Intercom chatter. Heavy traffic. Crowded markets. Mid-flight turbulence. Are your palms sweating yet?
Why is my vacation giving me travel anxiety?
You might experience travel anxiety in response to:
- a previous bad experience
- exposure to others’ negative travel tales
- fear of the unknown
Facts: Travel anxiety alone isn’t a medical condition. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real experience.
Noticing red flags is your brain’s way of protecting you from outside dangers. Anxiety happens when the protective, fight-or-flight part of your brain goes into overdrive.
Anxiety typically involves a combo of mental and physical reactions to:
- fear (of flying, for instance)
- stress (raise your hand if you’ve had to run to catch a train/plane/bus 🙋)
- the unknown (say, foreign languages or unfamiliar cities)
About 31 percent of Americans live with an actual anxiety disorder at some point in life, but everyone’s experience and triggers are different. Travel anxiety is simply anxiety triggered by traveling or thinking about travel.
Symptoms associated with vacation anxiety include:
- rapid or pounding heartbeat
- feeling restless, irritable, or on edge
- trouble focusing
- heightened alertness (aka hypervigilance)
- trouble falling or staying asleep
- nausea or sudden stomach sensitivity
- a panic attack
So many possibilities.
- Negative memories. Older 2009 research suggests that 65 percent of major car crash survivors develop travel anxiety. From getting scammed to getting lost in an unfamiliar city, or even getting sick while abroad, bad travel experiences can trigger future travel anxiety.
- Doomscrolling. New COVID-19 variants, plane crashes, terrorist attacks… Some days it feels like the only headlines are horror stories. Internet use has skyrocketed during the pandemic. That endless stream of bad news can trigger stress and travel anxiety.
- Fear of flying. Maybe hurtling through the air in a metal tube freaks you out. You’re not alone. In 2019, researchers reported that flight phobia affected about 3 percent of the population. It might help to remember that more than 45,000 flights take off every day — and very, very few of them make the headlines.
- Stepping outside your comfort zone. At least one psychology expert has pinpointed “fear of the unknown” as one of the most fundamental human anxieties. Travel is brimming with new experiences and adventures. Your brain might need a little help separating the merely unfamiliar from perceived threats.
- Excitement. Did you know that anxiety and excitement are close cousins? Older research suggests that recognizing and reevaluating anxiety as excitement can lead to better outcomes.
- Your brain and genetics. Not all travel anxiety is situational. You might be dealing with a true anxiety disorder. Experts have linked generalized anxiety disorder to certain genetic factors. Research also suggests that growing up with parents who view the world as unsafe could raise your risk of developing anxiety.
Try these tips to help soothe anxiety before or during your next trip. Talking with a therapist may also help you discover coping mechanisms that are specific to your fears and situation.
1. Pinpoint your triggers
If you’ve been living with anxiety, you probably already have an idea of which experiences and situations unleash your symptoms.
Here are a few travel-specific triggers:
- fear of flying
- worrying about how to pay for the trip
- concerns over getting lost
- stress over planning all the trip details
But some general stress triggers could exacerbate travel anxiety:
Sometimes an outside party can help you ID your triggers. Consider asking your partner, friend, or therapist what they’ve noticed about when and why your travel anxiety seems to spike.
2. Make a plan
Remember how fear of the unknown is a big deal for human brains? It’s impossible to create an airtight plan for every second of a vacation. But you *can* sketch out a plan for your most-feared scenarios.
- “What if I get lost?” Bring along an extra phone charger, sure, but also snag a guidebook and paper map of your destination. Jot down the address and phone number for your hotel(s) too. Some travelers even use Google Street View to find landmarks around their hotel before the trip even starts.
- “What if I get sick away from home?” First, it’s always a good idea to buy travel health insurance before a trip. But think beyond that too. Could you make a list of all your medications in case you need a pharmacy? Could you keep a note about your medical conditions on your person at all times?
- “What if I lose all my money?” There are anti-theft bags, pockets, and even scarves to thwart wannabe pickpockets. But you could also consider an emergency credit card and contact info for someone who could wire you cash in a pinch.
- “What if the airline loses my luggage?” This situation is a total bummer. But is it the end of the world? You could stash must-have items in your carry-on bag and make sure you have cash to buy extra clothes and toiletries if needed.
Rather than giving into a general fear of “what-ifs,” pinpoint your top three fears. Then plan for those scenarios.
3. Visualize the destination with virtual reality
Yep, we’re going high-tech here. But a study in 2007 (Rihanna’s “Umbrella” days!) found that folks with travel anxiety reported significant relief after taking a virtual tour via their hotel’s website.
A 2013 study reported the same findings when anxiety-addled travelers previewed video clips of their destinations.
4. Take deep breaths
Research shows that meditation and breathing exercises can help quell anxiety. When you focus on your breathing, you feel more grounded. You also distract yourself from continually replaying worst-case scenarios.
The best part? You can practice breathing techniques before the trip, on the plane, or even while walking around a new-to-you city.
5. Arm yourself with distractions
Does a silly game or page-turner make the time fly by? Bring it along on the car, train, plane, or bus. Distractions can help you focus on something enjoyable rather than stewing in your anxiety.
A few ideas:
- a new book from your favorite author
- your favorite music artist’s new album
- mobile game apps (Wordle fans, unite!)
- crossword puzzles
- word searches
- meditation apps
6. Buddy up
If your heart starts to race at the thought of navigating a trip alone, why not invite someone along? A ride-or-die friend will not only make things more fun — but they might also push you (gently!) to try new things on the trip.
7. Anticipate the positives
Research shows that scanning for positive future events lights up the part of the brain associated with well-being.
So if you feel yourself slipping into negative predictions about travel, whip out a piece of paper and pen. Now make a list of all the exciting, fun, or relaxing things that might happen while traveling. What are you looking forward to doing? Which landmarks do you hope to photograph? Who will you get to see and hug on the other side of your journey?
Pro tip: Keep that list. Pull it out and read it whenever you feel a new wave of travel anxiety brewing.
8. Make sure everything is in order at home
Some travel anxiety centers on all the things that could go wrong at home while you’re gone. So just as you planned for the worst-case scenarios on your journey, plan for potential mishaps on the homefront.
- Pick a point person who can check on your house or apartment if necessary.
- Ask a trusted friend to shower your pets (or plants!) with TLC.
- Share your itinerary with a friend or family member. Make sure they know how to get in touch with you while you’re gone.
Sometimes the mere act of prepping for time away will help you feel calmer and in control. You, 1. Travel anxiety, 0.
9. Consider medication
If planning and distractions don’t help, consider talking with your doctor about anti-anxiety medication. Just note that it does take time to find the right medication and dosage.
Antidepressants may be helpful for general anxiety disorder (GAD) or other chronic anxiety disorders but can take about 4 to 6 weeks to be truly beneficial. Even then people may need to adjust the dosages to get to the right level.
Benzodiazepines may be a more immediate choice to help you get through a flight. But, it’s recommended you test this prior to a trip to see how it makes you feel.
Flight anxiety, be gone! A pre-terminal checklist
In a perfect world, you could Jedi mind-trick your way out of a panic spiral on the runway. But there are *also* practical ways to set yourself up for success.
If travel anxiety is interfering with your enjoyment of life, it’s time to get help. Anxiety and stress tend to compound when you don’t address them.
Your doctor will likely ask you several questions to determine if you meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Depending on your symptoms along with other factors, your doctor might recommend a mix of treatments:
Travel anxiety is no fun. Asking a doctor or therapist for help could be the start of an exciting, adventurous new chapter in your life.
- Though travel anxiety isn’t a medical diagnosis, it’s something many people experience.
- Travel anxiety can be triggered by specific fears — flight phobia, fear of repeating a bad experience — or a general fear of the unknown.
- Identifying your triggers, creating a plan for worst-case scenarios, and shifting to a positive mindset can help alleviate symptoms of travel anxiety.
- Home remedies aren’t always enough. If travel anxiety is interfering with your life, talk with a doctor or therapist. A medical pro can help by recommending therapy, anti-anxiety meds, or both.