Travel anxiety can strike even the most unflappably chill among us. Sure, it can be incredibly rewarding and rejuvenating to break out of the day-to-day and explore new places—or, you know, park horizontally on the beach for five days. But there’s no getting around the inevitable hassles that come with those perks: nightmare security lines, massive flight delays, FOMO-fueled itineraries, chaotic train stations, frustrating language barriers, worries about the work/kids/pets/obligations you’re leaving at home. The list is endless.
When you think about it, the travel experience is practically designed to boost stress. Broadly speaking, there are two types of situations that are most likely to cause anxiety, Martin Antony, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, tells SELF. “One is when we don’t know what’s going to happen. The other is situations where we’re not in control.” What is traveling if not a series of largely unpredictable, often uncontrollable circumstances and events—some of which may be delightful, others decidedly less so?
There are also, in a sense, two major kinds of travel anxiety. One takes place when you’re actually traveling and some part of the process is going belly up. The other is the more ever-present anxiety you might feel about safety while traveling, or about how the trip is going overall.
Whether you experience one, the other, or both, there are ways to become a less anxious traveler. There’s also help out there if you don’t think you can manage on your own. Here are seven tips to get you started.
1. First, repeat this phrase, either mentally or out loud: “Anxiety is a necessary and even helpful part of traveling.”
Having a 100 percent stress-free trip is simply not feasible, says Antony, who travels a few times a month for work. “There’s a lot that can go wrong when you travel, and some of these things do happen,” he says. Getting hopelessly turned around, dealing with flight delays, losing your luggage, and similar stress-inducing scenarios aren’t exactly rare events.
The simple thought of some inconvenient, unexpected circumstance crashing your travel party might ramp up your anxiety. Instead of just steeping in that stress, use it to fuel action in the areas where you do have control. This can help you avoid feeling like you’re woefully unprepared for anything that might not go according to plan. It can also offload some of the stress when something does go wrong, since you’ll at least have braced yourself for various possibilities.
That’s why Antony describes this as “normal, useful anxiety.” Someone going on a trip with no knowledge of or concern about the possible issues they could face is much more likely to encounter something they’re not prepared for. Acknowledging that things might go wrong is really the first step in making sure they don’t.
So, how do you use that travel anxiety to prevent any major fumbles? Good question…
2. Identify what usually causes you the most stress, like being rushed or worrying about missing your flight, then take steps to fix it, like setting a ton of alarms to guarantee you’re out the door with ample time.
A little practical planning can help you avoid some of the most common anxiety-provoking travel scenarios. Here are a few ideas, though it makes sense to focus on whichever parts of traveling always leave you harried and wishing you could go back in time to avoid the problem at hand.
- If you always show up to your flight gate riiight as they’re closing the doors: Choose a specific goal you could only achieve in your wildest travel dreams, like having time to brew an espresso at home so you don’t have to spend money on airport coffee. With that goal in mind, set alarms to go off throughout the day of your departure and alert you to things like when you should be completely done packing (yes, even your toothbrush), when you need to order a ride to the airport, when you need to actually be in your ride to the airport, etc. This will help you pace yourself properly instead of coming out of a packing fugue and shrieking when you catch sight of a clock.
Be sure to build in a buffer so you’re still running ahead overall even you’re a little behind on the alarms. Also, make sure the alarm sound you choose is as soothing as possible, or even an energizing song to get you amped up for your trip. Basically, avoid the same blaring alert that rouses you for work every morning, which might make you even more stressed out.
If you’re far too familiar with that panic-inducing “Wait, where’s my passport?!” moment: Always keep your identification in the exact same holder or pouch in the same spot in your home when you’re not traveling. Then make a rule, like, “No matter which purse I take to the airport, I’ll always put my passport in the inside pocket.” (Or, if you always take the same bag, designate a specific compartment for important documents.) Also, make a paper copy just in case you lose the real thing. You can even add a “girl, where’s your passport?” alarm to your phone, too.
If you might as well be on Mars the second your GPS doesn’t work: Print a paper copy of the directions you’ll need to get from the airport to wherever you’re staying, make sure you have an up-to-date guidebook that includes detailed maps, or look up navigational phrases in the local language to ask for directions in case you can’t find something. (Or do all three.) You can even take screenshots of maps or directions on your phone in case you lose service.
If you inevitably board a long train ride only to realize you left your headphones at home or your phone is dying, so you have no way to entertain yourself: Seriously, those phone reminders are golden. Set one, perhaps for the night before you leave, so you remember to charge all the necessary devices you’ll need for amusement during your trip, or to bring books and magazines.
While the specifics here vary based on exactly what increases your travel stress, you get the gist.
3. If you’re going out of the country or somewhere you’ve never been before, definitely read up on basic travel logistics beforehand.
Cover things like:
- A few common phrases to help you get by in the local language
- If you need a visa
- If your passport’s expiration date is far enough away from when you’ll be traveling
- Where to exchange currency for the best rate
- What kind of electrical outlets people use there
- If drinking the tap water is basically begging the toilet gods to get diarrhea
- If tipping is customary or if you can save that money for things like souvenirs
- If your phone company will charge you the equivalent of your 401k to send texts, make calls, and upload travel photos to Instagram
- What, if any, kinds of scams people might commonly use with tourists
- The local emergency number, just in case
“Planning out this stuff ahead of time doesn’t come naturally to everybody,” Antony says, “but if [something happens], it can really make things a whole bunch easier.”
4. Instead of just ruminating on worst-case scenarios, play them out to their logical conclusions.
You know those nagging what-ifs about everything that could go wrong as you travel? Don’t simply run those stressful scenarios on a mental loop or try to block them out completely. “Keep that scene playing out until you’re in a safe place where you’re OK,” Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders and author of How to Be Yourself, Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, tells SELF.
For example, if you know the local cuisine is generally safe to eat and you really want to try it, but you’re going to skip because you’re terrified of getting sick, walk through the steps of what would happen if you caught a stomach bug. Maybe it would involve taking anti-diarrhea medications, which you could stock up on in advance so you can taste test with less risk. This even works if you’re nervous about getting really ill. “Picture yourself calling the hotel management and asking them to get [you] to a hospital. Then picture going to the hospital and getting medicine. Then picture calling relatives at home,” Hendriksen says, explaining that laying out steps in an exercise like this “can ease the anxiety of picturing that worst-case scenario.”
5. Keep a running list of your past travel wins and lessons learned, then read through it when you’re freaking out.
If you don’t consider yourself the best traveler, every time you make it through a trip (or don’t have to sprint through an entire concourse to get on your flight, or go out to dinner on your own and order in the local language) is a triumph. Each roadblock you successfully navigate proves you’re capable of getting through travel intact.
Instead of forgetting those moments, file them away with the intention of being able to recall them easily, or write them down in a notebook or on your phone. “You gather evidence that [traveling] isn’t dangerous, this situation isn’t scary, that it’s OK to be away from home,” Hendriksen explains. When you’re feeling like you really just cannot handle whatever situation you’re dealing with, you have proof that you’ve dealt with at least some kind of travel blunder in the past.
Doing this will also prepare you better for the next time because it’ll help you learn from your mistakes. “That’s a way to reframe some of these negative experiences,” Antony says. “It’s not a reason not to travel, it’s an opportunity to learn how to travel better.”
6. Recognize when your anxiety is overblown, then challenge it with facts.
There’s normal stressing out about pretty realistic scenarios, like that you’ll miss your train because you always cut it too close. Then there’s irrational stressing out about things that are unlikely to happen, like a terrorist attack. It’s of course smart to do any research to make sure the places you go to and the activities you partake in are safe. But if your worries about some impending tragedy get in the way of fully enjoying your experience once you’ve taken all the necessary safety measures, your anxieties may be at least partially unfounded.
For many people, the key is to break down those outsized fears, examine them closely, and counter anxiety with facts, Hendriksen says. For example, if you’re headed to Rome and worrying about a terrorist attack, ask yourself what the odds actually are of it occurring, perhaps by thinking of how many times it’s actually taken place in the last five years, Hendriksen says. Take it further, too: Even if something terrible does happen in the area you’re traveling to, what are the chances of it taking place exactly when you’re in that specific dangerous spot? Pretty unlikely, right?
If it’ll help tame your anxiety, you can look at statistics to back this up. Looking at the numbers might reassure you of just how rare certain scary events—like terrorist attacks or mass shootings—really are. Of course, this isn’t a solution for everyone. You can know just how unlikely something is and still be afraid of it. That’s where preparation comes in, like knowing where to go or who to call if you do have an emergency.
As another way of examining your fears, Hendriksen recommends asking if you’d advise a friend not to go to Rome (or to avoid the tourist spots she desperately wants to see) because there could be a potential terrorist attack. “See if it sounds reasonable or a little bit ridiculous. If it makes you laugh, then maybe it’s something you don’t have to listen to,” Hendriksen says.
If none of this actually helps tame your travel anxiety, it might be time to see a mental health professional.
7. Know when to talk to someone about whether you’re dealing with something more than typical travel anxiety.
It’s important to seek help for your anxiety about traveling if it’s affecting your life. While some travel anxiety can be normal, planning ahead and trying to rationalize away your fears can only do so much if you have a clinical anxiety disorder (i.e., maybe not much at all).
There are two main factors to take into account when deciding whether to see someone about your travel anxiety, says Antony. The first is how much the anxiety interferes with your ability to travel. The second is how important traveling is to you. Is it something you really want to do more? Are you in a relationship with someone who loves traveling? Could you benefit career-wise from taking more work trips? Is your best friend’s destination wedding coming up?
If you want or need to travel for any reason but you can’t (or you physically can, but you can’t enjoy your time away) you’ll want to consider seeking treatment, Antony says. A therapist can help you work on coping strategies for dealing with anxiety, or potentially refer you to a psychiatrist to see if medication will help you fulfill your wanderlust with as little stress as possible.