Traveling with Anxiety

Fear of flying in airplanes? Feeling anxious about trying new things or seeing new places? Becoming overly obsessed with sticking to the itinerary? Not feeling able to leave family?

These are all common anxiety issues individuals may think of before departing on a new trip. These struggles can even prevent people from booking a ticket at all. Research has proven that people are working now more than ever and forfeiting their well-earned vacation days. Do anxiety issues play a role in the decreased use of vacation days and traveling the world?

Anxiety affects approximately 18% of American adults (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Those who are affected with anxiety issues may feel travel is a very challenging experience given the distance from home, unexpectedness of a travel schedule, and added stressors, such as flying in an airplane, speaking a different language, or immersing oneself in an entirely different culture.

Travel can propagate its own stresses and difficulties even for those who live a mostly anxiety-free life. Traveling with anxiety can contribute to even more pressure and hardship. As of 2017, there does not seem to be extensive research on traveling and the anxiety associated with it. One study’s results found that trauma-focused psychological interventions, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and exposure therapy, can be useful treatment modalities for individuals with travel anxiety (de Jongh et al., 2011).

Traveling itself can have various psychological benefits, such as an increase in positive mood and a decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression. But, of course, this does not mean hopping on a flight to the next city will ameliorate all personal problems or struggles with mental health.

So, how does one maintain their mental health, specifically anxiety, when on the go?

Think ahead and prepare…but not too much.
When you arrive at your destination, whether it is for business or pleasure, it can be beneficial to have an idea of what you would like to do and the time frame for those events. Research can be your best friend in this case. Try to look up local restaurants, a few key phrases in a different language if traveling to a foreign place, or familiarize yourself with a map of the city.

It is also important to note not to be overly obsessed with sticking to the itinerary. Traveling comes with surprises, and it will be valuable to prepare for deviations from the plan. Flexibility is key. Things will go askew, and this actually makes for an exciting trip. For those who are itinerary-focused, it is crucial to remind yourself that it is perfectly acceptable to take time to explore the city away from a schedule. Some of the best trips and travel memories have been unplanned!

Create ways to manage mental health issues before you embark on your trip.
If you already know you have symptoms of anxiety or panic, think about creating a list of ways to relieve these symptoms while away from home. This will be helpful when any symptoms begin to arise. This list may include things such as listening to calming music before you fall asleep, completing a mindfulness exercise, talking a walk, writing down your thoughts in a diary or journal, or calling someone from home for support.

Take care of yourself.
Traveling may translate into a loss of sleep and an imbalanced workout regimen for some. This does not have to be the case. Recognize how many hours of sleep per night allow you to feel the most rested and comfortable. If you work out regularly, traveling does not have to mean abandonment from your exercise routine. Take time in your schedule to attend to your physical health as you would at home. Maintaining your physical well-being lends itself to many psychological benefits. Taking a brisk 30 minute walk or continuing your regular exercise routine can improve sleep quality, mood, and boost energy. This may be easier to accomplish in some types of trips compared to others. It is far simpler to exercise while walking many miles in the streets of New York City rather than relaxing on the beaches of Malibu. Regardless of the travel destination, healthy sleep, balanced nutrition, and physical wellbeing are all achievable goals on any type of travel trip.

Meet other travelers.
Connecting with others is an amazing way to maintain your anxiety symptoms. Traveling has the possibility to be a lonely experience. Strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the plane. Take the time to learn something new about the culture and people of the place you are traveling. Forming these connections with others can help decrease symptoms of anxiety, and help improve your overall well-being. You are probably not the only person on the plane, train, or bus who is nervous about traveling or experiencing some type of anxiety symptom.

Be mindful and stay grateful!
This is perhaps the most essential tip to maintain your mental health, specifically anxiety, on the go. Be mindful of the sounds and sights around you. Take the time each day to breathe deeply and attentively to ground you in the experience of traveling. Traveling is one of the most beautiful and gratifying experiences a person can have. Mindfulness of the “here and now” can help you to enjoy the experience of traveling and avoid worrying about the future, and focus on the present.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

de Jongh, A., Holmshaw, M., Carswell, W., & van Wijk, A. (2011). Usefulness of a trauma-focused treatment approach for travel phobia. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 18(2), 124-137. doi:10.1002/cpp.680

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