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Vacations are supposed to be just that: a vacation—from daily stress, from daily anxiety, from daily life. But let’s be honest, getting to the actual relaxation part can be just the opposite: both entirely stressful and fraught with travel anxiety.
Inevitably, when it comes to travel snafus, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s not enough that your Uber Pool is stuck in traffic. Once you get to the airport, TSA seems to constantly be changing its rules (Laptop in or out: Which one is it?). Then there are flight delays, dealing with your fear of flying, and, ultimately, stepping off the plane—and into someplace new.
When we look at the big picture, actually enjoying a vacation takes quite a bit of work, especially if you’re already working to overcome a substantial amount of travel anxiety.
In the 2015 study “Exploring the Fear of Travel” published in the International Journal of Scientific Management and Tourism, researchers wrote, “Although millions of people travel from one to another point of the globe in quest of other landscapes, customs and cultures, there are many others who are restrained due to psychological impediments. Leisure travel is for them a real nightmare.”
In some scenarios, travelers might not even know they suffer from travel anxiety. “While travel anxiety isn’t actually a diagnosis, situational phobias are,” says Heidi McBain, a licensed professional counselor and therapist, and author of Life Transitions: Personal Stories of Hope Through Life’s Most Difficult Challenges and Changes. “These phobias can include fear of airplanes, fear of enclosed spaces, or other anxieties relating to travel.”
If this sounds like you, rest assured you are not alone. Travel anxiety is something that many Americans struggle with. (A 2015 survey from The Economist and YouGov showed that about 15 percent of Americans are afraid of flying.) The good news is is that there are steps you can take to minimize travel anxiety, which can get you on the road to a relaxing vacation a whole lot sooner.
What is travel anxiety?
The cause of travel anxiety can be difficult to determine, but it’s typically related to some other form of anxiety. Unlike other forms of anxiety, though, travel anxiety can be triggered by anything related to any aspect of traveling: from worrying about getting to the airport to not wanting to leave your comfort zone or an actual fear of flying itself.
“Anxiety is fear of the future and the possibility of something negative happening,” explains McBain. “A delayed flight, an oversold plane, a long line at check-in, and a host of other possible scenarios may trigger stress in certain people.”
“Leisure travel is for them a real nightmare.”
Additionally, according to McBain, travel anxiety can be something learned from family members who suffer from it, or it can develop because of negative experiences with flying in the past, or from something someone saw on TV or in a movie.
Travel anxiety is not necessarily irrational. “Travel can be stressful whether it’s a one-night trip with a nonstop flight or a month-long trek through Europe,” says Anna Thelen, a travel consultant with Dream Come True Vacations. “There’s always this feeling of the unknown and helplessness when it comes to relying on airlines, transportation, [and] the kindness of strangers.”
Interestingly, if your travel anxiety doesn’t present as typical anxiety does, you might not even know that it’s something you struggle with.
Signs of Travel Anxiety
Anxiety in daily life is normal and we all deal with a certain amount of it. If you’re wondering if you have travel anxiety, look out for these common symptoms. (But to know whether or not it is something more than naturally occurring worries, speak to a professional who can help you with a diagnosis and treatment plan.)
“Physical symptoms of anxiety are fight-or-flight responses. They are natural responses to stressors,” says Tania Elliott, MD, Chief Medical Officer of preventative health company EHE. “[These] physical symptoms include increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, and high blood pressure.”
To determine how problematic your travel anxiety is, note if there is immediate fear or fear that is out of proportion with reality, which can result in active avoidance according to McBain.
Becoming aware of whether or not you have travel anxiety is a great first step. But the goal then should be to minimize it so that the overall vacation experience doesn’t become a negative association.
Luckily, there are several practical things that travelers can do before and during a trip that can help to lessen the stress associated with travel anxiety.
How to Overcome Travel Anxiety: Plan Before the Plane
“For many people, the more experience they have with travel, the overall less anxiety [they] feel,” says Thelen. Planning ahead is key when it comes to trying to minimize the anxiety, she says.
Learning about your destination, airline, resort, and airport ahead of time is one of the best ways to stay calm. Thelen recommends sharing your itinerary with friends and family as well as keeping both electronic and paper backups of all important documents. Additionally, look up all the information for nearby hospitals and embassies in case of illness or emergency.
One of the best ways to overcome your anxiety before traveling is by purchasing travel insurance. This may give you peace of mind, knowing that both your health and travel investment are protected.
Still feeling anxious? “I also like to play a game of What If? where I discuss all the potentials that could go wrong during the trip and have a plan for how to work through for fix those problems before they happen,” Thelen shares.
Another option is to consider using a travel agent. Travel agents take a lot of the planning legwork out of the vacation, meaning you have fewer opportunities to fret over every little choice. Plus, should anything go wrong, you’ll have a professional back home whom you can contact to help you solve any issue.
How to Overcome Travel Anxiety When You’re En Route
As for dealing with anxiety that comes with being on the plane itself, Elliott recommends her patients consider guided meditation. She points them to the HeadSpace app; their short, guided meditations are ideal for when you’re feeling anxious out in public.
“The fight-or-flight response is how the body reacts when it senses a predator. It results in a lot of pent-up energy,” says Elliott. “Walk it off. Stand up. Do a mini sun-salutation, if you will.” Elliott stresses the importance of opening up your body when you feel anxious, rather than shrinking in.
Her most-recommended breathing technique for helping to overcome travel anxiety is called alternate nostril breathing. Place one thumb on one nostril and your ring finger on the other. Push in with your thumb, and breathe in, then alternate and do the same with the other nostril. Do this for 30 seconds, she says, and make sure that your exhale is twice as long as your inhale.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself in other ways, too. “When you’re on an airplane, one of the things you can do is get a good night sleep before. Stay hydrated as well. If you feel crummy during travel, it will trigger anxiety,” says Elliott.
Finally, if the fear of flying is still holding you back, you might be calmed by some cold, hard statistics. As you go through the motions of flying, quell your worries with the fact that 2.5 million passengers fly in and out of American airports every single day. Air travel is also supremely safe. David Ropeik, a risk communication instructor at Harvard University, says your odds of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 5,000 while the odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 11 million.
You’re more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime with a 1 in 13,000 chance, and you hardly ever hear stories about that. It seems that we hear about plane crashes so often because they are so rare. Trying to remind yourself of these safety statistics while traveling can definitely help you stay calm.
Dealing With Travel Anxiety on Vacation
Hopefully once you reach your destination, the travel anxiety wears off and you’re able to relax and enjoy a beautiful vacation. Still, many people find that the constant periods of transition during a travel experience cause anxiety.
“Most people experience anxiety right before they leave for a trip and right when they get there. Transitions are difficult,” Elliott says. She recommends trying as best you can to be present and in the moment.
Her best advice? Make it a cellphone-free trip. “Disconnect from technology and immerse yourself in your surroundings,” she says. “This is a life hack that I try to do when I’m on vacation. I put my phone in the safe. The first six hours I feel the technology withdrawal, but after that I find myself feeling totally free.”
Understanding Travel Anxiety Post-Vacation
Ideally, tackling your travel anxiety before you leave and while you’re on vacation will show you that your fears are unfounded—and it might just motivate you to travel again in the future. Not feeling so sure? There are a few things you can do after a trip in order to debrief and learn from the past so that the next time around the idea of travel is less daunting.
Give yourself some downtime before you return to work and your everyday life if possible. McBain suggests using this time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Journaling is a great way to take note of how you felt during each stage of the trip to see what changes you would make in the future.
“The fight-or-flight response is how the body reacts when it senses a predator. It results in a lot of pent-up energy. Walk it off. Stand up. Do a mini sun-salutation, if you will.”
—Tania Elliott, MD
“Take stock of the trip,” says Thelen. “Note anything that went wrong, or that you would improve on the next one and take note of that.” For example, if you find that you became anxious while checking in for a flight because you couldn’t locate all of your documents, make a note of that. Before your next trip, make sure to have everything you need for check-in printed and in an easy-to-access spot.
“I also like to keep a master packing list,” Thelen says. “Packing lists can vary from trip to trip depending on climate, time of year, et cetera, but some things remain the same and as you go through your travels, make note of items that would have made your trip easier and add that to your master packing list.”
Overcoming Travel Anxiety: Medication and Therapy
Anxiety is a normal part of life. It is okay to feel a little bit anxious from time to time. And travel is certainly stressful, so feeling travel anxiety is not uncommon and can certainly be overcome. But how do you know when it is more than just a little bit of stress?
If the pre-planning and post-planning techniques mentioned above don’t seem to assuage your anxiety at all, that is something to take note of. If the fear of travel is so debilitating that it makes you not want to go, that is another sign to pay attention to.
“If these problems are pervasive and keeping you from seeing and doing things that you enjoy and experiencing life the way you would like, then medication may be an option that you’d like to explore with your doctor,” says McBain. “Therapy is another great place to get support for anxiety and learn new, healthier ways of coping with life stresses.”
Xanax and Ativan are common prescriptions for situational anxiety, but for those who don’t necessarily want to take medication, or whose doctors feel that prescriptions might not be right for them, try melatonin, a supplement you can get over the counter.
“I recommend adjusting to the time zone you’re flying to in advance by taking melatonin a few days beforehand,” says Elliott. This allows the melatonin to be most effective in flight and allows travelers to adjust more quickly once they land.
And always remember that you are not alone in dealing with travel anxiety. Talking to someone is incredibly effective and can go a long way in determining what is the right method for you.