Your question: Can I travel if I have anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Although anxiety is a universal reality, since we all experience it to a greater or lesser extent, it can become a problem for many people. Anxiety problems occur when anxiety becomes too intense and recurrent, generating problems in daily life.

You may have noticed how chronic anxiety impacts different areas of your life, from work to interpersonal relationships are affected by the uncomfortable physical sensations and negative emotions associated with anxiety.

Traveling is an activity that can be enjoyable for many, but for some people with anxiety it can be an ordeal, not necessarily because they don’t enjoy seeing a new country and discovering different landscapes, but because of all the implications that come with the process of traveling.

I can understand that this is frustrating for you. When you finally have a vacation, you prepare a trip with your family, friends and/or partner, but anxiety starts to flood you before traveling, and makes you feel a deep physical and emotional discomfort.

This is called Travel Anxiety, a problem that occurs both before traveling and during the trip itself due to a multitude of factors. It is interesting to see how the perspective on the fears associated with travel has changed over time.

A 2003 study showed that one of the main fears related to travel anxiety was the possibility of suffering a terrorist attack at the airport, on the plane or upon arrival at the destination (1). On the other hand, a 2020 study showed that the main concern in travelers’ anxiety was getting sick with COVID-19 (2).

Whatever the reason for your travel anxiety, I guarantee that there are solutions to address your problem. You have the ability to deal with your anxious symptoms and prevent them from taking control of your life. Everyone who enjoys traveling should be able to do so while feeling safe and fully enjoying the experience of discovering a new place without being hindered by anxiety.

Therefore, before considering suggestions for dealing with your travel anxiety, it is necessary to know the source of your anxiety.

When does your anxiety become a problem?

Anxiety is no longer healthy when it causes significant discomfort in daily life and impairs your quality of life. Psychology has studied anxiety as a complex phenomenon, which has specific characteristics that affect people in different areas (3).

Some characteristics of anxiety are:

Cognitive symptoms: fear of losing control; fear of death; fear of “going crazy”; fear of negative evaluation by others; frightening thoughts.

Physiological symptoms: increased heart rate, palpitations; shortness of breath, rapid breathing; chest pain or pressure; choking sensation; dizziness.

Affective symptoms: nervous, tense, wound up; frightened; sadness; irritability.

Why do you feel travel anxiety?

The feeling of travel anxiety is quite common and has multiple causes.

Daily worries

It is common for people to feel anxious about traveling, whether for work or recreation, because they think about everything related to their daily life. The sadness of being away from their family and loved ones, even temporarily, the worry about work, studies and money, and the anxiety related to returning to the routine once you return from the trip.

Fear of airports, airplanes or means of transportation in general

It is possible that your fear of traveling is related to the process of travel itself. Many people fear planes, trains, cars and any other means of transportation for various reasons, all fueled by their anxious thoughts. You may be afraid of having an accident on the way to your destination or anxious about crowds of people in airports, terminals and stations.

Stressful preparations

Traveling involves meticulous preparations if you don’t want to improvise and act on the fly when you arrive at your destination. This is stressful because when you travel you have to organize your money, your bags, your accommodations and many other elements. The anxiety is intensified if you are a person in charge of others on a trip, for example, parents with young children to look after all the time.

Sociocultural Risk

Although over time the fears associated with traveling have changed, there is one that has remained persistent over the years and that is sociocultural risk. One of the main reasons for travel anxiety is the concern about temporarily adapting to the cultural dynamics and language of the country you are traveling to. This can be very stressful as people feel anxious about experiencing a tragic or problematic situation during their trip and not being able to solve the problem as they are too far away from home, often dealing with a different culture, language and laws.

How can you deal with your travel anxiety?

Travel anxiety can paralyze people to the point of isolation and prevent them from taking trips that can be beneficial to their mental health. Occasionally, we all need to get out of our routine and travel to a location we enjoy. Therefore, you need to develop coping strategies to deal with the anxiety symptoms associated with traveling.

Flexible planning

Part of travel anxiety is based on two extremes: obsessive planning or carelessness that causes problems. It is necessary to make a balance to reduce anxiety levels before and during the trip. Organize everything you need in your suitcase, reserve your hotel room in advance, plan what you will do during your stay, but leave room for eventualities and spontaneous situations. It is not bad to get carried away during a trip, for example, going to a place you had not planned to go. It will help to have a basic knowledge of the language of the country you will be traveling to, so carrying a dictionary and taking lessons in the days before your trip will help you in this step.

Breathing and relaxation

When anxiety symptoms occur, relaxation exercises are quite helpful. Close your eyes, inhale slowly for 3 seconds and exhale for another 3 seconds. Rest your hands on your abdomen and feel how the tension in your body progressively decreases. While you do this, repeat in your mind affirmation phrases, such as: “you can handle this situation, you have the strength to do it”. You can apply this exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Question your thoughts

Anxiety is inevitably related to your way of thinking, so you need to modify it in order to reduce anxious symptoms. When you have automatic thoughts that overwhelm you, you should question them and modify them for a positive and functional one. For example, if your anxious thought is “what if we arrive and there are no vacancies at the hotel?”, you should give a reassuring response such as: “I will organize myself in advance so I can get to the hotel calmly” or “I will solve that inconvenience when I arrive, I will go to an area of the place where there are several hotels nearby”. In this way, you will work on modifying anxious thoughts for relieving ones that will allow you to make quick and timely decisions.

In my experience…

Travel anxiety is very common, and there is nothing wrong with feeling this way. However, you need to gradually address your travel-related concerns by confronting negative and dysfunctional thoughts, replacing them with confidence and self-assurance. With sufficient planning, a trip does not have to be an overwhelming anxiety-generating experience. It should be a time of enjoyment and relaxation that allows you to see new places and create memories, either alone or with people you care about.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

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