The Anxiety of Travel

The Holiday season is here. Most of us already recognize that this is a time where anxiety and stress seem to cling to the air and we can just absorb it. There are a lot of positive things about the holidays, but whether you love this time of year or dread it, you are going to be living in a world where the average stress levels are far elevated for roughly a few weeks. A huge part of the holiday stress comes from the travel that will be undertaken to visit family and friends. Travel is a polarizing topic; many people not only enjoy it but seek out lifestyles that are filled with it. Others are paralyzed with anxiety at even having to make short trips both in terms of distance and time spent away from home. I have a firm belief that we cannot truly eliminate stress from travel even if you are a person who enjoys it. Elimination of anxiety may not be possible surrounding travel, but we can identify certain sources of this anxiety and take steps to reduce it to a very manageable level. We will look at 3 separate aspects of travel anxiety: dealing with specific phobias/anxiety related to travel, the environmental stressors encountered while traveling, and routine disruption.

Phobias and Specific Fears of Travel

A blog is not a proper place to talk about eliminating any phobia. It takes practice and work in therapy over the course of time. However, looking at these specific fears that are involved in travel can be helpful in making people who struggle with them feel less alone and maybe give some basic tools to combat these fears. Plane travel is the fastest way as we all know, but the fear of flying is often increased during the holidays because it is a time where plane travel is encouraged and/or necessary. The fear of flying is complex but here are some facts to understand about it:

  • Fear of flying is not always due to a traumatic event while flying.
  • Fear of flying is not reduced by facts and figures i.e. “it is more dangerous to drive to the airport than to fly on the plane.”
  • Fear of flying is not feeling uncomfortable on a plane, it is an intense panic about being stuck on a plane in flight.

Flying during the holidays to travel requires some prep work in going to counseling and processing this fear, as well as practicing mindfulness for some time so you are well equipped to do so on the plane. A quick tip is to use the mindfulness practice of being deeply in touch with your senses while flying. The seat is uncomfortable but not painful, the bumps and shifts are not causing major movement in your body or causing harm, and the overall sensory input is not one of severe danger. Try to keep your senses the primary focus when flying instead of your imagination, also stay in the present moment.

Other people struggle with a phobia or intense fear of driving long distances. The close spaces, unpredictability of others on the road, and fatigue are common anxiety driving factors for these people. This is another case where you want to seek counseling and support before its time to head out on your travels, but mindfulness is helpful here as well. Another thing to remember is long drives are very hard on our body and mind, and taking frequent stops and breaks is important if we don’t want to overwhelm ourselves.

Dealing With Environmental Stressors

The environments we are in when we travel can be the most stressful part. I am particularly talking about airports, but it can also be the car. Staying with the airport scenario, I personally have no issue flying but experience high anxiety in airports. Some people stress in airports because of security concerns, safety issues, health concerns, or just stressed because they are in a rush. My anxiety however comes from the sheer amount of anxiety in the environment. People are rushed, angry, concerned, fatigued, and sometimes even a bit intoxicated. This makes for a very easy environment for a general feeling of anxiety to grow and infiltrate our own minds. Even when we arrive with plenty of time to catch a flight it feels like we are caught in the mad scramble of those around us who may not have been as prepared. Frequent flyers have shared some tips with me in the past that I think can help others who struggle with the stressful environment of the airport:

  • Practice positivity with airport employees. They are often fatigued and grumpy, but if you approach them with a smile, they may just return the favor and ease your mind.
  • Get there early, and use the services airports offer. There are things to do and see that can distract your anxiety from your trip.
  • Play a “story telling game”. Watch those in the airport and tell yourself stories about where they are going/coming from and what they are visiting for.
  • Eat light, hydrate. It is shocking how many people are dehydrated while traveling. Dehydration creates anxiety! Drink plenty of water.

Travel’s Impact on Routine

Many of my previous blogs have mentioned how important to mental health having a routine is. Some people are very detail oriented, and their daily routine barely ever deviates, but even for those of us more flexible in our personality the outline of a routine is necessary for good mental health. Anxiety grows and thrives when there is no routine set. It is obvious that when we travel for the holidays our typical daily routine is going to be greatly disrupted on multiple levels. First, we will be out of our comfortable element of home and the home routine. Second, the trip itself will often have a very hectic and inconsistent routine with different wake up and sleep times, changes in eating patterns, and our own personal time being lost to social time with family and friends. Not having our normal routine while we are on a trip is not a major concern in terms of mental health. Even longer trips of 1-2 weeks can settle into their own temporary routine that is quite enjoyable. The issues tend to be more focused around when we return from travel and recreating our old routine.

Returning home from travel feels great at first usually. We are excited to be done driving and flying, happy to be back in the comfort of our home, and happy to be done with the common overeating and under sleeping that holiday travel often brings. However, it can also be a jarring experience when we return home and try to get right back into the patterns we had left. The human brain looks for consistency, but when it is met with change it will enter a state of being ready for more change. When it is in that state it takes more time than we may expect to get back into our normal routine. Some tips to get yourself back into your personal routine after travel are:

  • If possible, have a day or two between returning from a trip and going back to work and/or school. Use that day in between to get your rhythm back in terms of eating/sleeping.
  • Unpack within a day of returning. A still-packed suitcase is a sign to your brain that travel mode is still activated. Unpacked bags can also be a source of anxiety when normal life resumes, and the task becomes less and less appealing.
  • Besides unpacking, take it easy when it comes to getting tasks around the home done. Being gone often requires quite a few things to be addressed upon returning, but it all doesn’t need to be done the first day back.

If you struggle with travel stress and anxiety, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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