Having anxiety doesn’t mean you have to be homebound.
Raise your hand if you hate the word “wanderlust.”
In today’s social media-driven world, it’s nearly impossible to go more than 30 minutes without being oversaturated with images of gorgeous people in gorgeous places doing seemingly gorgeous things.
And while that may be great for them, there seems to be a complete disregard for the people out there who aren’t going anywhere because they have anxiety.
It turns out that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults (18.1 percent of the population) each year. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, but less than 40 percent of folks with anxiety actually receive treatment.
So kudos to those of you out there living #thathashtaglife. But for a significant portion of people, that life seems woefully out of reach thanks to anxiety.
The good news is that it’s entirely possible to get out and see the world — yes, even when you have anxiety. We’ve reached out to experts who have given their professional tips and tricks on how to travel when you have anxiety.
As with any anxiety or fear, the first step to overcoming it, or coping with it, is to recognize where it comes from. Say its name out loud and you take away its power, right? Just like any fear, the same is true for travel anxiety.
Some anxiety is triggered by the unknown. “Not knowing what will happen or how things will go can be very anxiety-provoking,” says Dr. Ashley Hampton, a licensed psychologist and media strategist. “Researching what it is like to go to the airport and go through security is important,” she recommends.
Traveling can also trigger anxiety because of a previously bad travel experience. “I have had clients tell me they no longer like to travel because they were pickpocketed and now feel like they’re unsafe,” Hampton adds.
She recommends that instead of dwelling on the one negative instance, focus on all the many, many instances that were positive. “We also talked about strategies to implement that can help to prevent them from being pickpocketed again,” Hampton says. Sometimes bad things happen, she adds, and those things can happen to anyone.
Is a fear of flying itself triggering anxiety? For many people, travel anxiety comes from the physical act of being on a plane. For this, Hampton recommends deep breathing and a combination of counting when the plane is taking off and climbing into the sky.
“I also try to sleep, as time sleeping is less time for me to spend worrying,” Hampton says. If the flight is in the middle of the day, distractions are positive tools that can help reduce anxiety, like reading a book or listening to music.
Figuring out your anxiety triggers is a good way to help anticipate it and ultimately help you through to the other side.
Speaking of distractions, these can be some of the most effective ways to fill those anxiety-fraught moments while either in transit or on the trip itself.
First, if traveling alone is too much, there’s no reason to not travel with a friend to help share some of the responsibilities. In fact, traveling with a friend could make the whole experience downright fun.
“Share your concerns, your coping strategies, and how they can support you if you become anxious,” says George Livengood, assistant national director of operations at Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program.
“If you are traveling by yourself, let a friend or family member know that you might reach out to them if in distress, and coach them on the ways they can provide support over the phone,” he says.
It can help to accept, expect, and embrace the fact that you’ll be anxious, too. Often trying to push away the feelings of anxiety can make it worse.
“By embracing the fact that they will be anxious and preparing for what it will be like, they can actually reduce the likelihood of the anxiety happening, or, at least, reduce the severity of the symptoms,” says Tiffany Mehling, a licensed clinical social worker.
For example, being prepared with the thought “I will be anxious if there is turbulence” and visualizing how you’ll respond — maybe with mindfulness or breathing techniques that can slow down the psychological reaction — can be effective.
It can even be as simple as, “When I get butterflies, I’m going to order a ginger ale as soon as possible.”
Anyone with anxiety can tell you that anxiety isn’t just mental.
Dr. Jamie Long, a licensed clinical psychologist, offers seven easy steps when trying to mitigate travel anxiety by tending to your body:
- The night before your travels, drink plenty of water and nourish your body. Anxiety can diminish your appetite, but the brain and body need fuel to combat anxiety.
- Once through security, buy a cold bottle of water — and be sure to drink it. Our thirst increases when we’re anxious. The cold bottle of water will come in handy.
- In the boarding area, do a 10-minute guided meditation, preferably one intended for travel anxiety. There are many meditation apps you can download to your phone. Most apps have meditations intended for different situations.
- A few minutes before boarding, go to the bathroom or a private corner, and do a few jumping jacks. Intense exercise, even for just a few moments, can calm a body revved up by emotion.
- Walking down the gangway, do four-count paced breathing. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and repeat.
- While in your seat, give your anxious thoughts a competing task. Bring something to read, have something to watch, or even say the alphabet backward. Giving your brain a focused task keeps it from dress-rehearsing a catastrophe.
- Practice compassionate and encouraging self-talk. Tell yourself, “I can do this. I am safe.”
While traveling, it’s also important to be thoughtful about food choices. The foods we put in our bodies
Be cautious of spiking caffeine, sugar, or alcohol intake if you’re looking to manage your symptoms. And stay nourished, especially if your travels involve a lot of physical activity.
There’s no “wrong” way to travel. If you’re active on social media, you might be led to the conclusion that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to travel, based on your peers who are semi-preaching YOLO and not “traveling like a tourist.”
The truth is, as long as you’re respectful of the places you visit, there’s absolutely no wrong way to travel. So, set your own pace to what feels comfortable. You aren’t doing it wrong.
“I like to recommend clients spend some quiet time transitioning to being in a new space once they arrive at their destination,” says Stephanie Korpal, a mental health therapist with a private practice. “It can be critical to slow down and let our emotional selves catch up to our physical selves.”
She recommends a few minutes of deep breathing or meditating once you arrive at your accommodation.
It can also be helpful to be aware of the pace while traveling. It can be easy to get caught up in the idea of packing every minute with activities and sightseeing.
“If you suffer from anxiety, that pace might actually prevent you from soaking up the experiences,” Korpal says. “Be sure, instead, to incorporate downtime, relaxing at your place of lodging, or maybe reading at a coffee shop so you don’t get physiologically overstimulated.”
Ultimately, some anxiety is normal. We all need anxiety to function. And often, anxiety and excitement can have similar signals.
They both increase heart rate and breathing, for example. “Don’t let your mind trick you into thinking you must be anxious because your heart rate has increased,” Livengood says. There’s no need to psych yourself out!
The excitement, after all, can be what makes travel worthwhile. It’s part of the fun and part of the reason you want to travel in the first place! Don’t lose sight of that.
And remember, anxiety doesn’t mean you’re resigned to being homebound.
With some creative thinking and preparation — and, if needed, some professional support — you can learn how best to travel on your own terms.
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.