you want to visit. Take a deep breath, and make it happen for yourself! You can do it!
Other Services at Embracing You Therapy
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15 – minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.