Coping with Travel Anxiety

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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What comes to mind when you think about travel? Maybe it’s a journey to some faraway place or maybe it’s just the daily grind of your commute to and from work. Both represent forms of travel and both can evoke anxiety for quite different reasons.

Many of the people I’ve spoken to have differing views and experiences about travel. Some find that stepping out of the house to visit the local shop is the physical and emotional equivalent of climbing to Everest base camp. Some feel their anxiety increases in specific circumstances, such as when they get stuck in traffic. Some have high levels of pre-travel anxiety but are fine once they’re underway. Travel anxiety actually spans a wide range of issues.

Vacation Anxiety

The anxiety probably begins with choosing a destination. Have I picked the right place? Can I really afford this? Nearer the time of departure, the focus changes to what to pack. Then comes a level of anxiety about leaving all your worldly goods behind. This is before we even tackle issues such as fear of flying, fear of drowning, fear of being mugged, fear of terrorism, fear of getting sick, and so on.

During a casual conversation someone once asked me if they were agoraphobic. They’d read that some of the signs of agoraphobia include feeling uncomfortable standing in long lines, or not liking crowded places like airports. Well, the answer was no. There’s a big difference between disliking something and feeling anxious or frightened by it.

What Underpins Travel Anxiety?

Whether it’s the daily commute, climbing into a car or taxi, or getting on an aircraft, the basic principles underpinning travel anxiety are the same. They involve anxious thinking, anxious feelings and anxious behavior. Examples of anxious thinking include, “We’re going to crash and die,” “Other people aren’t paying enough attention, "or" Just the thought of getting into (whatever) fills me with dread.”

Anxious thoughts then give rise to all those familiar anxious feelings: racing pulse, feeling tense and twitchy, needing to use the toilet, dry mouth, and so on.

Anxious behavior is the outward manifestation of all these thoughts and feelings. For example, you may find reasons to avoid the journey altogether. You may grip the steering wheel and be really cautious when driving. You may be a real back seat driver. You may grab hold of something and be extra vigilant.

Letting Go

Travel anxiety is no different from other forms of anxiety. One of the underpinning issues is the fact that our primitive brain is in conflict with our logical brain. The primitive brain is saying “Detect, avoid, and escape danger,” while the logical brain is saying, “I have to get to work” or “I deserve a vacation and everyone expects me to go.” Another aspect of travel anxiety is difficulty in tolerating uncertainty. This is based around an assumption of other’s people’s incompetence, such as, “Is this driver safe?”

Letting go isn’t easy but it might help if you think about all those times you put your faith in other people without even thinking about it. For example, do you trust that the building you are in won’t collapse? What about the food and drink prepared for you in restaurants? Or how about train drivers or ship captains or airline pilots? It’s actually safer and easier to assume that the person in charge of your travel wants to live as much as you do.

Getting Help

There is no shortage of options when it comes to addressing travel anxiety. Self-help books abound and the Internet has plenty of tips. A more structured and ultimately better approach may be to consider cognitive behavioral therapy, which has an incredibly good track record in helping people cope with anxiety.

See more helpful articles:

12 Tips for Traveling with Anxiety

Anti-Anxiety Medications: What to Know Before Taking Them

Tips for Overcoming the Fear of Flying