Traveling can be exciting, mind-expanding, dream-fulfilling or, for some, just part of their job. But regardless of the reason behind the trip, even the most seasoned of travelers sometimes has to deal with bouts of travel-related anxiety.
For me, travel anxiety used to be as much a part of the trip as last-minute packing and road snacks. I was terrified of flying and refused to get on boats, and the thought of attempting to navigate another city’s public transit system gave me nightmares. Then I moved to Ireland and lived there for eight years.
The thing about living on an island is that in order to go anywhere, you have to take a plane or boat. The first years were admittedly pretty rough. I’d start feeling nauseated a few days before I was set to fly and couldn’t even think about it without having a mild anxiety attack.
Eventually, though, something shifted. I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but after a while, I didn’t dread going on planes or boats and felt confident enough to take city buses in places where I didn’t speak the language. Now, years later, I actually enjoy trying out public transit in other cities and countries (and, of course, comparing it to the subway in New York) and am always looking forward to my next trip.
For me, repeated exposure is what ultimately helped, but since that’s not a very quick solution (and doesn’t work for everyone), here are a few tips from mental health experts to help you get rid of (or at least ease) your travel-related anxiety.
What causes travel anxiety?
We should probably start by considering why travel is such a source of stress for so many people. And to clarify, we’re not just talking about delayed flights or lost bags — we’re referring to a mental and physical response your body has, triggered by anxiety related to travel. According to Dr. Kelly Moore, a clinical psychologist, “Anxiety in general is typically the product of feeling a loss of control or feeling concern that a negative outcome will result from something.”
When you think about it, that completely makes sense when it comes to traveling. While you may be in control of most aspects of your day-to-day life, when you leave your home area, most things are beyond your control. If something bad or unexpected happened to you at home, you’d know how to handle it, but the same typically isn’t true when you travel — and that can cause a fear of the unknown.
“Travel brings with it an inherent degree of uncertainty and unpredictability — this is part of the allure for some who experience it as an adventure,” Dr. Steven Levine, board-certified psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies tells SheKnows. “For others, the break in daily routine and potential for novelty elicits anxiety. If you can’t picture it, you can’t plan ahead for it, and that can trigger the body’s ‘danger’ signals.”
Along the same lines, Moore tells SheKnows that as with any other type of anxiety, it’s important that people are aware of exactly what they’re afraid of and then think about whether these concerns pose realistic threats.
“Depending on that, people should try to be as prepared as possible to allay those concerns, but try their best not to avoid travel as a coping skill,” Moore says. “Avoiding just reinforces the belief that travel is dangerous and doesn’t give a person the confidence to face it and disprove their fears.”
How can we deal with travel anxiety?
The only way I got over my travel anxiety was to keep traveling. Turns out, I was onto something, because that’s what Moore recommends as well.
“The best thing to do — especially if one really wants to travel in spite of their anxiety — is to just do it!” she says.
Additionally, there are steps you can take to make the travel experience less stressful, which in turn, could reduce your anxiety, Moore explains.
“Be prepared with all of your required documents for air travel so you don’t get flustered at security checkpoints,” Moore suggests. “Give yourself plenty of time to arrive at all your destinations. Also, research the place you are going and come up with a plan of what you will do. The more you can feel a sense of predictability and control over your trip, the more your anxiety will lessen.”
Similarly, Levine recommends planning ahead and getting as much information on your destination as possible to help you picture your new situation. This could include talking to people who’ve been there, reading online reviews and finding pictures of the place online. If part of your anxiety stems from missing home, he says bringing familiar pictures and objects that are comforting and reminders of home and loved ones could help.
Lastly, Levine suggests maintaining as much of your daily routine as possible, including the times you wake up and go to sleep, eat and exercise. This can help make an unfamiliar place seem more like home.
For me, it’s all about letting go, knowing that so many aspects of travel are beyond my control. There’s nothing you can do about a delayed flight or getting on the wrong bus in Mexico City. Instead of immediately getting flustered and upset, I try to stop, be mindful of my surroundings and figure out what I need to do to get back on track. One of the exciting parts of travel is the deviation from your everyday life — instead of having it throw you off your game, embrace it and any adventures that come with it (even if it means missing the No. 1-ranked museum on TripAdvisor). Bon voyage!