Guest post by Lola Mendez
Before the global COVID-19 pandemic, I had been traveling full-time for five years as a travel journalist. My daily life was a mix of planes, trains, and automobiles. I was constantly on the go, and I liked it that way. The weird thing is, the actual transportation portion of traveling never bothered me until one day it did. In a big way. Suddenly, I was experiencing travel anxiety.
What is travel anxiety?
“We experience travel anxiety because we’re leaving the known for the unknown. There can be traffic, flight delays, new languages or food, different sleep arrangements. As humans, we crave comfort and travel takes us out of our comfort zone and allows us to feel less in control,” says Brie Shelly, a licensed mental health therapist, and a travel advisor. Every client she’s seen in over a decade has voiced some level of anxiety related to travel. Travel anxiety is common, and many people experience it on some level. It can manifest as classic feelings of anxiety-shortness of breath, restlessness, or a rapid heartbeat. And what triggers travel anxiety can be many things. My travel anxiety stems from fears about transportation. Shelly says this is the most common trigger for travel anxiety.
The first time I experienced claustrophobia due to travel anxiety, I was on a night bus in Cambodia. I was sharing a single bed with a stranger. They had pulled the curtain closed and I felt like I was stuck in a casket with my new travel companion. I couldn't breathe. Eventually, I asked the driver to pull over in the middle of the night so I could get some air. When I got back on the bus, I took an empty bed. I left the curtain open and felt much better.
A few months later, after spending nearly four years in the region, I was leaving Asia on a commercial flight to Australia. I felt like I couldn't get enough air while I was stuck in the window seat. I told the flight attendant I thought I was on the brink of a panic attack (although I’d never had one before). She let me move to an aisle seat. This simple switch calmed my fears. Now, I always reserve an aisle seat on any mode of transport.
A few weeks later, I was in Papua New Guinea and had to traverse around the country in a tiny six-seater plane. I sat in the back and sobbed the entire time. It took some time to determine the root of my travel anxiety after that trip. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel safe. I felt like I couldn’t breathe in the tiny plane. As an asthmatic, feeling at a loss for breath is not a fun experience. Now I take anxiety medication before boarding any sort of transportation. I also apply lavender oil and practice breathing techniques to calm travel anxiety using the Glo app.
How to ease travel anxiety
Perhaps the most important step to learning how to ease travel anxiety is to recognize what’s triggering it. There are different fears that can cause travel anxiety. Often, it’s caused by worries about being robbed or losing personal items, health issues, political unrest, and natural disasters. Many others share my anxiety about transportation. “Between fear of flying, turbulence, the complete lack of control, delays, and so much more, flying has a long list of factors that could make anxiety spark,” Shelley says. Feeling panicked during a flight? Try asking a flight attendant for a cold, wet towel to put on your forehead or behind your neck. Shelley also suggests letting a flight attendant know you have flight anxiety when you board. This will alert them to pay close attention to you and be on hand if you need anything.
Determining the root cause of travel anxiety is now complicated by Covid-19. Many of us that used to be frequent travelers have been close to home for a while. And fear of contracting the virus can leave us on edge when we do travel. Like many others, my travel habits have changed during the pandemic. For the first time in a decade, I’ve been in one country for an entire year. Since I’ve started traveling again, I’ve had to take several long bus rides. Fear of Covid-19 adds to my travel anxiety around not being able to breathe, particularly as the virus is especially dangerous for those with asthma.
Use this checklist to ease travel anxiety on the go
There are many things that you can do to ease travel anxiety while you’re on the go. Shelly suggests following this mental checklist of tips to ease travel anxiety when planning for your trip:
- Do I have several hours of travel distractions ready to go?
- Did I pack things that remind me of home?
- Do I have all of my precautionary gear that I need to feel safe with COVID?
- Do I have a list of my travel plans easily accessible so I can ask for help if needed?
- Do I have my support team on standby if needed?
- Have I booked ample downtime to regroup, sleep, eat, do the basics that maintain some sense of normalcy and stability when on the road?
- Do I have my medication or alternatives to help if needed to manage my anxiety?
Helpful additions to deal with travel fears around Covid-19
Use these tools to cope with heightened travel anxiety even as COVID-19 restrictions ease. And remember, you’re not alone.
- Purchase travel and health insurance, so you’re covered in case of an emergency. Check to see if your provider is also covering any potential Covid-related costs.
Shelly recommends identifying the fears that cause travel anxiety and then outlining ways to distract yourself or resolve them. For example: If missing your flight is a worry, make a plan to arrive early at a time that is safe but not overdoing it.
Staying organized can help reduce anxiety, so plan a detailed itinerary and try to stick with it. Do some research ahead of time to see if there are any restrictions or changes you should be aware of due to Covid-19. And, you’ll want to know in advance which businesses and restaurants are implementing health regulations to keep patrons and staff safe.
Shelley recommends bringing something from home that offers comfort. “Your favorite sweater or scarf are great items to pack. They give something cozy that you can touch. Or, think music, your favorite lotion, favorite snacks, or food items that might be hard to find in a foreign country. Pack something that can connect you to your senses. It’s a great way to ground in when you're feeling anxious,” she says.
Plan plenty of classic distractions like book reading, watching movies/tv, listening to music, or podcasts. If you tend to lose interest easily, have multiple distractions lined up.
Have your support systems easily accessible through speed dial. If you already see a professional, schedule a check-in before you leave.
Don’t forget the power of a few deep breaths. Download a few of your favorite guided meditations to tune into when you need to ease travel anxiety.
Understanding how to ease travel anxiety (and preparing accordingly) can go a long way to making your next trip as enjoyable as possible. Have a hack for busting travel anxiety to share? Drop it in the comments below!
Read More: Four Tips for Carefree Travel
Lola Méndez is an Uruguayan-American freelance journalist. She's a full-time globetrotter who travels to develop her own worldview and has explored over 60 countries. Passionate about sustainable travel, she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities. You can follow along on her responsible travel blog MissFilatelista.com, and on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.