Your question: Why do I get anxiety in airports?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Through this blog I will explain the origin of your anxiety or fear of airports, explaining how airports have become a natural place of stress for many people and giving you some strategies to help you overcome this feeling the next time you fly.

Airports are globally used travel points, which have become an indispensable part of our economy and transportation. Whether we like them or not because they are almost always crowded and long waits for boarding are necessary, airports are very often unavoidable.

It is normal for airports to generate anxiety, given that in the last decades, the conception of security that we had about airplanes or airports in general has changed radically. Between tragic events involving plane crashes and the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, it is possible that the image you had of airports has changed for the worse.

In general, airports are very crowded spaces, and this is enough to generate anxiety in many people. You’re not alone in that airport anxiety. It is so common that a study(1) was done that sought to prove that by modifying the physical conditions of airports, users’ anxiety would significantly decrease.

The results were effective, showing that in an airport that was hygienic, organized, with a pleasant design and smell, friendly staff and, in general, shorter waits, passenger anxiety was much lower.

This research allows us to understand that there are a multitude of factors why someone might feel anxious at an airport, and the cause must be discovered before solutions can be proposed to give the person more peace of mind the next time they take a flight.

Why do airports give you anxiety?

There are several reasons that may be generating anxiety in you at airports, some of the most common are:

Previous traumatic experiences

If you have experienced traumatic events in airports or airplanes in the past, it is possible that when you go to an airport again, anxiety begins to manifest itself. This happens because the mind relives the traumatic event and associates it with similar spaces. In the same way that if you survive a bank robbery you will feel intense fear and anxiety the next time you go near a bank, it happens with any place where you experience a traumatic event.

Fear of flying

For many people the anxiety is not about the airport but about getting back on the plane they are about to board. This happens because fears and worries learned through news, series and movies that show plane crashes are activated at the airport, generating anxious symptoms such as tachycardia, sweating, fatigue and the desire to cry as the time approaches to take your flight.

Worries about your surroundings

Another common cause of anxiety at the airport are concerns about the environment as such, for example, that your flight will be delayed and you will not be able to arrive on time to a pending appointment at your destination. Other environmental aspects that can generate anxiety at an airport are poor treatment by staff and environmental conditions such as temperature and hygiene at the airport.

How can you deal with airport anxiety?

There are several techniques you can employ to reduce airport anxiety, mainly by working on your thoughts and fears associated with this space. 

Breathing exercises

When anxiety sets in, from your seat or while standing, you can do breathing exercises that decrease the tension in your body and the general feeling of anxiety. Rest your hand on your chest or abdomen, inhale for three seconds and exhale for three seconds. Keep a rhythm of breathing as you feel the tension gradually diminish.

Control your anxious thoughts

In addition to breathing, it is important to monitor your anxious thoughts at the airport, which are usually catastrophic and distressing. These thoughts can range from “I’ll be late for the city where I have a meeting” to “there’s going to be a terrorist attack at the airport”. Whatever thought triggers your anxiety, you should observe it and question it through logic.

If the anxiety is caused by the worry of unpunctuality, mentally repeat to yourself “I will take care of that problem when I get to my destination, for now, I can’t do anything”. If it is caused by fear of something tragic happening at the airport or plane, repeat to yourself “I am in a safe place, this will not happen to me, I am in a safe place”.

Pack things to keep you distracted

Bring books, portable video games or look at things on your phone during your time waiting at the airport. If you are an organized person, you can plan what you will do in each hour of waiting time you have at the airport, that will make the overall time pass faster. In one hour you can read, in the next listen to music, in the next delete old photos from your phone and then chat with a stranger about anything.

In my experience…

The reality is that using airports and traveling by plane is quite safe, statistically speaking. This is not to say that your airport-related fears and concerns are unrealistic or illogical. The more you work to understand the source of your anxious thoughts and question them, the more likely it is that anxiety will diminish from your life.

I hope that with these suggestions you can improve. I recognize and applaud you for seeking professional counseling, because it shows that you want to feel better and you are on the right path to change the things that make you feel bad. I believe that you have the capacity to improve, although sometimes your mind makes you believe that you have no solution. It was a pleasure to write to you.

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