Use these strategies to calm your mind as a traveler with anxiety.
By Elaine K. Howley, Contributor
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources including Indra Cidambi, MD; Moe Gelbart, PhD; Sanam Hafeez, PsyD
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in America, affecting about 40 million people, or more than 10% of the population, according to figures from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety can occur in any number of settings – day-to-day worries and generalized anxiety disorder are common. But it can also result from more specific, short-term reasons, such as getting ready for a big trip.
As with other types of anxiety, “when we talk about travel anxiety, it’s important to understand that it’s real," says Dr. Indra Cidambi, the medical director at the Center for Network Therapy, who’s double board-certified in general psychiatry and addiction medicine. Learn how to implement the following tips into your travel prep plans.
Tips to Ease Travel Anxiety
- Acknowledge your anxiety.
- Learn more.
- Make a plan.
- Write a list.
- Bring light, inflight distractions.
- Avoid coffee and other stimulants.
- Carry a paper lunch bag.
- Chew on ice cubes.
- Splash your face with cold water.
- Eat Ayurvedic spices.
- Download a relaxation app.
- Try cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Consider hypnotherapy.
- Discuss medications with your doctor.
Although “most travel is elective and designed to be fun and good, there’s a host of A to Z potential stressors” you’ll encounter along the way, says Moe Gelbart, a psychologist in private practice and founder of the Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California. “Even though you’re going somewhere fun, you’re going to the airport. You’re leaving your home and pets,” and there’s many niggling, maybe irrational fears that can crop up, such as “the fear that your washing machine is going to break and flood the house,” he says.
These natural concerns can be compounded by where you’re headed. “The father you go from home and the harder it is to get back, the more potential stressors you may experience,” Gelbart says. For example, if you’re leaving a sick relative at home, worries over whether or not they’ll be OK while you’re gone are natural and commonplace. “Leaving our normal, familiar routine and walking into the unknown brings with it a whole set of concerns and problems."
If you’ve ever experienced such anxiety or fears before a trip, you’re not alone. As many as 25% of travelers may feel anxiety before leaving home, says Sanam Hafeez, a psychologist and faculty member at the Columbia University Teacher’s College and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. a neuropsychological, developmental and educational center in Manhattan and Queens. Given that travel industry trade group Airlines for America projects that 257.4 million travelers are expected to fly on U.S. airlines in summer 2019, that means there’s clearly a lot of anxious people wandering around in our airports and other travel hubs.
What Causes Travel Anxiety?
So many different factors can contribute to feelings of anxiety prior to a trip. From a fear of flying to being anxious about leaving behind work or loved ones, there’s a lot of ways our brains can tell us maybe we shouldn’t get on that train, plane, bus or cruise ship. When flying, many people cite getting checked in and going through security at the airport as a major source of anxiety, and “40% of the people who travel also get anxious because of take-offs and landings,” Cidambi says. Concerns surrounding clearing customs and immigration when traveling to a foreign country are also a common source of anxiety. Worries about baggage – whether it will meet weight and size restrictions and turn up at the final destination if checked – can also cause stress.
People with underlying anxiety disorders are at higher risk of developing travel anxiety. If you’re anxious to start with, adding the very real concerns of the unexpected problems that inevitably crop up while traveling can make for an upsetting and potentially debilitating situation.
Strategies for Coping With Anxiety While Traveling
Though travel anxiety can upset even the most well-traveled among us, there are some ways to help tame this potential problem and get back to enjoying your trip.
Acknowledge the anxiety. Gelbart says simply noticing that you’re feeling anxious can force you to pause and think about the situation a little more. “Allow yourself to feel it and own that feeling. Then, remind yourself that the things you’re worried about are, for the most part, not going to occur. And if they do, you’ll be able to handle it.”
Learn more. Hafeez says that many fears are grounded in a lack of understanding or misconceptions. For example, if you have a fear of flying, it could be because you don't know as much about how it works as other modes of transport. "Flying is statistically the safest form of transportation, but is far more mysterious to most than driving a car," she says. But educating yourself about what to expect may "help to ease your fear and take some of your power back."
Make a plan. Rather than endlessly worrying, identify which potential issue is most concerning or most likely to occur and consider how you’d solve that problem, Gelbart says. “Control the things you can control” by making contingency plans.
Write it down. For some people, something as simple as making a long list of everything that needs to be completed or packed before take-off can go a long way toward easing anxiety. Spend a few minutes brainstorming everything, then prioritize the list. As you complete a task, physically cross it off the list. Being able to see tangible progress against what can sometimes seem like an overwhelming list of things to do may help alleviate the anxiety of forgetting something.
Pack your tools. Hafeez recommends bringing an inflight distraction toolkit to keep your mind occupied. “In your carry-on, pack crossword puzzles or coloring books, download books or movies that are light. Do not watch or read anything that includes topics of murder, terrorists, plane crashes, fires, death, or anything that can trigger fear. Anything you are reading, listening to or watching should conjure pleasant thoughts. Distraction is key to staying out of fear/panic.”
Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes. Caffeine can heighten the jittery feelings that often occur when you’re feeling anxious. Alcohol can blunt your senses. So even if it might feel like it’s helping, it can slow cognition and dehydrate you – both situations you want to avoid when traveling.
Carry a brown paper bag. Those lunch sacks from your school days can also serve an important purpose in calming you down in a hurry if you start having a panic attack, Cidambi says. “Sit down and cover the nose and the mouth like an oxygen mask and start counting backwards from 100,” while breathing as slowly and deeply as you can. During a panic attack, breathing becomes shallow, out of the chest. “We need to breathe from the abdominal muscles,” to get a full exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen in the lungs. But so-called belly breathing requires deeper breaths than what most of us can manage in the throes of a panic attack. Breathing into a paper bag can help restore deeper, slower belly breathing, and counting backwards acts as a distraction that can further induce calm because it requires you to focus on something other than the panic you’re feeling. In addition, breathing in air you’ve already expelled into the bag will increase levels of carbon dioxide in the body. This helps reverse the effects of hyperventilation and restores the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
Chew on some ice cubes. If the paper bag trick isn’t convenient, Cidambi recommends biting on an ice cube to help focus your energy and give you a means of releasing tension.
Splash cold water on your face. A classic way of calming yourself in the midst of a panic attack is to splash your face with cold water. Research has shown that immersing the face in cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic system. This system controls aspects of breathing and heart rate, and when the body senses cold water on the face, it reduces your heart rate and speed of breathing significantly in anticipation of being underwater and unable to access air.
Eat well. Cidambi adds that in Ayurvedic medicine, an alternative form of treatment that has its roots in ancient Indian teachings about the connection between the mind and body, cinnamon, ginger and cumin are thought to help calm your nerves. Though she says more research is needed to fully understand whether adding spices such as cinnamon to the diet can make a difference in alleviating symptoms of anxiety, it has its backers and few side effects. Using diet to control anxiety takes longer than popping a pill, but it might be a better option. “Going for a quick fix or leaning on a pill, that’s not the way to go,” she says. Instead, take care of yourself for the long term by making sure you’re getting adequate rest and eating right in the days and weeks leading up to a big journey.
Download a relaxation app. Even just a few minutes of relaxation or meditation can help bring down your heart rate and blood pressure and quell anxiety. There are many apps available that can help with relaxation, “and when it’s right at the tips of your fingers in your cell phone, you can use it when you’re feeling nervous or anxious.” Calming yourself is a skill that can be learned.
Seek cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is a term used to describe talk therapy, and it can have a powerful effect on how you react to stressful situations. Though it’s definitely not a quick fix, CBT can help you reframe how you think about traveling, and make you more able to cope with the unexpected problems you’ll face on the road by providing you with healthy coping mechanisms. “If you change your thoughts, you can change your response and behavior,” Hafeez says.
Consider undergoing hypnotherapy. If you’re really fearful, consider attending a fear of flying clinic or undergoing hypnotherapy, Hafeez says. These intensive strategies can help you cope with your phobia. “To conquer your fear, you must address it. Hypnosis finds out what triggers that fear in your subconscious. Over time, a hypnotist helps to reprogram the mind so that you are no longer afraid. Your mind relearns positive truths about flying. As a result, you can escape from your long-held fear.”
Ask your doctor about medications. When all other non-pharmacological approaches have failed, it may be time to consider getting a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. Hafeez says a group of drugs called benzodiazepines, which include clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan), “work very quickly to calm intense anxiety or panic.” However, “these medications are habit-forming, so it is best to use them only in extreme situations of panic when you are faced with a phobic situation. And remember not to mix them with alcohol.” Gelbart says he’s seen some patients who never actually use the medication; they’re simply comforted by the fact that there’s a pill in their pocket if they really need it.