Is Anxiety Interfering With Your Travels? Here’s What To Do

Wheels up, stress down.

by Natalia Lusinski
Originally Published: 
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When it comes to traveling, some people have anxiety around it, whether it’s from a fear of flying, crowds, germ fears, you name it. But if you want to go someplace, you may be wondering how to beat travel anxiety. After all, you didn’t invite it along on your trip, yet here it is. “Overall, anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, or uneasiness,” Dr. Patrick Porter, neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap, tells TZR in an email. “You have no certainty, and your body reacts to that mental feeling. Some people shake. Some people sweat or feel restless. Your heart rate might accelerate. This is an abnormal reaction to different stimuli, but under stress, it is amplified.” So if you’re planning to travel — either for business or pleasure — and are experiencing anxiety, what do you do?

Porter recommends finding the source of your phobia(s) and to start working on those issues. He also says it all comes down to what your fears are about. “If someone has a persistent fear of flying, for example, I would recommend either they seek out someone who understands neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) or they listen to a BrainTap session for phobias. We have a session called “Phobia Release” that has gotten really great results with people.” And some meditation apps, like Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm, also have fear- and anxiety-based meditations.

Ahead, Porter and other travel experts share their best advice on overcoming travel anxiety — so start packing your bags!

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Reframe Your Anxious Thoughts Into Positive Ones

Porter says a great way to refocus your anxious thoughts is through reframing. “Anytime that negative thought, or negative emotion, occurs in relation to traveling, you can use a word such as ‘Stop,’” he explains. “When you say ‘Stop,’ visualize a large red stop sign — you’re basically telling yourself, ‘Stop giving this energy time or space in my mind.’”

After this, mentally rehearse the positives that are going to come from your travels. He says to think about things like: What is the outcome of this trip? What are you hoping to accomplish? “Visualize yourself doing things that you enjoy,” he adds. “Visualize that you arrive safely and that you're smiling. These are all really great ways to build positive expectancy and reduce anxiety about traveling.”

Porter also stresses the importance of how our psychology affects our physiology, and vice-versa. “If we can work out our brains, we call it brain fitness or mental fitness,” he says. “Spend some time thinking about your thoughts and how you can change them in a positive way. It's key to any situation. If we don't change our thoughts about a thing, then the thing will never change.”

Use The Four-Eight Breathing Technique

Porter says if you don’t have a lot of time before your trip — so you can’t work with a therapist or on other techniques too long — try four-eight breathing. “This will change the way you think about your fear, whether it comes as a picture or a sound, or an emotion or feeling,” he says. He recommends doing four-eight breathing when you’re in bed getting ready to sleep — it’ll help you focus and relax (as well as sleep more deeply). “Breathe in to the count of four, which will trigger the sympathetic system, the fight-or-flight mechanism in the body,” he says. “That will encourage you to think about your upcoming trip.” And, as you think about the flight/trip/whatever you are anxious about, feel the emotions that come up, like your fear, he says.

“Then, as you breathe out slowly to the mental count of eight, you should work on focusing on three or four things that you look forward to doing at your destination,” Porter adds. He says an example of this could be smiling at the person that greets you at the airport and telling them how well the flight went. “This is all about building positive expectancy, because the brain typically gives us what we expect — or what we put our attention on.”

Mentally Rehearse Positive Changes And Situations

Porter says that it’s imperative to rehearse any positive changes you want to make in your life mentally first. “This is super important when you think about it in terms of anxiety — because, as bizarre as it might sound, anxiety is a learned behavior,” he says. “The nervous system learns the behavior and demonstrates that behavior over time. When you do something once, it could be an accident. When you do it twice, it could be a coincidence. But once you do it three times, the brain sets up a learning program.”

So you must unwire the brain's capacity to use subconscious action, he explains. “For some people, stress, anxiety, and worry are just part of their program,” he says. “It's important with mental fitness to break that pattern and to begin to think differently, act differently, and respond to stimuli differently. This will help you be more resilient and more flexible.” The key is to go into uncertainty with a sense of knowing that, even in uncertain times, you can create a positive outcome, he adds. “You can have a positive solution to any situation.”

Recognize Your Anxiety Triggers

“Travel anxiety can be triggered by the unknown,” Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel, North America, tells TZR in an email. “Not knowing what will happen — or how things will go — can be very anxiety-provoking. There’s no ‘wrong’ way to travel, so recognize your triggers and set your own pace to what feels comfortable.” He says it can help to accept, and expect, the fact that you might be anxious. “Often, trying to push away the feelings of anxiety can make it worse,” he says.

Some simple strategies Berna suggests are arriving for your flight (or what have you) early. “This allows you to avoid the crowds and chaos at the check-in counter and gives you plenty of time to make it through customs and, in turn, to the gate, where you can choose the seat that suits you best,” he says. “Then, once through security, buy a cold bottle of water — and be sure to drink it. Our thirst increases when we’re anxious.” And, a few minutes before boarding, he recommends doing a few exercises or stretches. “Intense exercise, even for just a few moments, can calm a body revved up by emotion,” he says. “It releases positive endorphins and disperses nervous energy.”

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Have An ‘Attitude Of Gratitude’

Juliana Broste, known as Traveling Jules, is a travel filmmaker and host. She says that when you feel anxiety in the moment, try to focus on the positive. “Think about all the things that are going right,” she tells TZR in an email. “What are you grateful for? Even when there are a lot of things happening that are less-than-ideal, if you stop to think about what's working, you will soon remember how much you have. And that makes you feel good.” She adds that one of the best things about traveling is that we get to know ourselves better. “When we conquer great challenges, we gain confidence in ourselves. Just remember: ‘You got this! You can do anything.’”

Use Go-To Strategies To Minimize Anxiety Once You’re On The Plane

Pre-trip, Berna says to be sure and book early enough so you can reserve the seat of your preference. “I’m an aisle traveler and I get anxious if I get stuck in the middle,” he says. And, once on board — whether you’re traveling by plane, train, or what have you — Berna says it’s good to implement some go-to rituals that can help lessen your anxiety. “For example, don’t be embarrassed to wear a mask,” he says. “It is proven to provide additional defense against any unwanted germs,” he says. “Just make sure it is a proper quality and comfortable for the long haul. And dress comfortably, in layers, as temperatures can change dramatically from the check-in to the gate to the plane, especially as it’s being boarded.”

He also suggests having a small supply of your essentials with you. For him, these include a sustainable water bottle, a book to read (as WiFi isn’t always working or available), a journal to write in, and a few healthy snacks so you don’t face any drops in sugar levels or energy. “Noise-cancelling earbuds, and a few good, downloaded films or special songs that help your anxiety, can really take you to another place, too, and keep you there,” he says. Broste agrees. “Music can be a quick fix when things are going south,” she says. “Pop in your earbuds and put a soundtrack to the scene to lift your spirit.”

Berna also says to consider some natural remedies, such as valerian, to help you relax. “And practice compassionate and encouraging self-talk,” he adds. Tell yourself, ‘I can do this. I am safe.’ My mantra: ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’”

Take Note Of Your Surroundings

Traveling puts a lot of stress on our bodies and minds. That can feel tiresome at times, but it can also feel rejuvenating. Before anxiety sets in, Broste says to focus on your surroundings. “It's good for your brain to shake things up,” she says. “When I was traveling in Korea, I loved people-watching in the subway and trying to read signs written in Hangul,” she says. “In turn, I also learned a lot about the culture, from watching women march in high heels on their commutes and watching young boys jump out of their seats for elders. Simply observing the world, and taking it all in, is entertaining — and a necessary exercise for the mind. It can help you find comfort in new settings before anxiety creeps in.”

Increase Your Water Intake

Porter says one easy “fix” for anxiety is to increase your water intake. “Look at how much water you’re drinking throughout the day,” he says. “Most people don’t get enough, and this can contribute to feelings of anxiety, weariness, and stomach upset without realizing you’re even dehydrated.” He recommends that anyone dealing with any mental issues — who wants to improve their brain or mental fitness — increases their water intake to half the body’s weight in ounces of water.

Make Sure To Consume Enough Essential Fats

Porter says the brain needs essential fats — the good fats: omega-3s. “If you’re going to feed the brain to increase mental fitness, you need to feed it the right things, such as almonds, dark chocolate, and low-glycemic fruit and avocados. These are some good choices, and as you start to feed your body in a way that reduces stress and anxiety, you will be free, mentally, to have more resilience in your life. And then you get more results out of your day by showing up with a more positive and dynamic attitude.”

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Visit Sites At Off-Peak Times

Crowds make a lot of people anxious, and by visiting sites at off-peak times, you can greatly reduce your anxiety. “Timing is everything,” says Broste. “Set yourself up for success, and wake up early to enjoy the sights before everyone else wakes up. And, while you will notice that a lot of shops and restaurants on the main drag are overly popular with travelers, if you walk a block or two away, you'll find less trafficked options and likely better prices.” She also suggests maximizing your weekday exploring when you can.

Delay Your Trip (If You’d Like To Avoid Peak Travel Season)

Berna says that if you are flexible, then delaying your travel beyond peak season will certainly help reduce anxiety, as there are fewer travelers and most airports should be fully restaffed by the end of the year. “Heathrow is aiming to be back to pre-pandemic levels by November, and it’s always going to be quieter in the off-season,” he says. “You can also see the cheapest flights on airline websites, and these will usually point you to the flights with the lowest loads (passenger numbers).”

John E. DiScala, founder of JohnnyJet.com, also recommends planning your trip during the off-season, also known as “shoulder season,” to avoid the masses — and unnecessary anxiety. Usually, this is March-April (or early May) and September-October (or early November). “Traveling in the summer is like one big holiday,” he tells TZR. “I’d wait till kids go back to school in the fall.” This way, he explains, airports will be less crowded, your flights will be cheaper, the weather will probably be better at your travel destination, and you’ll have a better travel experience overall — and one with less anxiety.

DiScala says he tries to fly mid-week, too, such as Tuesday or Wednesday, when it’s not as crowded. “I’ve also found that the airport is a lot quieter from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.,” he says. “But if you're concerned about travel mishaps, it's smart to book an earlier flight in the day so you can literally get ahead of the storm when delays and cancellations are likely.” He says the first flights out have less of a chance of getting delayed or canceled. However, airports are usually more packed in the early morning, too. So it depends what your anxiety is about: Crowds? Your flight being delayed? Something else?

But, if you cannot delay your trip, Broste says to go anyway, “but pack your patience.” (And use the travel-anxiety-reducing tips above.)

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