There are endless things to love about travelling: the chance to experience different cultures and meet new people, the freedom and sense of adventure, and the opportunity to be challenged and learn more about the world. If you ask us, it’s one of the most rewarding and exciting parts of life!
But for people with anxiety, one of the most common mental health conditions, or those who experience anxiety induced by flying or travelling, a trip overseas can be a stressful, overwhelming and destabilising experience.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is your body’s physical response to an actual or perceived threat. It’s a feeling of worry, tension, nervousness or apprehension that often arises in situations with uncertain outcomes. Everyone feels anxious at times – it’s your body’s way of keeping you safe and is a normal response to certain triggers, stressors and circumstances.
People with anxiety disorders experience amplified feelings of anxiety, often out of proportion to situations. They usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns that start to impact the way they think, behave and live day-to-day.
What is travel anxiety?
Travel anxiety is a feeling of worry or stress specific to travelling. It can be triggered by any number of variables: being away from home and in an unfamiliar country, flying, language and cultural barriers, facing uncertainties and crowded places, for example.
How to manage anxiety while travelling
Managing anxiety while travelling isn’t always easy, but with awareness and some preparation, there are many ways to reduce its impact on your time away.
Pack anti-anxiety props
Packing distractions or “props” you can reach for in times of need is an easy way to manage anxiety while travelling. These can be simple things like headphones, game apps for your phone, books, a journal or crosswords and puzzles.
Less obvious things like roll-on essential oils and fidget toys specifically designed to calm nerves, relieve stress and distract in overstimulating environments are worth chucking in too. If you know you get overwhelmed in crowded places, take a leaf out of the celebrity playbook and keep a hat or cap and pair of sunnies on you. Throwing these on can provide a small sense of anonymity and be a shield from feeling so seen in a foreign place, which can reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Plan, prepare and do what you can to feel in control
For some, being in an unfamiliar place is the best part of travelling. For people with anxiety, different environments and being away from home can be a huge trigger. If unknown circumstances cause you stress, do some pre-planning.
Research your destination and plan your travel route and some activities before you leave. Arrive to the airport in good time so as not to feel rushed and stressed, and if there are any connecting flights, research if they are in different terminals and whether you can walk, or transport is needed. Pre-book as much transport and accommodation as possible, especially if you’re travelling in peak season, and give yourself that extra hour at the airport. Consider taking out travel insurance before you leave to handle all the what-if scenarios. You don’t have to forgo spontaneity altogether – even doing a few of things (e.g. sorting your accommodation before you leave) can give you a greater sense of control and ease anxious feelings.
Another tip is to switch on international roaming or buy a cheap sim card when you arrive at your destination. It means you can access maps, translate words and get in touch with family or friends wherever and whenever (a great tool for the anxiety-prone among us).
Get to know your triggers
Does flying fill you with dread? Do you feel suffocated in crowds? Do you panic when you get lost or are alone? If you have an underlying anxiety disorder or experience travel anxiety, get to know your triggers and take a proactive approach. Managing anxiety while travelling is all about preparation and setting yourself up with solutions and support before feelings of stress, panic and nervousness arise. On a practical level, it also means you can try to avoid certain situations you know trigger anxiety.
Talk to your travel companions
If you think your anxiety might be exacerbated while you’re away, talk to the people you are travelling with about your concerns. Let them know what situations trigger your anxiety and what kind of support you find helpful. Maybe you need some reassuring words when the plane is taking off or someone else to take charge in times of uncertainty. If you already have open communication, it will be easier to tell them what you need in times of distress. Compassionate friends and fellow travellers will understand your needs and look out for you, especially if they know anxiety is something you already struggle with.
If you’re travelling alone or with people you don’t feel comfortable talking to, stay connected to your support system of loved ones and friends back home. Again, this is where that sim card can come in handy. If you’re already receiving professional help for an anxiety disorder, chat to your therapist or doctor before you leave and ask whether they offer phone or video consults if needed.
Have some buffer room in the budget
We’d all like a bit of extra cash to holiday with, but this can be especially useful for anxious travellers. Fourth night in a row of being woken up at 3:00 a.m. by people clambering into your dorm room? Dip into the emergency fund and book yourself a private room. Did you just have a meltdown because you nearly missed your flight? Book a massage or take yourself out for a show, movie or nice dinner.
Having a financial buffer can really help if you experience intense or prolonged anxiety. It gives you the ability to remove yourself from stressful situations and get to a place of comfort, without worrying that you’ll break the sacred travel budget.
Follow a routine
Having a routine while travelling is important. Whether it’s a morning walk or stretching for 15 minutes when you first get up, a touch of routine can make you feel more in control and soothe a highly responsive nervous system. You might not follow it for your whole time away, but a simple routine at the start can help you get comfortable in a new place.
Practice calming techniques
Calming techniques – breathing exercises and meditation – are a great tool for managing anxiety while travelling. Long, slow breaths (breathing in through your nose, then exhaling slowly out of your mouth) can reduce anxiety. The physiological sigh or cyclic sighing is another great exercise to try. Take two sharp inhales of breath through the nose, then an extended sighing exhale through the mouth. You can download a meditation or mindfulness app for your phone or look up a free guided meditation on YouTube.
Try and practice these techniques before you leave and while you are in a calm state. You’ll have more luck regulating your nervous system in stressful situations if you do so.
Look after yourself
Not to harp on like an overbearing parent, but take care of yourself while you’re travelling. Eat a vegetable every few days, go for a relaxing walk and get a solid eight hours of sleep every now and again. Listen to your body and take time out for yourself when you need to. Your physical and mental health go hand in hand, so if you’re looking out for one, don’t neglect the other.
Take medication if you need to
Obviously, this is a personal decision and requires consultation with a medical professional. But a lot of anxiety sufferers benefit from anti-anxiety medication. There are other short term medications, for example something you can take when you fly, that you can chat to your doctor about too. A reminder that you might need to travel with a letter from your doctor to take certain prescription medications overseas and make sure you have enough medication for the entirety of your trip.
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