Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By Sarah DeSantis, LCSW
Do you ever get frustrated with yourself for getting anxious when traveling?
Traveling is supposed to be “fun and adventurous,” but for some, it may also be a source of anxiety and stress. Why? Well for each person, it may be a little different. Here are some common reasons why our stress levels or anxiety increases when traveling or when you have upcoming vacations.
Common Reasons Why Travel is Anxiety Provoking:
The first step in managing travel anxiety is identifying what is causing it! Below are some possible prompts or triggers for travel anxiety.
Breaking routine: We are creatures of habit. Some people easily adapt to change. Other’s, not so much (even if it’s good change!). If you have a hard time deviating from your normal routine, traveling can produce an extra layer of stress/anxiety.
Who you are visiting: Some people get extra anxiety depending on who they are going to visit. Consider the historical context of the person you are visiting. Do you have a history of past conflict? Do you feel uneasy around them? Is there uncertainty in the relationship? Perhaps you don’t know them that well. Point is, if the person you’re visiting isn’t a major ally to you, the visit may prompt anticipatory weariness.
The fear of something going wrong (like missing a connecting flight, ah!): our brains try to protect us from something going wrong by predicting something going wrong. The brain has evolved to err on the side of caution and its default setting is to treat the unknown as inherently aversive. Therefore, it’s constantly scanning for danger and remains on guard for things that may cause our bodies additional stress. For some people, this tragedy-dress-rehearsal process can turn into the extreme; constantly thinking about worst case scenarios and over estimating the probability of a stressor occurring.
The fear of something really bad happening (like airplane turbulence or a car accident): some people have a fear of flying due to being worried that the plane may crash or something bad could happen when in air. This could lead to overwhelming emotions and even panic. Some may decide to not travel at all because of it.
So much to do, so little time! There are so many different things to manage at once before traveling or going on vacation. Packing, itineraries, getting pet sitters, traffic, cancellations, reservations, hotel, finances, etc. etc.
Anticipation in general: Sometimes we get anxiety before traveling because of the excitement! This is an important point to remember, as it may come as good news. The feelings of anticipation and excitement activate much of the same physiological responses that occur during the stress response. Think: rapid pulse, heavy breathing, clammy hands, etc. These symptoms are experienced during both excitement and anxiety!
If you relate to some of these triggers, keep reading for some tricks to manage symptoms of anxiety. Try to be extra mindful the next time you travel If you don’t relate to any of the triggers listed above. Next time you notice feelings of anxiety or stress coming up, ask yourself, where is this coming from? Be mindful and take note of some of your triggers.
Ways to Manage Anxiety While Traveling.
Anxiety can make us fearful of the worst case scenario, leading us to engage in behaviors such as overly preparing or avoiding things altogether. Coping ahead is a great skill to use when it comes to managing anxiety. Imagine yourself coping with the worst case scenario. For example, if you are worried about missing a connecting flight, imagine that happening and then imagine yourself coping with it, step by step. Yes, it wouldn’t be ideal, you would have to change itineraries, call the airline to find another flight, but you will be able to cope with it!
Set Up Reminders on Your Phone
As the day of travel is approaching, you may start having a difficult time focusing on the present moment, due to your brain being overwhelmed with all the different stressors (packing, cleaning the house, getting your nails done, scheduling pet sitters, shopping for new vacation clothes, etc.). A great tool to use is called a distraction list. Let’s say you are at work and you have an assignment that you are working on but you start noticing that your mind is pulling you away from your work and focusing on everything you need to do! Start a reminder list. Keep a blank sheet of paper next to you as you are working and everytime a “I can’t forget to do this” thought comes up for you, write it on the distraction list. Get it out of your head and on paper! Then refocus your attention on your work. You may have to do this several times in a short period of time.
Remember Your Values
With vacation comes a break in your routine. For some people, this interruption in a normal routine, even though it’s a good interruption, is stressful! When you notice the stress arising for you, try to validate it and give yourself some compassion. For example, when you notice the thought of: “Why can’t you just be happy that you’re traveling” remind yourself that it is okay that traveling is anxiety provoking. Then remember why you are traveling in the first place. It may be for the value of adventure or fun, or maybe it’s a business trip and related to the value of hard work and stability. Maybe it’s related to the value of family or friends.
Dealing with Family
Sometimes we get extra anxiety when traveling due to who we are going to be visiting. You may be really excited to see this person but also stressed. Maybe they have been judgmental of you in the past or maybe they make passive aggressive comments about what you’re eating or wearing. Maybe they like to start fights at random times or talk about politics. Practice setting boundaries with these individuals ahead of time. This may feel uncomfortable but get yourself in front of a mirror and rehearse saying “no thank you” or “I’m going to excuse myself for this conversation.” Remember, we can’t control what others say or do, but we can control our response to it.
When stress is really high, try grounding skills!
Grounding Candy Exercise
In this video, Dr. Jamie Long teaches you the Grounding Candy Exercise that you can deploy anytime your travel anxiety (or anxiety in general) becomes too intense.
Even when you logically know, there is nothing to fear here, your mind may still have thoughts related to the fear. (For example, the fear of flying). Guess what, that’s just the mind’s way of trying to protect you! Your mind is a thought generating machine, it’s just what minds do. When these thoughts do arise for you- try some grounding techniques to bring yourself back to the present.
- Body scan
- Deep breathing
- Hold ice
- Eat something sour
- Play with something sticky
- Talk to someone around you!
Whatever the reason behind your traveling stress or anxiety, there are ways to cope with it! If you notice that your travel anxiety is really intense, leading you to avoid travel altogether, consider anxiety therapy!
Are you not sure if you should see a therapist for your anxiety?
Take this quick quiz to see if therapy for anxiety could be right for you.
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