How To Travel When You Have Anxiety

Anxiety can involve a fear of the unexpected, and thinking about how the trip will go can feel so disastrous and foreboding.

Anxiety can involve a fear of the unexpected, and thinking about how the trip will go can feel so disastrous and foreboding.

This article first appeared on The Refresh and has been republished with permission. 

One “cannot discover new oceans unless [they] have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” — Andre Gide (modified to be friendlier to other genders than “he”)

When you’re traveling with anxiety, sometimes this quote makes a ton of sense, and other times it just sounds impossible. It can feel delightful to arrive at your destination, greeted by place names and accents the mind can curl around and explore until the words become familiar. In my experience, the rich tiredness of a voyage achieved has led to many memorable nights.

But anxiety can involve a fear of the unexpected, and thinking about how the trip will go can feel so disastrous and foreboding that these pleasures seem to vanish from the horizon of possibility.

Because of this fear, I swore I was not a traveler. Then 2017 happened and I wound up on four plane trips (one international) over the course of the year. 

I traveled for work and with family, on a combination of trips that were long planned and trips that came up quickly. I spent a large portion of the year worried about how the excursions would go. I live with both generalized anxiety and panic, these weeks and months of speculation had me wading through some especially dark mental waters before I could see the blue of the Mediterranean in Spain or the cool green of a hot spring in Arkansas. 


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But while crammed in a seat on a plane so small the person pushing the snack cart had to warn everyone to watch their elbows and knees, it dawned on me that I had not only become a traveler by mistake; I’d also become a survivor of situations in which my mind sent me danger signals on the regular. 

Control what you can

Travel planning can be stressful, but I found that my anxiety was causing me to avoid facing the details of flights and itineraries. The closer the date came, the more the avoidance would turn to dread as there were aspects that would have to be left to chance. That is why it has been my intention to exercise whatever control possible over the plans: whether it’s picking departure times that sync as best as possible with when I’ll be most alert or researching the local food options, taking agency over some small part chips away at the unpredictability of being on the road. I’m looking forward to future steps toward making trips my own — maybe asking a loved one to join me on a work trip or reserving time before or after to unwind.

Tech relief

The process of traveling can involve a good deal of phone time, especially when flying solo for a conference or other work reason. If you are anxious, slow games, which require a minimal level of attention but provide calming virtual environments (like a succulent garden in Viridi or a yard full of cats in Neko Atsume) can be soothing and engaging without distracting you from being attentive while on the go. There are a plethora of meditations and self-help apps that can turn your layover into a deep breathing session. Headspace and Pacifica are popular choices. I’m partial to the SAM App, which was developed in collaboration with a research team from the University of the West of England. The app’s options for sensory relaxation and educational resources about understanding anxiety click with the things that soothe me best.

Engage the senses

A cup of ice was my best friend when I had to be on a plane at night, heading into what I thought would be turbulent weather. I asked for the ice specifically so I could divert my scattered attention toward watching the beautiful crystals melt and savoring their coldness. Sensory mindfulness is a known technique to reduce anxious or panicky feelings, and this technique is quite compatible with traveling. Before you leave, do some investigating to find what sensory experiences, if any calm you down, and there’s likely a portable version. I’ve packed essential oil roll-ons, a mister with lavender pillow spray, and an assortment of textured necklaces and bracelets to ground myself when feeling adrift. 

Bag of treats 

The upside of having to limit the amount of liquids you carry? High-end lotions, face washes and shampoos are cheaper in travel size. On my latest trip, I was greatly soothed by packing an assortment of goodies to make downtime a little bit spa-like. Bring your favorite snacks, a book you’ve been meaning to start or one you like to read over and over again or anything that will infuse relaxation into your time away.

Try to embrace chaos 

The flip side of “take some control” is to realize not everything can be controlled, and this is very hard to accept when you have anxiety. Despite your best preparations, when you’re out of your element, even small things going wrong can feel all the more unsettling. Accepting the twists and turns of travel is a work in progress on my part, but in my journey to follow my own advice, I reflect on these examples of resilience and process them in whatever way works for you (whether it’s through visualization, writing or something else) before heading to your destination, armed with evidence that I can take on any challenges that come my way.

Fellow anxious voyagers, whether you’re traveling for holidays, business or adventure, I hope the experience will be rewarding and as stress-free as possible!

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