Between experiencing new cultures, navigating unfamiliar streets, and putting faith in strangers, stepping out of your comfort zone is an intrinsic part of travel. For some, this uncertainty is all part of the adventure. But if you’re traveling with anxiety, that vacation you’ve been dreaming about can turn quickly into a minefield.
Before Your Trip: Prepare for Traveling with Anxiety
Anxiety disorders affect nearly one in five American adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Common conditions include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, and phobias, among others—and just about all of them can have an adverse impact on a trip.
Traveling with anxiety is a different experience for everyone. Some anxious travelers have to white-knuckle their way through every flight; some get nervous in crowded places like subway cars and major tourist attractions. Others can’t stop worrying: “What if I get lost and can’t find my way back to my hotel?” “Will the food make me sick?” “Did I remember to lock my house when I left?”
Despite the challenges, you don’t need to let anxiety keep you from exploring the world. Here are 13 travel anxiety tips to help you cope with your fears and enjoy your vacation to the fullest.
While you can’t plan for everything that could conceivably go wrong on a trip, many anxious travelers find that preparing for common problems makes them feel more secure. Afraid you’ll get sick? Purchase travel insurance in case of illness or injury, and know the local equivalent of 911 to dial in an emergency. Worried about losing your passport? Keep photo backups of your important documents in a secure place, such as a passcode-protected smartphone. Concerned you won’t be able to communicate? Learn a few words in the local language, and download a translation app onto your phone.
Plan Your Itinerary
Some travelers might show up in a new place and wing it, but those with anxiety often prefer to have a well-researched itinerary. Knowing which neighborhoods are safe to walk in, when your must-see attractions are open, and how to best get around the city can help you feel more confident in a new place. One caveat: There’s a fine line between a well-planned itinerary and an over-packed schedule. Feeling like you have to rush from one sight to the next can add to your anxiety, so leave yourself a little wiggle room.
Staying up late to pack the night before your flight is a recipe for stress. Instead, make a packing list several days before departure so you have time to pick up anything you might be missing. Include items that will provide comfort or distraction when you’re feeling anxious on the road—a novel, a playlist of your favorite songs, or a pillowcase that smells like home.
Focus on the Positive
When you start getting anxious, remind yourself of why you’re taking this trip. Visualize the places you want to see and the adventures you’re excited to have.
Get a Little Help
If your anxiety is severe, you don’t have to struggle alone. A therapist can work with you to identify your biggest sources of anxiety and develop effective coping strategies. You can also talk with your doctor about whether medication would be appropriate.
For travelers afraid of flying, Michele Feder, a licensed clinical social worker at Psychology Associates, recommends the SOAR program. Developed by a former airline pilot, the program includes telephone counseling, educational courses, and forums for fearful flyers to share their experiences.
During Your Trip: Travel Anxiety Tips
Take a Deep Breath
“When we get anxious, our breathing goes from deep and slow in our belly to short and fast from our chest,” says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist at Boulder Marriage Counseling. “Keep your breathing relaxed by breathing in five seconds through your nose and 10 seconds out of your mouth, like you’re blowing off hot soup.”
Picturing yourself in a safe, comfortable place can be a powerful antidote to anxiety. “Practice visualization … by imagining a relaxing place and what you would be experiencing with your sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell,” advises Fisher. For fearful flyers, it can be calming to picture your plane taking off and landing safely.
Use Other Stress-Busting Techniques
Meditation, yoga, and exercise are proven ways to lower stress, and can be done in your room or at the hotel fitness center. Fisher also recommends progressive muscle relaxation, which entails tensing all the muscles in a particular part of your body, holding them tight for about 10 seconds, and then releasing them. Work your way through every muscle group to gradually get rid of tension. Feder suggests trying the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, in which you focus on concrete things you’re experiencing through your five senses.
Instead of panicking that every patch of rough air is a sign your plane is going to crash, take your mind off what’s happening by watching a funny movie, listening to relaxing music, or rereading your favorite book.
Reach Out to Someone
Whether they’re on your trip with you or at the other end of a phone line, supportive friends or family members can often help talk you through an anxious moment or panic attack.
Take a Break
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by crowds or experiencing culture shock, don’t be afraid to call a “time out” on your vacation. Hit a spa, relax in your hotel room, order room service—a little self-care is a great way to recharge your batteries when traveling with anxiety.
After Your Trip
Embrace the Positive
Use every successful trip as proof that you’re capable of dealing with anything travel throws your way.
Plan Your Next Trip
Many people find that traveling with anxiety gets easier the more they do it. If seeing the world is important to you, savor the memories you’ve accumulated during previous trips and remind yourself that these experiences are worth the challenge.
What are your best travel anxiety tips?
More from SmarterTravel:
- 9 Travel Products That Take the Stress Out of Your Trip
- The Healing Power of Travel
- 10 Ways to De-Stress at the Airport
Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that anxiety disorders affect one in five Americans, rather than one in five American adults. It has been corrected.