Overcoming Travel Anxiety

Imagine being in the planning stages of your next adventure when a sudden surge of fear washes over you. So strong is this fear, you think you just might faint. Worse, imagine you’ve already booked your flights, printed out your boarding pass, checked in your bags, and without warning, your legs turn into jelly. You’re remembering all those accidents you’ve heard of. Or maybe you’re being overwhelmed with anxiety from thoughts of having to communicate with foreigners who don’t speak your language and having to hail a cab. You’ve heard horror stories and watched movies about abductions and trafficking. You’re suddenly convinced this will be your final destination.

Have you ever felt any of these horrific sensations before? You’re not alone. Anxiety doesn’t affect only new travelers. Even the most itinerant traveler can suffer from anxiety when thinking about their next trip. The fear of travel, or “hodophobia”, can affect anyone, and it can truly be a debilitating experience. Traveling can be a stressful episode for anyone to some degree. Life is hectic and the additional pressures of getting to the airport on time, checking-in, getting through security and then waiting to board can take hours out of a day. Anticipation can quickly turn into fear. Unexpected delays or changes to an itinerary can bring on feelings of stress and confusion which can turn into anxiety.

You may become confused or fearful when faced with working out which trains to take, or trying to understand directions in a heavy accent or another language altogether. If you’ve ever been lost in a strange city, that feeling can stay with you for some time. You might get physical symptoms like breathlessness, perspiration, trembles, stomach pains, gastro problems, and headaches. Symptoms may range from mild to straight up panic attacks. It’s different for everybody!

A few common fears associated with travel:

  • fear of getting out of your comfort zone
  • fear of the unknown (different streets,  languages, or cultures)
  • fear of having a bad experience (getting lost, losing baggage, violent attack, etc.)
  • fear of traveling by air (or sea or rail)
  • fear of traveling alone (loneliness and/or your personal safety)
  • fear of getting ill or injured while abroad

Here are some practical tips for managing your fears:

Seeing a counselor or therapist may give you a strategy for facing your fears. They will help you get your thinking right and suggest breathing exercises to help you relax. Often times, severe travel anxiety has a deep root in unrelated life stresses. This was the case for me before a Maldives trip. You’d think thoughts of a relaxing week in paradise would chill me out. Instead, I could only replay major accidents I heard on the news in my head. The first (16 hour!) flight to Dubai over the North Pole had me absolutely TERRIFIED to the point of cold sweats and nausea. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, shaking uncontrollably, days before the flight. I had flown to Europe dozens of times, so why was this particular trip terrifying me?

Well, it turns out I was under severe stress from other life events. Please seek help if your fears are irrationally severe and/or you suspect there might be another cause for your distress. Moving, losing/changing a job, a breakup/divorce, ill family members, even positive events like weddings and new babies can all cause you to fear things that take you out of your comfort zone, such as travel. Please take care of yourself first.

Planning – Create a checklist covering every aspect of your trip from reservations to ensuring your passports are still valid, and ordering currency. Use this list each time you travel. My friends would be the first to tell you, I’m not usually one to plan. I like to leave room for spontaneous adventures and serendipitous meetings. It’s totally ok not to plan every single detail, but covering the basics will put your mind at ease! As one of my friends put it, “planning actually gives you more freedom than not, because you end up having more time when you don’t have to worry about basic needs!” You can always take detours or make changes, but planning gives you much more control. Life and its unexpected plot twists might always be the pilot, but proper planning at least makes you co-pilot as opposed to just being a stowaway with no idea where you’re headed.  

Preparation – This goes along with planning. Know where everything is, ask for the aircraft layout and reserve seats in advance. Know how to get to the correct terminal or platform. Find out in advance where all the amenities are. This will help you feel more relaxed. Taking time to learn at least basic phrases in your destination’s language will help tons as well. Even phrases as simple as “Do you speak English?” and “Where’s the bathroom?” will make your experience much less stressful.

Time – Know how much time you need to get to the airport, check in, and go through security check. Allow plenty of time to get to the airport, or your destination. Expect some delays so that you might mentally prepare for them.

Sleep – You are in better shape physically and mentally after a good night’s sleep before you travel – this will help keep anxiety levels lower.

Hydration – These days you can’t take bottles of water on the plane but you can make sure that you drink plenty of water in the days leading up to departure. Remember, dehydration can increase anxiety levels.

Avoid alcohol and caffeine! A glass of wine might help some with very minor flight anxiety, but if you’re actually dealing with trembles and looping thoughts, alcohol is NOT your friend. Instead, opt for a chamomile or lavender tea.

Travel with a friend – If a friend can’t travel with you, then they may be able to stay with you through to the departure gate or to the platform. If you’re traveling with your partner, make sure they know where you are most vulnerable so that they can take some of the strain off.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In conclusion, a fear of traveling can cause you to miss out on life’s greatest adventures. Experiencing new cultures, seeing this planet’s incredible sights, important family gatherings, a friend’s wedding… The list goes on. The greatest risk here is in not living. Don’t let a fear of travel rob you of life. You’ve got to just do it to get through it. So take a deep breath, mentally prepare yourself, face your fear, and step out! Embrace the new world that is waiting for you to discover it.