Love the destinations but not the process of getting there? Don’t give up the travel; learn to meet your anxiety head on.
Any day waiting to board a plane, for me, starts with sweaty palms and a tight grip on my belongings.
By Alicia Raeburn
Anxiety is no stranger to travelers. Unusual scenery and food, uncomfortable conditions, and restless nights in unknown places can leave even the most relaxed individuals feeling strung out. If you already suffer from an anxiety disorder, like I do, these feelings can ramp up to a full-on white-knuckle experience.
Any day waiting to board a plane, for me, starts with sweaty palms and a tight grip on my belongings. The sound of the flight attendant announcing that boarding has begun completely triggers me. As I make my way toward the doorway that leads to the plane, my heartbeat shoots up, my hands sweat, my legs go stiff.
I put myself through it because, despite all that, travel is my favorite hobby. I’ve walked with elephants in Thailand, run a half marathon in Cambodia, spent nights in a tent listening to roaring lions and hippos in Kenya, and kayaked with dolphins in New Zealand’s Milford Sound.
I took a five-month honeymoon around the world, stopping off in nine countries in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Europe. It’s how I started writing publicly, publishing on Miles Less Traveled, the blog I share with my husband. The experiences I have on the road are more than check marks on a bucket list. When I am exploring a new place, simultaneously confronting my anxiety while letting it go, I am free and empowered. This is when I feel the most like me.
Because the payoff for me is so big, I have learned not to run from my anxiety but rather to develop strategies that help me cope with the symptoms. So far, it’s working. I’ve been to over 25 countries and visited more than half of the United States. In the coming months, I’ll be chasing the fall foliage in the Northeastern United States before taking a winter trip to Paris. After that, who knows? I’ve been eyeing a trip to swim with whale sharks in Mexico or possibly scooting out to the Everglades to paddle the alligator-laden waterways.
Here are the tried-and-true techniques I’ll be using to keep my anxiety at bay:
Deep breathing is one of my favorite anxiety-managing tricks because it requires nothing to practice. You can do it anywhere: in a line, on transportation, or — one of my favorites — a bathroom stall, and it takes a matter of seconds to make an impact. What’s more, you can repeat it as frequently as you need to to get through a triggering situation.
There are lots of deep-breathing methods. Here’s mine:
1. Stop and stand or sit in place.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Inhale deeply, counting to four seconds or until the navel is completely concave.
4. Pause at the top of the breath for two seconds.
5. Release for four seconds or until stomach is fully extended.
6. Pause for two seconds after the exhale.
7. Repeat for as many cycles as needed.
Planning What You Can in Advance
In my early twenties, I used to love heading somewhere without a plan, address, or any real idea of what to do or where to go when I got there. I still hold a special appreciation for that laid-back form of travel, but my anxiety, not so much. For me, much of my anxiety before a trip comes from the fear of reliving particularly anxious moments of past travels. Like the time I was delayed for almost five hours in a small unair-conditioned Indonesian city, or when I accidentally showed up at the wrong New York City airport two hours before my scheduled flight.
Depending on the type of travel and where you’re headed, try to get rid of any solvable unknowns that could be a cause for anxiety. Having a plan for getting to the airport and leaving from it are usually my two must-haves. Having a day or two of nothing planned after arrival so I have time to decompress and take in my new surroundings also helps me out quite a bit. Try to pinpoint the aspect of the upcoming travel that is most triggering for you, and take whatever steps are possible beforehand to plan for it.
Envisioning the Worst
Many anxiety-riddled folks like me will happily cop to being control freaks. So it’s no surprise that it’s the lack of control in many travel situations that makes us anxious. To decrease this, I practice something I like to call worst-case scenario envisioning. The logic goes like this: If I can work through the steps of the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen in any given situation, followed by rational fact-checking the odds of said thing actually happening, I can stem the tide of nerves bubbling near the surface.
Decades of therapy and this may be the most useful takeaway: Do NOT fight with your anxiety. Trying to wish anxiety symptoms away, or force them away, is not only unhelpful, it can also lead to increased intensity of the symptoms or shame in relation to them. Instead, try simply allowing the unpleasant reactions to exist. Invite them to stay, and acknowledge that when traveling; these feelings are inevitable and will likely resolve themselves once you feel more settled.
Confiding in Someone
Having a person to confide in, either accompanying you on the trip or back at home, can act as a grounding and comforting space when anxiety kicks in. If you’re with someone you can trust, try sharing with them that you sometimes get anxious while traveling. This not only helps to offset the additional component of feeling embarrassed about what’s happening but can also be used as a reference to explain why your behavior may be different in certain settings. Texting or calling a person at home, or even using a journal, can have the same effect.
Staying Away From Caffeine and Alcohol
The stimulant effect of caffeine easily heightens symptoms of anxiety. Alcohol, on the other hand, can temporarily relieve symptoms but will likely antagonize them as the effects wear off. Try herbal teas or good old-fashioned water on travel days and the nights before.
Bringing a Calming Item
Pick something — a real, tangible item — to bring with you for calming purposes. Some people keep smooth, round objects in their pockets to rub when stress levels rise or travel with carry-on-size essential oils with calming scents. Others use stress balls. Personally, I like the harsher but effective act of snapping a hair band on my wrist. The feeling of the band contacting my skin helps to take me out of my head and back into reality.
Taking Home Coping Skills on the Road
Take whatever coping mechanisms you use at home with you whenever possible. Whether it’s journaling, listening to calming music, or reading a relaxing book, whatever works at home will likely work on the road as well.
Trying Meditation Apps
There are countless apps for anxiety available for free download, but I like the meditation-focused ones best. Some, like Calm, have soothing background sounds of rain falling or waves crashing available offline. Others, like Head Space or Insight Timer, have guided meditations specific to releasing anxiety and assisting with relaxation. Many apps have options to download and listen offline, though these sometimes come at a cost. Try a few out before leaving to get an idea of which one is the most helpful.
Exercise became my favorite coping mechanism long before I knew that’s what it was. I’ve found that intense physical exertion to the point of exhaustion to be hugely helpful on travel days. Not only do I sleep better, but I am also calmer and more alert, and I find it easier to come back down when my anxiety does kick in.
Read the full article here:https://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/my-health-story/coping-travel-anxiety/
Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.