5 tips to ease pre-travel anxiety

man looking at watch while waiting for trainAs you’re preparing for a trip, do you ever find yourself feeling uneasy? You may want to ask yourself whether you’re anxious or excited. The physical responses to excitement and anxiety are very similar and easily mistaken for one another.
If your thoughts about an upcoming trip are focused on a great deal of negative-sounding “What ifs,” then you’re more likely having anxiety.
People become anxious regarding travel for any number of reasons. In some cases, you may worry about bringing the “right” clothes, or forgetting something that you’ll need on your trip.
Friends are often happy to share their stories of these mishaps. For example, one of my colleagues arrived at a conference having only packed his shoes, underwear, and handouts for a presentation. Needless to say, he went shopping as soon as he realized he had very little to unpack.
There are also other concerns, such as a worry over whether you might become carsick or claustrophobic. Anticipatory anxiety can also be caused by recent news stories about an airplane accident or a train derailment, or even bad weather impacting travel.
Regardless of the method of travel, people can be anxious when embarking on a trip. Some individuals are fine with air travel, but the idea of a long car trip is terrifying. Others fear being stuck in the middle of an ocean if they’re going on a cruise.
And for others, anything that means they’ll be away from the comforts of home is cause for anxiety. Leaving family members at home, especially parents leaving a child for the first time, concerns over rambunctious teenagers or even leaving a pet at home, can trigger these feelings of unease.
What are some symptoms of pre-travel anxiety?
For some people, the days before a trip may be a time when sleep becomes elusive. It may become harder to get to sleep, especially if you’re lying in bed worrying about your upcoming travel.
Other physical symptoms may include stomach upset, muscle tension or headaches. Some people who are anxious will lose their appetite, whereas others will stress eat.
One of the most visible signs of anxiety is someone pacing or, if they are seated, tapping a foot or fidgeting. If you’ve ever sat in front of someone on a plane who’s constantly hitting the back of your seat with their foot, you’ve encountered someone who’s anxious.
If a traveler seems unnecessarily short-tempered with people, their anxiety may be expressed as irritability. Others may ask excessively for reassurance (for example, asking if things are running on time, where something is located or repeatedly asking if they can get to a gate in time for a connection).
Others may plan to an infinite detail. For example, they may start packing two weeks ahead of a trip, or start making lists of what will be needed months in advance.
What are 5 tips to help ease pre-travel anxiety?
If you find yourself becoming anxious as you’re preparing for a trip, these tips may help alleviate your feelings of dread:
  1. Try to figure out what it is about travel that is making you anxious. What are you saying to yourself? Can you identify your “What ifs?” Once you’re able to understand what you’re afraid of, ask yourself if the fear is realistic. Even if your worst-case scenario is something catastrophic, does the very small likelihood of its occurrence outweigh the severity?
  2. If you have traveled before, what has your experience been? Did any of the things you’re worrying about happen? If they did, how did you manage? There’s a good chance you’re not giving yourself credit for being an effective and resilient problem solver.
  3. Is the over-planning, list-making or other strategies really helping? Everyone has their own way of preparing for travel. Making others conform to your way may cause arguments with your traveling companions and more stress.
  4. Do you have strategies to help you to relax? Slow, paced breathing is one strategy that many people find to be effective. Try an app for your smart phone, or one of the free relaxation recordings available from Ohio State’s Center for Integrative Medicine that help you to restore your calm equilibrium.
  5. Don’t skip the self-care activities. Just because you may think you’re in a time crunch the week before a trip, build in time for exercise. Physical activity is a great way to manage stress. Pamper yourself. A haircut or a manicure may be an important part of your pre-travel preparation to help you de-stress.
When should you seek help from a mental health professional for this type of anxiety?
If you find that you like the idea of travel, but it’s becoming so challenging that you’re avoiding vacations or a work-related trip, then the prospect of travel is interfering with your quality of life.
Give yourself ample lead time to work with a mental health professional before your next trip, especially if you’re not interested in medication to help overcome the fear.
How can a mental health expert help?
A psychiatrist can be helpful if you want medication to help ease your anxiety. Many fearful flyers will opt for medication, especially if they don’t have to fly very often. Depending on what the psychiatrist prescribes, you’ll want to make sure you get good results from the medication and that it doesn’t cause unpleasant side effects.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has a strong track record for effectively treating anxiety. This type of psychotherapy focuses on how you can challenge those “What if” type of thoughts, as well as help you to overcome the avoidance that can occur as a result of being afraid.
Do some trips provoke more anxiety than others?

What provokes anxiety differs from person to person. This is definitely not a ‘one size fits all’ phenomenon. It may be useful to separate out if you’re afraid of the act of traveling or the destination.

Some people may be fine with domestic travel and not international, or vice versa. Travel to an all-inclusive vacation spot may be idyllic for some, and being “trapped” in a location or on a cruise may be overwhelming for others. It’s important to pinpoint as best you can what your fear is all about.
Many people may be apprehensive about travel, especially if this is a new experience. The more you travel, the more you’ll know what to expect.
Hopefully, some aspects of travel will become routine, such as going through security checks, and what may be initial anxiety will turn into excitement. Just remember that it’s not unusual to experience anticipatory anxiety with new situations.
The more you gain experience, the greater your self-confidence will become. If this isn’t the case, the treatments noted above are very effective at helping people overcome their travel-related fears.
Cheryl Carmin is a professor of clinical psychology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and the director of clinical psychology training in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. Her research efforts are focused on evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

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