Whenever I write a service story, I always write with two goals in mind. The first goal is that, of course, the reader takes something away from the piece that helps them feel happier with their life — more organized or calm or confident. The second goal, however, is usually to remind myself of whatever I’m writing about. When I decided to jot down some tips for travel anxiety, for example, I thought that my strategies for staying calm while traveling might help others, but I also had a hunch that writing them down would be an important reminder for me of just how effective they are. And though I’ve already had one trip canceled this year, I think (hope?) that we’ll all be traveling more in the year ahead than we have been for the past two. Having said that: If you deal with travel anxiety, you’re not alone, and trust me, I probably need the below tips/tricks/reminders as much as you do.
Though I’m not exactly jet-setting every weekend (nor was I before COVID), I like to think of myself as a fairly well traveled person. Don’t get me wrong, there are still hundreds of places I’ve yet to visit, but planes, trains, and long car trips are not novelties to me, either. Still, the less often I do them (again, thanks, COVID), the more anxiety they give me. No matter what type of trip it is, I almost always spend the 2-3 days before feeling incredibly anxious — excited, of course, but anxious. Flying is usually worse… perhaps something about relinquishing total control and floating above the earth in a giant metal tube? Who knows?
Regardless of the type of transportation though, without fail, I will lay awake in the nights before the adventure and let my brain think up the worst possible scenario about the trip. What if the plane goes down? What if we’re hit by a drunk driver returning from a bar if we leave too early for our road trip? What if I forget my passport? What if I don’t wake up in time for my alarm? My head will whirl with all these thoughts again and again. Sometimes, I spiral so badly that I’ll convince myself that having these thoughts is some sort of a sign — a gut feeling that I shouldn’t get in the car or go on a trip or board the plane. After all, didn’t this happen to people on 9/11, I’ll tell myself. Weren’t there some people who just knew they shouldn’t get on the plane? What if I’m having that moment right now and I ignore it? I’ll think. Therapy has helped me recognize that this, too, is (surprise!!) anxiety. When you’re anxious, you can’t allow yourself to trust every thought you have, and the same goes for travel anxiety.
Despite the fact that the anxious thoughts about travel come, though, I always wake up (I’ve yet to sleep through an alarm), move forward, and go on the trip anyway. And guess what: So far, everything has been just fine. Over the years, I’ve gotten a bit better about managing the travel anxiety, but it never completely goes away. There are still moments that I need to practice anti-anxiety techniques that help me. Here’s what’s worked for me.
Exercise Within 12 Hours Of A Flight
I know enough about myself at this point in my life to know that exercising helps me with anxiety. In the past, though, I’ve usually skipped workouts the day of a trip (or the night before) because there’s just too much other stuff going on — packing, prepping, organizing. In the past year, though, I’ve made a point of changing that. Working out within 12 hours of a flight or long car ride helps me feel more relaxed and more at ease, so I do my best to prioritize it. It doesn’t make the anxiety disappear, of course, but it does help me distract myself and fell more at ease generally.
Set A Stopwatch For Long Flights
One thing that always gives me a wave of intense panic on flights is realizing that we’re nowhere near land and/or nowhere near the end of the flight. If I’m already anxious about something else and especially if there’s turbulence, knowing that I have a long stretch of ocean and/or time ahead of me feels impossible. In moments like these, I use a strategy that I read somewhere (apologies for not knowing who/what to credit for this one!) a while ago: Set a stopwatch on your phone. Set the stopwatch, put it away, and then force yourself to see how long you can go without looking at it. Distract yourself with a movie or a book or whatever you want and then check back later. Every time you are tempted to look, try to do something else. When you finally do look, you’ll probably be surprised how much time has passed and realize that the rest of the flight will likely go by just as quickly.
Have Everything You Need Within Reach
Something about having everything I need within an arm’s reach (AKA not jammed in a distant overhead bin or in an impossible-to-reach pouch under the seat in front of me) always, always makes me feel more relaxed on a plane. My Calpak Belt Bag has been key to making this happen. For the past six or so flights I’ve been on, I’ve been able to wear my belt bag throughout the entire flight across my chest (it doesn’t interfere with the buckle or stick out very far). This means my charger, headphones, phone, snacks, hand sanitizer, etc. are all strapped to my body, ready for whenever I need it. I also always make sure to put my water bottle in an easy-to-grab location (i.e. sticking my Calpak Luka Duffel under the seat so the water bottle compartment faces me, instead of the opposite). Knowing that everything is right there and that I won’t have to move around or make anyone move around to access it just helps me feel more calm.
Chug Water Pre-Flight & Use The Bathroom Before You Board
I make myself chug as much water both on the way to the airport (you have to finish it before going through security, after all) and in the time post-security and pre-boarding (I bring my Hydroflask with me and refill as soon as I’m done with security). This forces me to use the restroom right before I board (if not multiple times — it’s a big Hydroflask lol) and means I can avoid using the one on the plane as much as possible (ideal). It also helps me stay hydrated, which helps me feel more comfortable and relaxed all-around.
Know What Works For You
Look, as much as I love to read, sometimes reading gives me too much room for my mind to wander when I’m feeling particularly worried, same with audiobooks. As much as I would love to say I’m the person who reads an entire book on every plane, for me, I know that watching a movie or television show is what distracts me and takes me elsewhere more than anything while flying, and sometimes that’s what I need the most. Making sure that I have a show or two downloaded (or that the flight offers entertainment options) means I don’t have to wonder what I’ll do for those few hours, and I have a surefire way to distract myself from turbulence or anything else. If I’m particularly anxious, I’ll make sure to splurge for in-flight WiFi so I can talk to my friends or family and/or work while I watch something while flying. This, too, helps me feel calm. I’ve had so many flights in the past where I’ve been convinced I’m going to read a book cover-to-cover only to realize I’m too anxious to do so and wish I had a movie/show to watch instead.
Other things that help me? Mental exercises. For example, whenever I’m paranoid about the plane crashing, I think of very specific travel influencers that I follow — the ones who I know have spent years flying in tiny planes in far-off locations. I ask myself if anything has ever happened to them, who are probably much more likely to experience a plane crash than I am statistically. The answer is obviously no, and this reminds me to think rationally. Sometimes it’s just the planning itself that helps me feel less anxious — knowing that I have a specific podcast to listen to on a long drive, or a cooler full of my favorite snacks and drinks in the back seat.
For me, the most important part of combatting travel anxiety is knowing what works for me and leaning into it. Ultimately, that’s all that matters.
Of course, this isn’t a definitive list about dealing with travel anxiety, and (more importantly) I’m not a mental health expert. But I figured if the strategies helped me, they might help someone else, too. Ultimately, any type of anxiety is annoying and less than ideal, but I still consider it a win every time I feel anxious about something and make myself do the thing anyway. Every time I don’t let anxiety hold me back from experiencing something, I’m thriving.