Guest Blog Post by: Tamara Miller, PsyD
The opportunity to take a magical trip abroad to a country like Italy conjures up wondrous images. Breathtaking landscapes, mouth-watering delicacies, friendly, awe-inspiring people, world-renowned artwork, the list goes on and on. But for the anxious traveler, the possibility of such an excursion can bring up more than just wonders. It can also be cause for anxiety.
Travel anxiety is not one size fits all. For some anxious travelers, there is anxiety around being somewhere unfamiliar. While for others, it may be about the stress of packing. For some, it could be about being surrounded by too many people and stimulation. While for others, it could be about being somewhere new. And then, for many people with travel anxiety, there may be anxiety about how they can handle their anxiety! Even though travel anxiety is common, people often feel ashamed for worrying about taking a vacation. They may silently suffer or avoid traveling. Without the opportunity to work through some of these challenges, staying home and sidestepping these unpleasant feelings may feel easier.
But here is the good news: Your travel anxiety is manageable! Experiencing travel anxiety does not need to stop you from taking and enjoying your vacation. Even though each person’s particular anxiety around travel may be unique, there are tips and tricks you can use. Read on to learn how anxiety can take the backseat to your adventure.
Reduce “Anxiety Hopping”
Traveling comes with much unpredictability, which can be a breeding ground for “what if” thoughts. A “what if” concern can become particularly onerous and discouraging when, instead of allowing you to process a particular challenge, it successfully engages you in a game of “anxiety hopping.” “What if I lose my medication?” can hop right to “What if no one understands me?” Before you can process this, your anxiety might hop to “What if I’m in a restaurant and I can’t understand the menu?” Now, suddenly, these all feel very real and very unsolvable — you’ve lost your medicine, no one can help you, and you are eating food in a restaurant you don’t like!
If you notice that this happening, one tool is to pause and say to yourself “I’m engaging in anxiety hopping.” Simply noticing and labeling when you are anxiety hopping can be a helpful intervention. It not only breaks the intensity of the spiral, but allows for an opportunity to slow down.
Playing out the Tape
If you are someone who knows that you anxiety hop, another strategy for reducing your anxiety is by “playing out the tape.” Playing out the tape means sticking with a worry thought and following it all the way to completion. This is helpful for several reasons: First, hopping from thought to thought without identifying a potential solution can make it easy to interpret that the threat is unsolvable. Second, people with anxiety tend to underestimate their ability to cope if the problem happens. Playing out the tape can help empower a person. It recognizes that there may be solutions and ways to care for yourself even if a problematic event occurs. This can help you shift from “what if” to “this is what I could do.”
Self-Sooth On The Go
Self-soothing is an effective way to manage sudden upticks in anxiety. The beauty of self-soothing is it can target both anxious thoughts and anxious body sensations. While self-soothing doesn’t usually solve a problem, it can help you feel grounded when experiencing anxiety. To prepare for your trip, ask yourself how you can self-soothe using the five senses. What are smells that calm you down? Are there images that bring you feelings of peace? What tastes, textures, and sounds help you slow down or feel relaxed?
Next, you have an opportunity to get creative. A client once told me that she always makes a “self-soothe kit” with one item for each sense before she goes on a trip. She would include items like lotions with a calming scent, and an app for her phone with ocean sounds she could listen to. Another client recognized that petting her dog and feeling the fur in her hands was a mechanism for self-soothing. She was able to find a small blanket with a similar feel that mimicked that sensation. What could your self-sooth kit look like?
Problem-Solving Ahead of Time to Honor Your Needs
Sometimes when traveling it feels like you should be able to leave your nuances and intricacies behind and become someone else. While there is nothing wrong with stretching yourself and trying new things while you’re on vacation, it’s okay to take care of yourself and honor who you are. I worked with one client for whom excess decision-making caused enormous stress. This client was planning a trip with a group of friends who loved to explore new foods. My client wasn’t opposed to trying new food, but making a new decision about what to eat for every meal felt overwhelming. We did some research and found a common breakfast and lunch item that would likely be available in one iteration or another at most cafes and restaurants. She noted it felt quite achievable to have only her third meal each day require decision-making, and this reduced her anxiety significantly.
It can be helpful to ask yourself if there is something specific about the intensity, structure, or social component of the itinerary causing anxiety. Maybe you need to build in some time each day for a solo meal or walk. If you know that daily exercise keeps you grounded, research good hikes or parks where you could. You could even invest in lightweight bands or exercise equipment designed for travel. Knowing you will take care of yourself can reduce a lot of anxious anticipation for traveling.
Remind Yourself of Your Why
Anxiety is skillful at confiscating your attention. For the anxious traveler, this means your thoughts become more focused on scary or stressful potential outcomes. If you notice this occurring when you begin thinking about your trip, let your thoughts expand to your “why.” Why did you plan this trip in the first place? Maybe you have always wanted to see a particular art or natural treasure. Perhaps you are a student of food or wine and have always wanted to travel to the place known to master it. Maybe you want to get away with a loved one so that you can focus only on one another.
Once anxious thoughts creep in, it can be easy to lose sight of your “why.” You don’t need to try to block the anxious thoughts from occurring when you notice them becoming louder and louder. But you can permit yourself to shift the spotlight of your attention to your “why.” It could even be helpful to give yourself something tactile to see, touch, or hear to help with those reminders. If your why is to see an opera performed in its place of origin, put a piece of music on your phone. If you are a history buff and your why is to visit a historical landmark, print out a picture to put on your wall. Set yourself up with easily accessible reminders to broaden your focus on your motivation for why this trip is essential to you.
You Don’t Have to be Anxiety-Free to Enjoy Yourself
Feeling overwhelmed by anxiety can impact your trip, and hopefully using these tools can help. But it’s also important to remember that having SOME anxiety while traveling will not derail your entire experience. We often hold a self-story that if there is anxiety or discomfort doing something we are doing it wrong. But it is possible to have space for anxiety and also joy, comfort, and celebration. The mere awareness that you do not need to put pressure on yourself to have the perfect trip and that having some anxiety on your trip is okay can be an anxiety-reducer in and of itself.
One Last Note
Fear of flying is one facet of travel anxiety that can be stand-alone or part of a greater fear. Phobia of flying has unique strategies that deserve to be discussed in detail to do it justice. Stay tuned for a future blog for more information on managing fear of flying!
If you get anxious about traveling, you should know you are not alone. While travel anxiety may be common, there are strategies you can use so that you don’t need to avoid a voyage that is important to you. Using these tips and tricks can help increase your confidence and manage your anxiety as you get ready for your next adventure.
Tamara Miller, PsyD is a clinical psychologist with a specialty in providing care for those with anxiety disorders. She is the founder of REACH Counseling Center in Brookline Massachusetts. In her spare time she loves traveling with her family. You can reach Dr. Miller and find out more information about managing anxiety disorders at www.reachforcounseling.com
What to Pack for Italy
Cosa Mettere in Valigia per l'Italia
Everyone is always asking me what they should pack for Italy,
so I’ve created a quick reference guide that you can use for your next trip.
Hint: You don’t need nearly as much as you think you do!