Everyone gets that worry when at the airport or when travelling, that nagging anxious feeling. I always think about the film ‘Home Alone’ when Kevin’s mum is on the plane and convinced that she has forgotten something, a bit extreme as she has forgotten her youngest son. But what if you have anxiety in your day to day life? Almost 3 million people in the UK have an anxiety disorder, including (but not limited to) post-traumatic, obsessive-compulsive, social and generalised anxiety.
Travel anxiety is a complex condition, related to fear or worry related to travel. This worry may prevent people from travelling and making excuses for booking trips. Fear of flying can hinder people’s journey, and I even know someone with a fear of airports. Home comforts and the stability of routine can prevent people from travelling, especially for those with generalised anxiety. People with anxiety tend to think ‘worst case scenarios’ and may limit there travel to avoid perceived threats such as kidnappings, muggings and illnesses.
Avoiding travel and reinforcing travel anxiety is not a solution. The act of preventing fearful situations can increase the fear when you finally experience it. Try to travel, but take baby steps. Maybe a weekend trip in your home country, before travelling overseas to a similar or familiar country (perhaps you like that type of food, or they speak the same language). By building on positive experiences will ease your anxiety.
Documenting Your Trip
One of the potential symptoms of anxiety is a sense of dissociation. This can be from yourself (kind of like you are watching yourself from a different perspective – like watching yourself in a play) or from the world around you (like the world isn’t real). As these symptoms aren’t entirely related to worry or fears, they can be quite hard to manage. I think that travelling is an excellent way to immerse yourself in a culture or place and find a good grounding. If you document your trip as well through journaling or photography, it can help with this sense of self.
Trying New Things
For a lot of people with anxiety, there is a want to try new things, but fear or worry about doing so. I think that travel is a fantastic experience and allows for an understanding of new cultures and increased compassion and empathy. It can be a big step though. Planning and organising, getting on a plane, surrendering control by going somewhere unknown. Remembering why travel is significant or why you want to can be helpful. Positive images of you in your destination can help calm down the worrying thoughts.
Travel with someone you trust and knows about your condition. I panic about panicking! So I know that if I am going somewhere, that might be claustrophobic (which is one of my phobias) that I am with someone I trust, who will take me seriously and be able to calm me down.
When I was in New Zealand, we went into some caves near Waitomo. It was so quiet in the caves as there were no echoes and there were also some pretty big Weta (which as like giant cricket spider insects, another phobia) if I wasn’t with someone I trusted, I knew I would have had a massive panic attack. My husband didn’t patronise me, didn’t ask me how I was every step, but held my hand to reassure me that he was there. (I also had my hood up to prevent a Weta from falling down my shirt as he couldn’t protect me from that!)
Build up your support network. Have someone you can contact at home if you need to talk about your worries. Check out online forums or web pages for tips and tricks when you are away from home. Practice mindfulness. Start using these platforms well in advance of travelling, so that you are familiar with them and feel that you can go there for help when you need it.
Understanding Your Triggers
Try to figure out what are your fears and worries. If you start writing down what concerns you, you can try to rationalise your concerns or you can start with things that don’t worry you. For example, if you are afraid of flying, why not try a bus or train trip first, or go short haul with a 1-hour flight somewhere (I appreciate that being in the UK this is a realistic option, compared to when I was living in New Zealand and everything is miles away!)
Understand your triggers and manage the situations. Some people feel more anxious with alcohol or caffeine. These are easy to avoidable. Specific social conditions trigger some people, or smells and noises (for those with post-traumatic stress). Obviously with travelling, you are unable to control the whole situation, but for example, if you have issues with large noisy crowds, maybe don’t go to an outdoor concert on your first trip. When understanding triggers, it is possible to work towards that end goal of that concert, but doing smaller achievements first.
I know this sounds like the Boy Scouts, but if you plan for being away, someone to check the house, make sure the post gets picked up and all your necessary documents in one place, it will help take the stress out of actually going away. Plan an itinerary so there will be no surprises. I always carry a little first aid kit with me with painkillers, antiseptic cream, plasters, diarrhoea relief tablets and bite cream, just in case I can’t get to the pharmacy.
If your travel is causing more anxiety, take a little break for yourself. Whether it is just relaxing somewhere comfortable rather than going on an excursion, or booking yourself in for a massage or do something that makes you feel comfortable. I will sometimes listen to music and try to sleep to relax or practice mindfulness to calm down the thoughts.
Celebrate your achievements
We focus so much on the negative worries and fears that we forget to celebrate what we have achieved. This is something that can be done in a travel journal, listing things that you have done that you are proud of doing. Whether this is trying new food, going somewhere off the itinerary, getting through a day without a panic attack. This is an individual task as everyone’s conditions are so unique and can help in positive reaffirmations of travel.
Don’t compare your experiences to others. With the world of social media (looking at you Instagram!) it is so easy to be jealous of others amazing trips. What makes your travel experience unique is you! The reason most people travel isn’t to get a ‘cookie cutter’ experience but to get something that is personal and resonant with us. By comparing to others, a sense of failure or inadequacy can take hold, undoing the positive affirmations that you have worked on.
Remember that if things get that bad, you can always go home. When I left London at 18 for New Zealand, I knew that I could still come back home if I couldn’t cope (although this was pre-diagnosis with GAD). On balance, the worry of missing out on a fantastic life opportunity was enough to make me go but was always reassuring that I could come home if it didn’t work out. There were many days that I wanted to go back with homesickness, but I persevered. This is not to say that persevering is a solution, but it worked for me.
I hope that by writing this post not only does it give anxiety sufferers some ideas and tips on how to manage their anxiety when travelling but also raise some awareness of anxiety. Everyone has some degree of worry and concern, but when it becomes longstanding and irrational and all-consuming, it can affect day to day life. It’s a painful condition to manage or understand, with some people being quite dismissive. It’s a constant learning process and be patient with yourself and others.