After months of planning, saving money and reading travel articles, it’s finally time for your big vacation. You should be really excited, but instead you’re really anxious. Though you try not to let it get in the way of your vacation prep, it’s hard to ignore. So why does this happen? And how can we avoid it? SheKnows spoke to mental health experts to find out.
Why vacations can trigger our anxiety
First of all, traveling doesn’t make everyone anxious, but if you fall into that category, you know that the constant nervousness can take some of the fun out of your trip. One reason for this is because traveling takes you out of your everyday environment, and therefore, your comfort zone.
New and different is anxiety provoking for some people and relished by others. “If you are a creature of habit, vacations may be stressful,” Allison G. Johnsen, licensed clinical professional counselor and manager of behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Delnor Hospital tells SheKnows. “One is not as in control of one’s surroundings when in new and different situations.”
In addition to that, all of the unknowns that are part of travel — and some of what makes it exciting — can cause anxiety and discomfort for some people, Courtney Glashow, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and owner of Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, NJ, tells SheKnows.
“Traveling comes with stressors such as delayed flights, forgotten items, lost items, feeling lost with directions, not liking your sleeping arrangements, not liking food where you’re at, and so on,” she explains. “There are many things that could go wrong or cause stress.”
Strategies for dealing with travel anxiety
The key is how you handle these stressful situations. Fortunately, we have some expert tips.
Understand that bad things can happen anywhere
Rather than overthinking all the things that could go wrong on your vacation before it even happens, it’s better to feel excited about it and look forward to the trip, Glashow says. “If something does go wrong or is stressful during the vacation, then you will be able to handle it as it arises,” she explains. “But there’s no point in worrying about something that literally has not happened, and may never even happen.”
Do not have unrealistic expectations
Nothing can ruin a trip — or anything, really — quite like unrealistic expectations, Johnsen says. This is especially true when traveling with kids. “The kids will not be even close to perfect just because they are on vacation and neither will you,” she explains. “Be forgiving of them — new situations bring different behaviors. Be forgiving of yourself.”
Kids cry and that’s normal
It can be very stressful if you’re dealing with a child — especially a baby — who won’t stop crying. But Johnsen says that you should try not to worry about everyone else being disturbed.
“Don’t entertain or feed thoughts like ‘everyone is thinking I am not a good parent because I can’t control my kid.’ Firmly tell yourself to stop it if you find yourself thinking like this,” she explains. Instead, remind yourself that babies cry and it’s perfectly normal. Having said that, prepare to bring whatever you need to soothe the baby, Johnsen says. You may also want to try to get an aisle seat on an airplane so you can walk around with your child during a flight.
Keep your kids on a schedule as much as possible
If traveling makes you anxious because you’re out of your comfort zone, think of what it’s like for children. For example, make sure you’re able to feed them as close to the normal scheduled times as possible to keep a routine, Glashow says. She also recommends trying to take a flight during a usual nap time, packing plenty of snacks and making sure your kids are drinking enough water.
Plan, but don’t over-plan
It’s nice to have an idea of what you’re going to do on vacation, but don’t overdo it, Johnsen says. She also recommends not pushing yourself too hard trying to cram too many things in your trip. Worrying about not squeezing everything on your itinerary in can be a source of anxiety.
“Think in terms of ‘flexible structure,’” Elaine Taylor-Klaus, parent educator, coach for complex kids and CEO, ImpactADHD tells SheKnows. “On the one hand, you want to plan enough so that there is comfort. But on the other hand, don’t over-plan every moment of every day. Allow for structure, and some time to be flexible and change things up.”
Unplug from work
Avoid thinking or talking about work to the greatest extent possible, Johnsen advises. This also means turning off automatic access to your work email and cell phone, and letting your colleagues know that you will be unavailable except in emergency situations. “Broaden that to not even bringing up negative topics while traveling,” she adds.
Try to relax
One of the best ways that you can overcome panic and bouts of anxiety when you’re traveling is to take deep breaths or use breathing exercises to calm down, Melson says. “This will help quiet down your spiraling thoughts and improve your mood,” she explains. You can also try progressive muscle relaxation, talking or processing the anxiety with supportive friends or family members.
Make a packing list
Prepare for your vacation by making a packing list well before you leave, and pack ahead except for last-minute items, Johnsen says. “Remember that whatever you forgot, you can probably pick up when you get there,” she adds. Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case if you’re going backpacking in remote areas, but you’ll likely be fine in other situations.
Go on the trip with a healthy plan
Before traveling, make sure you get enough sleep and exercise. Also, creating a healthy diet plan can help you deal with travel anxiety, Charley Melson, licensed professional clinical counselor and the executive director at Praxis by Landmark Recovery tells SheKnows. Plan to exercise while you’re away and eat as healthily as possible. “The most important thing is to not fall victim to unhealthy habits and coping methods such as alcohol or drug use, which will only work to exacerbate the problem and make it worse,” Melson explains.
Talk yourself through it
If you’re anxious about traveling, remind yourself (or your kids), that you have done this before and gotten through it, Glashow says. Talk yourself — and your kids — through the steps of your travel: What it looks like going through security, what you’ll do as you wait for your flight or train, what you’ll do if it is delayed or cancelled, and what to expect from the car, train or plane ride.
“Walking through these expected steps will help ease your own — or your kids’ — anxiety,” Glashow explains. “Because you are walking through the steps and you always end safely at your destination — whether it’s on time or delayed — you will be OK and that’s the most important to remind yourself.”
Bring something relaxing or distracting
If you know you’re going to be anxious, make sure you bring something that will help relax and/or distract you, Glashow recommends. “This could be music, a guided meditation you enjoy, a podcast that helps distract you, a good movie or TV show to watch while traveling, a comfort blanket or pillow from home, a stuffed animal, or anything that will provide comfort, remind you that you’re safe, and help distract your anxious thoughts,” she explains.
So before you head off on your next trip, plan ahead (but not too much) and understand that things most likely won’t go perfectly, but at least you’ll be ready for it.