Here's Exactly How to Combat Travel Anxiety, According to Psychologists

If you're anxious about flying home for the holidays this year, you're not alone.

Here's How to Combat Travel Anxiety, According to Psychologists
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For the most part, the word "travel" tends to be associated with images of delight: far-flung beaches and epic mountaintops and chance encounters with new friends around the globe. But for many people, travel can also create feelings of discomfort, unease, and worry — a sensation psychologists refer to as "travel anxiety." While the term is not officially recognized as a medical condition, feeling anxious about travel before and during a trip is incredibly common, especially right now with a tri-demic afoot. The good news? It's manageable, too.

Here's everything you need to know so you can finally take that revenge travel trip — or you know, just visit your family for the holidays — without all of the worry.

Travel Anxiety 101

Although travel anxiety can feel so specific to the act of traveling (think: fearing the crowds at the airport, getting lost in a new city, etc.), it's actually no different from any other type of anxiety. "Travel is simply the kind of thing that is prone to inducing anxiety, but travel anxiety is not a separate kind of anxiety — it's an anxiety like anything else," explains psychologist Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D., author of The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations.

Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D.

Travel is simply the kind of thing that is prone to inducing anxiety, but travel anxiety is not a separate kind of anxiety — it's an anxiety like anything else.

— Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D.

In that way, it's helpful to zoom out and remember that anxiety itself — defined as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes — is not necessarily a bad thing. From an evolutionary standpoint, it's supposed to be functional and is actually here to protect us.

"Moderate levels of anxiety are normal — they are and have always been a warning sign to protect you from a fear. And if you don't have those moderate levels, it can lead to reckless behavior," explains Leigh Rust, PsyD, a psychologist at the New View Psychology Group.

The problem comes when your levels of anxiety become too high, as that's when it becomes more of a disorder, Dr. Rust continues. And the tricky thing about travel? There are a lot of situations that can cause that anxiety overload.

Though there's no one cause for travel anxiety, some common ones are fear of flying, fear of crowds, fear of crashing, fear of social interactions, fear of guns, fear of disease (insert Covid here), and, perhaps biggest of all, fear of the unknown and being outside your comfort zone.

"Home is where everyone feels most comfortable, and when you're traveling, you're going into an environment where you're relinquishing control over a lot of different things. You're putting things that you normally control in someone else's hands — including your risk of getting and/or spreading Covid," explains Dr. Rust.

Ultimately, choosing to travel means choosing to put yourself into the unknown, and for many people — especially those prone to anxiety already — that choice alone can cause feelings of dread. "Human beings like the illusion of certainty, but travel brings uncertainty into our realm — and that can trigger anxiety," summarizes Belinda Seiger, PhD, LCSW, Director of the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center of Princeton.

In fact, that's also why anxiety levels, in general, are spiking around the world, Dr. Seiger continues: "The pandemic took us out of our world of certainty, imagined or real. When it came to our doorstep, uncertainty increased — and that's why anxiety went up in every area of life."

How to Manage Travel Anxiety

It can be tempting to cancel your trip altogether when you're in the thick of an anxiety spiral, or cut it short if you're already on the road. But that's not a good plan — and not just because you'll miss out on the many joys and wonders of travel. "Staying home or going home early only reinforces your anxiety rather than helping you manage it overall," explains Dr. Kurtz. Here's what to do instead, both before your trip and once you've arrived:

Self-Care Strategies Before You Go

Try to pinpoint the exact cause of your anxiety.

"Instead of saying, 'I feel anxious about my upcoming trip,' try to name the exact problem," suggests Dr. Kurtz. "What is it? Where is it coming from? It's probably not from every single moment of the trip. Once you know what the exact worry is, it can be easier to make a plan to help manage it." Having trouble figuring out your exact worry? Try picturing an entire day on the road. "I often say, 'Take me through a day as you see it, and make a mental note of when something comes up that is making you feel uncomfortable,'" Dr. Kurtz continues. Maybe not knowing what a day will look like is what's making you uncomfortable — that's certainly a cause of anxiety, too.

Distinguish the facts.

"When my patients come to me with anxiety, I always ask them: 'What do we know?'" says Dr. Seiger. "If they're particularly nervous about getting Covid while traveling, for example, I'll ask them: 'How old are you? What's your vaccination status? Have you had it already?' Then we look at the science to determine what's realistic. Having some anxiety is helpful, as it can be a messenger that we need to be cautious about our well-being. But sometimes it can go beyond what's called for."

Make a contingency plan.

If your specific anxiety turns out to be fairly minor — i.e. the likelihood of the occurrence is rare and the facts don't fully support the fear — Dr. Seiger suggests telling yourself: "My mind is making up scenarios that are not likely to happen, and that is what is making me anxious." If your worry does have legs, contingency planning can be very helpful in terms of those what if situations. "Ask yourself: 'In the small likelihood that my fear does happen, what is my plan A, B, and C?'" advises Dr. Rust. "If you're worried about getting sick, for example, research places around the area where you can get health services if you need them. Knowing that you have a contingency plan can get you over the hump and into an 'Ok, I'm ready to go now' phase."

Start with "micro exposures" before you go.

A lot of anxiety is about thinking: I'm going to be uncomfortable. So it can help to start with micro tasks or actions at home that will make you a little less uncomfortable, advises Dr. Seiger. If you're nervous about the crowds at the airport, for example, try going to your local Target when it's most crowded and hanging around for five to 10 minutes. "That way, you're giving yourself a chance to habituate — to get used to it — and habituation is the key to managing anxiety," Dr. Seiger continues.

The other key: Habituate multiple times. "Don't just do it once — do it until your anxiety is lower. And then do it again at an even larger place, followed by five more times after that — then you'll be ready for the airport," Dr. Seiger advises. "The key is to start small, with a similar anxiety-provoking scenario, and build your way up from there."

Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D.

You are not going to be a different person when you travel, so it's key to know your limits and plan for them.

— Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D.

Plan your trip accordingly.

Her advice: If you're going on a group trip and you're anxious about all of the social interactions, be sure to request a room for yourself so you can unplug and get away from people — even if it may cost a little extra. Or, if you're anxious about making small talk, have something prepared. "Think about some conversation topics ahead of time so you're not just floundering," Dr. Kurtz advises.

Self-Care Strategies During Your Trip

Take deep breaths.

Somewhat obvious advice, yes, but it truly works when your anxiety is spiking. "We tend to hold our breaths when we are in 'fight, flight or freeze' mode [i.e. when our bodies are trying to protect us], so becoming aware of your breath — of the physical sensations of anxiety that are manifesting in your body — can be a useful tool," explains Dr. Seiger.

Distract yourself during moments of anxiety.

The key is to find something that takes your focus elsewhere — like calming music or meditation apps or Sudoku — and know when you need to use it to help you through. "The important thing is that you're able to identify those moments where you are feeling anxious and you're able to say: 'Ok, this is what I need to do right now,'" Dr. Kurtz continues.

Invest in a good pair of headphones.

Dr. Kurtz tends to get anxious on planes, so she always makes a point to wear headphones when she boards so she can create her own bubble. "I know I may miss out on opportunities to meet people by being closed off, but I've learned through experience what I need to do to make myself feel good," she says.

Belinda Seiger, PhD, LCSW

The key is to remind yourself that you can handle the discomfort because it's important for you to get from Point A to Point B, or whatever your reason for traveling is. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

— Belinda Seiger, PhD, LCSW

Identify your reason for traveling.

This one can be done before or during your trip. Ask yourself: Is traveling important to you? What about this particular trip is important? "If it is important to you, remind yourself that you're going to be uncomfortable for a bit, and that's okay — you can handle it," advises Dr. Seiger. "The key is to remind yourself that you can handle the discomfort because it's important for you to get from Point A to Point B, or whatever your reason for traveling is. Feel the fear and do it anyway."

Remember that nothing is wrong with you.

"During the past few years, we all got very comfortable being at home, so don't feel too badly if you feel a little anxious while traveling now — it's perfectly normal," reminds Dr. Kurtz. This lesson also applies to those who felt anxious before Covid. Traveling is, after all, a journey into the great unknown — but just remember that there are two sides to the coin. That very uncertainty that can trigger your anxiety is also what can lead to new discoveries and make travel so, so sweet.

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