How To Manage Travel Anxiety, According To Someone Who Lives With It
My anxiety starts a few days before I take a trip, and it has nothing to do with being afraid the plane is going to crash. Because I actually do like to travel, there are things I do to help manage my travel anxiety. While going on a trip induces excitement in some people, even the idea of traveling creates, for me, a sense of impending doom, and it makes me feel super ungrounded. I have always done a fair amount of traveling for work, and I know I am privileged to be able to go places like Turkey, France, or Tahiti on someone else's dime.
I'm grateful for these opportunities, and I sometimes beat myself up for not enjoying them as much as my roommate, a fellow travel writer, who is able to jump from one trip to the next with ease. She never seems to get jet lagged. She flies a red eye and goes straight to her day job when she gets off the plane. Me? Travels wrecks me in a way it's taken me years to understand.
Being in a new place where I don't always speak the language sometimes makes me feel like I'm disappearing, and I almost always end up crying, especially when I'm tired. Basically, I'd be a terrible rock star who has to fly to a new city every day then go on stage that night. It turns out I'm not the only one. "Some people also develop a fear of being in a place so far from home, because their home is their source of comfort and stress relief," the Calm Clinic explained on its website. "The idea of leaving their home for an extended period of time then becomes very stressful." Same? Here's how I make traveling a little less anxiety inducing, because there's a lot to see out there and I don't want my anxiety to hold me back.
1. Be As Prepared As Possible
People with anxiety may avoid things that make them anxious as a coping strategy, and because travel makes me anxious I often wait until the last minute to get ready for a trip. Sometimes I don't even look at an agenda for a work trip until the day before I leave. I was so unprepared for my last trip that I had no idea what the dress code was, so I pretty much threw my entire closet in my suitcase and had to check my bag, when I could have carried on if I'd been more prepared.
Because I have anxiety, trips I prepare for well in advance tend to go more smoothly. If this happens to you, print out the itinerary ahead of time or save it to your phone. This isn't always possible — sometimes, I get the itinerary for my trip the day before I leave. If you can, research everything you'll be doing, where you'll be staying, and make sure you know how you're going to get there. If you know exactly what's going to happen, you'll be less likely to panic.
2. Choose Your Seat Ahead Of Time
If you know that sitting in a middle or window seat on the plane is going to make you hella anxious, make sure to choose your seat as far ahead of time as possible. Sometimes it's worth paying a little more for an exit row, or a seat with more leg room, if you're taking a long flight. Personally, not being able to get up without climbing over people makes me feel trapped, so I always choose an aisle seat.
Sometimes when I travel for work, especially if the flight is comped, the airline will give me whatever seat they don't sell. For someone who likes to know exactly what's going to happen, this can be a nightmare. However, just knowing that I will have to deal with this makes me feel less anxious. It's the not knowing, the surprises, that cause me to panic.
3. Take Care Of Things At Home Before You Leave
Even if you don't get pre-travel anxiety, you might find yourself getting anxious during your trip because you left home without tying up loose ends. Nothing can make a trip go sideways faster than being anxious about everything that awaits you when you get back. For me, knowing that I am getting between 50 and 100 emails a day that I will need to deal with when I get home makes me super anxious. Because of this, I block some time during my trip every day to delete them, just so I can relax.
If you know you need some time to recover post-travel, try to plan for an extra day off work at the end of your trip so you don't spend your entire trip worrying about how tired and cranky you're going to feel going straight to the office from the plane. I also clean the house before I leave and put fresh sheets on my bed so I can return to a serene environment.
4. Bring What You Need To Feel Comfortable On The Plane
One thing that makes me anxious when I'm stuck on a plane is feeling like I don't have ready access to food and water. This is why I always bring snacks on the plane and a giant bottle of water. It's true that you can get this stuff on the plane, but sometimes it takes a while for the cart to come by. I also make sure I have a book, some shows downloaded to my computer (just in case the plane's in-flight entertainment is down), a pillow, and I also bring healing crystals. Being uncomfortable on a long flight is a terrible way to start a trip, so make sure you do everything you can to set yourself up for success.
5. Carry On
The first time I flew on a plane, I was 13, and my luggage got lost. Since then, I carry on my bags whenever possible. Aside from knowing that your stuff will always be with you, it saves a ton of time when you land. At some airports, like LAX in Los Angeles, you can end up waiting up to an hour to get your suitcase from baggage claim, which is pretty much the worst (and can be risky if you're trying to make a connection).
If you're worried you won't be able to fit everything in your carry on, there are definitely some ways to make it work. Plan out what you're going to wear every day. If you're traveling in the winter, your clothes are going to take up more room. One of the best ways I have found to make those winter clothes fit it to put them in giant resealable plastic bags and suck the air out. This makes that puffy sweater as flat as a pancake. I went to Italy for 10 days in the winter with just a carry on, and I was totally fine. And, remember, you can always find a place to do laundry.
6. Don't Go
While I don't want anxiety to stop me from traveling, there are definitely trips I shouldn't have taken. Before I went to Iceland, I tweaked my back so bad that I could hardly walk. I had a full blown panic attack as I was packing, and I seriously considered canceling the trip. In hindsight, I should have done what was best for me instead of forcing myself to go because I had already spent the money. That trip ended up being terrible — I cried every day, and I was on the verge of an anxiety attack the entire time.
Travel blogger Lauren Juliff details on her site that she canceled a trip she'd spent $3,000 on an hour before the flight for similar reasons, and it ended up being the right decision. I am still learning to trust my gut. After going on a trip in May I wish I had canceled, I did cancel a June trip to Bora Bora. The trip was for work, and between the added stress of an international assignment and doing all of my regular work, I'd be working 10 days in a row, flying 16 hours in four days, and moving to a new home on my first day off. No, thanks.
This schedule could make even the calmest person anxious. I finally listened to my gut and asked if I could reschedule the trip. After a few years of steady travel, I know myself well enough to know that going on this trip would have resulted in constant anxiety, massive jet lag, because I would be returning to the stress of having to move. It was 100 percent the right decision.
7. Don't Compare Yourself To Others
Having travel anxiety doesn't mean that people who don't have it are better than you. Everyone is wired differently, and instead of comparing yourself to others, do what is best for you. It took me years to learn this, but I am getting better at speaking up about things I know are going to cause me to have anxiety, and saying no to trips that aren't right for me is a big part of that.
If you're already on a trip, and you're feeling anxious, the Calm Clinic suggests taking a break. Retreat to your room to take care of yourself. "Don't try to tough it out or fight the anxiety away. Anxiety is the type of condition that is nearly impossible to 'fight' because fighting it increases stress, which ultimately creates more anxiety." Traveling is supposed to be enjoyable, so find out what works for you and stick to it. And if you're simply too anxious to travel, that's fine too.