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We all hear (constantly!) that travel improves mental health, though with all the stress around planning and spending time in unfamiliar places, many people find themselves susceptible to travel anxiety.
While this isn’t an official mental health condition that can be diagnosed, travel can really exacerbate general anxiety symptoms and can prevent you from enjoying your experience.
Some people find it so severe that they avoid travel altogether.
While mental health was once seen as taboo and rarely discussed, today we’ve started to talk about it. Anxiety doesn’t go away because you’re traveling, and dealing with anxiety overseas can be much more distressing than when you experience them at home.
So it is important to talk about.
If you suffer from travel anxiety, it doesn’t mean that you can’t travel the world, but it may mean you have to do a bit more planning to manage your health and tackle your reactions so you can keep yourself in check.
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Before you can tackle travel anxiety, you have to know how to identify whether you have it (and if you do identify your symptoms, you have to be willing to then acknowledge it).
It’s important to remember that mental health issues don’t discriminate and can affect anyone. Even if you’ve never experienced a mental health episode before, it’s worth knowing how to treat them in case travel manages to trigger something within you, or in case someone you’re travelling with has an episode.
As with any condition, symptoms can appear differently for each individual, but there are a few common ones to keep an eye out for:
- Chest pain or rapid heart rate
- Trouble sleeping before a trip
- Constantly checking departure times, tickets, etc.
- Trouble focusing
If any of these weighs too heavily on you, they can trigger your mind to have a panic attack. In order to try to minimize the effects of travel anxiety, here are 5 tips to help you stop overthinking and enjoy the ride.
#1 Identify Your Anxiety Triggers
The first step is to figure out what increases your anxiety symptoms. Some of these triggers may be specific to your travels, such as boarding a plane or planning your itinerary (read this post for nervous flyers).
Others can correlate to outside influences, like caffeine intake, stress, or low blood sugar; a common trigger is food, especially among those who suffer from disorders like IBS.
Common (existing) mental health conditions that travel can trigger or make worse include anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, panic attacks, depression, OCD, and drug abuse.
Travelling solo can leave people with feelings of depression from not having a support network of friends and family close, and being that the nature of travel makes you face a number of situations beyond your control, this can often make things worse for those suffering from OCD who often require perfect order and symmetry.
When in doubt, travel with a companion. If that can’t be a human, consider getting an ESA. Emotional service animals can be perfect for anticipating and preventing the onset of panic attacks when you fly or on long journeys.
Most airlines have similar travel requirements for ESAs, but it’s always good to check with the specific airline beforehand. For example, the American Airlines ESA policy requires that you fill out a few forms prior to your flight.
#2 Pad Your Time
Building in extra time in your schedule can really help - you may think that it's a good idea to pack your itinerary as tightly as possible which will distract you from thinking about your issues, but this can compound anxiety and make it worse.
If the stress is mounting up at the mere thought of waiting in the security line, give yourself extra time to get to the airport and find your gate.
It's important to make your travel plans as uncomplicated and least stressful as possible. This means not trying to overload your itinerary or waiting until the last minute to book tickets and accommodation.
Plan for a couple extra hours so that you have time to get to the airport, sit down, and have a relaxing up of coffee (decaf if necessary). This will decrease your stress if a trigger for you is the thought of missing your flight.
#3 Distract Yourself
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While building in extra time, bring plenty of things to distract yourself with during that time.
What's your go-to activity that reduces your anxiety? Maybe it’s a comforting movie or an interesting video game, which offer a time passing visual distraction. Some people find puzzles, books, music through headphones, and other quiet activities comforting.
Some mental health issues can be kept at bay by remaining active or exercising. Make use of your hotel gym area, practice yoga while traveling, or have a run around a local park to distract your mind when unhealthy thoughts creep in.
Some airports even have running tracks nowadays!
Alternatively, you may want to think about packing a journal so you can write down your travel experiences and put your thoughts on paper. Seeing your own thoughts in writing can help you determine if they are rational or not.
Whatever you chosen distraction is, make sure you bring it along for your trip. Enjoyable distractions keep negative thoughts at bay and instead give you a positive train of thought to focus on.
#4 Keep Your Attitude in Check
If your mindset isn’t right, you’ll never have a good time. Try to maintain a neutral mindset at the minimum, and a positive attitude if you can manage it through the stress.
Think: you may be waiting in a long security line, but you arrived with a few extra hours to spare so you have plenty of time. It might have been scary going through security, but you can now wait near your gate with a snack and a good book before boarding!
If you struggle with this, know that you can also seek help and assistance while you're abroad, whether from doctors on the ground (research this in advance if you think it will be helpful), or keeping in contact with your regular therapist.
I’m not saying you should but them a plane ticket to accompany you, but you may be able to plan and pre-pay for sessions with your therapist that can be carried out online or over the phone.
Talk with your therapist about when they may be available (remembering time zones) should a mental health emergency arise. Be sure to book an appointment before your trip so your therapist can prescribe you enough medication to get you through.
#5 Accept Your Situation
It’s time to face the fact that you are in your situation because it’s something you want to do, and there will be a positive outcome eventually.
There may be traffic on the road along the way, and your flight could get delayed, but no amount of cranky people around you or any other inconvenience matters. Choose how you respond to the situation.
Instead of worrying about a flight delay, think how you’ve got time to finish your book and natter to other passengers. Your mindset here can frame how you respond to the situation.
If you are facing debilitating travel anxiety and no number of tips seem to be helping, consider consulting with a mental health professional. For some, medication is what is ultimately needed to soothe their nerves when going abroad.
Whichever method works best for you, we wish you a bon voyage!
If you’re suffering from a mental health condition, it doesn’t mean that you can’t travel the world, but it may mean you have to do a bit more planning to manage your health.