Travel is stressful AF.
So much can go wrong. Missed flight connections, lost luggage, shady taxi drivers, food poisoning, language barriers, forgetting the stroller… If you suffer from any sort of anxiety, the stress of a trip can quickly escalate, sometimes to very intense acute moments of panic.
So let’s talk about how to mitigate stressful situations while traveling. I want to share some ways to prevent travel anxiety from calling all of the shots.
Whenever our family prepares for a trip, my mind races with checklists and to-dos. There is always so much to think about before any travel, especially longer trips that may require someone to check up on your pets or even live-in house sitters.
For those of us that are Type A planners or who play the role of family travel agent, the pre-trip to-dos can feel overwhelming. Even though a checklist is meant to bring order and peace to a situation, sometimes they have the opposite effect, reminding you of just how much is actually outside of your control.
And if you’re anything like me, you like to be in control of the situation. 😃
You are not alone.
When anxiety attacks, the loss of control can feel so intense. And with so many possible triggering situations, I totally get why a lot of people choose to control their anxiety by not traveling.
It’s easier just to NOT go. It’s easier to shut the door and stay home. I get it!
If you have ever experienced an anxiety or panic attack while traveling, you are not alone. I have been there. I feel you.
And I want to help you learn to manage your anxiety so that it does not ruin a travel experience or stop you from doing what you want to do.
Because I’ve been there.
Too many people or overwhelming crowds? Scary driving conditions and unfamiliar terrain? Long lines at security that could make you miss your flight? Lost luggage containing everything you needed for the trip? Panic attack in a subway station or in a back alley or in the middle of a theme park line?
I’ve had that panic attack. I’ve been the girl crying in the alley behind the centuries-old cathedral. I’ve been the person pushing through crowds trying to find a bathroom.
I’ve had to pull myself back from the ledge, often with the help of those around me, and push through the moment to get to the other side. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it has been humiliating. Yes, it has forced me to miss out on certain experiences while traveling.
But where I am today is so much better than where I was five years ago. And I want to share what I’ve learned with others in the hopes of helping just one person have a better travel experience.
Five Tips to Prevent Travel Anxiety
Here are five things that I routinely do to keep my cool and manage travel anxiety. I hope these anti-anxiety tips can help you too!
Don’t overschedule your travel agenda.
This took me years to stop doing. Once I learned to underplan the actual activities of our trips, I became a lot more relaxed.
When visiting a new place, a bit of FOMO can set in. You may find yourself trying to jam pack your schedule with as much as you possibly can. After all, you don’t know when you’re going to come back. Maybe you don’t have much PTO to use, or you simply don’t want to miss out on something cool. But overscheduling a trip is a surefire way to turn a relaxing and enjoyable trip into a stressful one.
I’ve seen it happen to many people – and have been guilty of it myself.
You’ve booked every part of every day of a trip, with tours and reservations and tickets. You’ve created an itinerary that keeps you on the go all day, from breakfast through dinner, so you crash exhausted in bed, only to wake up and do it all again the next day. You always have somewhere to be. You’re always checking your watch. You spend half the time ushering your travel companions along, trying to keep everyone on schedule. You never get a chance to just enjoy the trip.
Later, you look back at photos to fill in the gaps from your memory that were otherwise filled with the stress of checking off all of the boxes on the itinerary.
You might gravitate towards overplanning a trip because it feels like control. The feeling of control is how many of us try to combat our anxiety.
This mode of travel works for some. But adhering to a rigid itinerary can actually add stress instead of lowering it. So build in buffer time. Build in rest. Make sure you have time to explore aimlessly with no set destination. Give yourself plenty of time to wander and to say yes to the unexpected.
Pack your essentials with you.
What if is a terrible question that will run your mind ragged with worry. It’s easy to spiral down the what-if rabbit hole, especially when facing new, unfamiliar situations.
In my experience, it has helped to bring the answers to the what ifs. I often joke that I carry an entire pharmacy with me whenever I travel, but it’s for my own peace of mind.
In fact, just before our five-week trip to Mexico, I asked the doctor for a refill on an old beta blocker prescription that I haven’t needed in a couple years. I knew that during that trip, I’d be pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to feel prepared while out of the country. I had a full 30 day supply of it with me just in case I needed to rely on it. I only truly needed it a few times, and used it preventatively at other times. It’s not a weakness to use medicine. There’s no shame in doing what you need to for your body. Medicine and holistic health items are tools that you can put in your mental health tool belt.
So equip yourself with whatever you need. Medications you can’t live without, extra underwear, cash, an extra phone charger, a toothbrush, CBD oil, a sleep mask, extra batteries, a sound machine, contact solution, your favorite squishmallow. Whatever you need to function at your best, bring it with you and keep it nearby.
Remember that you can buy almost anything you forgot.
On the total flip side, I always remind myself that it’s not the end of the world if I forget something. In a worst case scenario, even in foreign places or rural areas, there will probably be an opportunity to buy something that you forget.
I can attest to this most recently during our trip to Mexico. We forgot to bring THE STROLLER. There was no way we were going to survive a month in a walking town with a four year old without a stroller. So on our first grocery run to the Mega, we looked at the strollers. We didn’t want to spend a lot on a temporary replacement stroller, though. So we went to the Walmart a few blocks down and found one for $529 Pesos. SOLD.
While I advocate to take everything you personally need to reduce your anxiety, I also advise taking stock of the things you will have easy access to or could easily purchase. Then you don’t have to stress over whether or not to pack those things. Bring them if you have room. If not, don’t stress. You can probably buy them when you get there.
For example, I personally don’t require a special type of toothpaste or lotion, so I often don’t even take those items with me, choosing instead to just pick some up when I get to my destination. I try to save space for the things I do need by leaving the non-essentials at home. Because I have become reliant on a sound machine to improve my sleep hygiene, I prioritize packing space for it, and just stock up on toiletries upon arrival.
Create a feel-good playlist.
Years ago, a therapist made me try this tactic. “I want you to make a feel-good playlist,” she said. “And don’t be afraid to use it!” I was shocked by how effective it has been over the years! Music has such powerful stress-reducing characteristics, you can use it to ward off anxiety.
It’s super simple to create an anti-anxiety playlist. Create a short playlist of 5-7 empowering, inspiring, or uplifting songs, songs that always make you feel good.
Then, in moments of anxiety, when you feel it creeping, or even just on the morning before you have to go somewhere, listen to the playlist. That’s it.
Make a playlist. Use it regularly. A one-two punch.
Blast it through your car speakers or rock out with your earbuds. It doesn’t matter how you hear it. Allow yourself to be washed over by the songs. Close your eyes. Take some deep breaths. Sing along or move your body if you feel compelled to do so. Notice your slowing heart rate, and steadying breath. Notice the fading panic.
By using this tool regularly, you could develop an almost Pavlovian response to it as I have. For me now, hearing just a few of the songs can bring you down from a tense moment. This anti-anxiety tool has been so helpful to me, that I use it not just for travel but also in my day-to-day life!
Talk about your anxiety.
Plenty of studies have shown that we can reduce stress simply by talking about what ails us, by sharing our negative emotions with someone we can trust. We reduce activation in the amygdala when we verbalize our negative emotions. The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers our fight-or-flight instincts. Therefore, by voicing these things, we’re activating the parts of the brain related to speech and language. As a result, we become less reactive and more mindful in the moment.
Sharing the weight of our anxieties can also feel like a lifted burden and make the moment a lot easier to get through. I used to try to hide my anxious moments out of embarrassment, not wanting anyone to think less of me. Since I began being much more vocal in the moment, literally telling anyone around me what’s happening, I have been able to get through stressful moments a lot faster.
Keeping things hidden away creates an aura of shame around them. For years, I was too embarrassed to talk about my anxiety and the effects it had on my body. To be frank, my skin still flushes when I talk about it, but I’m getting better! And you can too.
I’ll start by sharing a recent example of how simply talking about what I was experiencing helped calm me. I went with some friends and my son to Zoolumination, the Chinese lantern festival at the Nashville Zoo.
While we were stuck in the insanely long traffic line to get into the parking lot, I started feeling the familiar creep of panic that happens when I feel trapped. In the past, I would have said nothing. I would have suffered silently, freaking out internally and wanting to die.
But this time, I opened all the car windows letting in frigid air. I told my friends what was going on. They asked how they could help. I said I just needed them to talk to me. I also needed to get as cool as possible (a drastic physical temperature change can really help in these moments since it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system). I practiced deep breathing as they distracted me by babbling and we slowly made our way through the traffic. Then I was fine.
So don’t be afraid to share in the moment! Let your friends and family help you carry the weight of the anxiety. You don’t have to do this alone!
Now YOU tell ME: What tactics and methods have YOU tried to keep calm? How do you mitigate your travel anxiety either before a trip or in-the-moment? What are some other ways to prevent travel anxiety that have worked for you?