Dealing with chronic anxiety is tough, but factor in a raging case of wanderlust and it gets even harder. For me, anxiety during travel rears its ugly head often in the form of language barriers, lost taxi drivers, dead phone batteries, when the hotel says “I can’t find you in the system”, etc, etc. If you travel enough, you’ll have moments where your brain realizes your plans have gone down the drain and your entire body says its time to panic.
I have 2 things to say that may comfort you: 1) You’re not alone. I’m right here at the keyboard typing away with a bunch of panicked memories flashing through my head, and 2) There are coping mechanisms that work. The hard part is finding what works for you.
I think it’s important to note that I’ve never been diagnosed with any sort of anxiety disorder, and I don’t plan to diagnose myself any time soon. That’s not the preferred route for many, and I totally understand. I’m not about to get into the medications I’ve been offered after telling my doctor “Oh, these bags under my eyes? They’re just from night terrors”, and I’m not going to share whether or not said medication has ever entered my system, but my anxious travel experiences and effective coping mechanisms are at your disposal.
Panicking While Traveling
Let me paint a picture for you – my husband and I are just flying back into China after a 20-day vacation around Southeast Asia and our flight out of Hong Kong is delayed. Once we’re in the air, I’m very grateful, but I’ve read all my books and I’m way too tired to do anything productive, so I do, well, nothing. I stare. I’m not particularly scared of flying, so when turbulence hits I’m not worried, but I’m more attentive due to all the nothing going on in front of me. It lightens up just before we’re announced to land in Shanghai and I start to get those pre-landing excited jitters. Then the plane starts going up and down like a roller coaster as the pilot tries to avoid thick fog, and turbulence is announced again. All of a sudden we veer upwards at what feels like the same speed and angle that we did during take-off. The unexpected flight pattern takes me totally off guard and my first reaction is to slap my hands over my face, squeeze my eyes shut, and moan loudly. My very-non-anxious husband tries to comfort me as I lean into him and refuse to take my hands from my face, but I’m paralyzed. For the next 5 minutes all I can do is listen to my heartbeat and breathe loudly into my hands. The story ends okay, we landed safely, but this was an extreme panic moment that likely took a year off my life. I wanted to give you one story of a moment I panicked while traveling so that we have a point of reference for the following coping mechanisms.
Logic and Statistics
Filling your brain with facts and logical conclusions before you travel can help a lot. Here are some examples of thoughts on flying that help me out:
- The chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. The chance of getting struck by lightning in the US are 1 in 960,000. You’re far more likely to get struck by lightning than be involved in a plane crash!
- The reason we hear about travel-related accidents in the media is because they’re sensational. “100,000 Planes Land Safely Around The Globe Today” is not a very interesting headline despite the fact that it’s the norm.
- This graph. Need I say more?
Do some research or – better yet – ask a friend or loved one to find some comforting statistics for you. The most important thing is to stay away from sensational media sources, and search for actual facts, figures and statistics. Get yourself a cute notebook, write down your favorite facts, and keep it with you to pull out when you need a reminder.
Let me take you down a logical train of thought… if you dislike something, you try to change it. If you can’t change it, your only option is to accept it. If you suffer from anxiety you’ll likely experience it again, so if it’s inevitable, why heighten your anxiety over the idea of becoming anxious? Are you following? Can’t change your anxious state? Accept it, welcome it. I realize that sounds totally insane, but there’s something comforting that happens when you ask your anxiety to follow you along on your adventure as if its an old friend. It’s not the greatest friend, but you’re stuck with it, so you might as well invite it along for the ride. If it still sounds crazy, just try it some time and see if it works for you.
This is my go-to coping mechanism in any situation, ever. The simple way to incorporate this into a panic-y moment is by realizing that anything crazy, scary, or weird happening to you now will probably make a great story later. Cynical sarcasm is my preferred style of humor.
If you have trouble getting into a silly mood, I highly recommend you pick up this book. It’s written by a woman who perfectly combines debilitating anxiety and cynical, sarcastic humor.
Doing Nothing Regularly
Call it meditation, call it resting your eyes, but regularly setting aside time to lay on your bed, stare at the ceiling, and do nothing is legit good for your brain. The first time it was suggested that I try this, I was actually scared. For many anxiety sufferers, there’s nothing scarier than being alone to fester in your own anxious thoughts. Here’s the reality – if you plan to travel, there’s a lot of waiting involved: at your boarding gate, on the subway platform, in that ridiculous line for entrance to the Lourve, etc, etc. Setting aside time in your daily routine for meditation or whatever you want to call it can help you big time when it comes to these moments on your travels. Instead of dreading the waiting times, you can use it as an opportunity to do something you’ve already incorporated into your daily life: nothing.
Travel includes a certain level of giving up control, which is the hardest thing for me! I get anxiety when I accidentally grasp the amount of trust I’m placing in my cab driver, my pilot, my tour guide, the website I booked through, etc, etc. What I’ve realized over the years is that if I didn’t plan so much, I wouldn’t be so stressed out. Remember that terrifying flight I described earlier? Part of the reason I had been on edge to begin with was because our flight was delayed which meant we were going to miss our train and there was nothing I could do about it. In the end we were able to book a train at the station, no problem.
You need to determine what’s essential to book in advance and what’s not. In my opinion it depends on what kind of travel you’re doing and where you’re going. For example, if you’re going on a road trip around the US, book your car rental and your first hotel stop in advance, but don’t try to book every single hotel and activity for your entire journey. That way, you’re given more flexibility if something goes wrong. If you’re flying into Dublin, Ireland and you need to book a bus to Galway, book the flight, but wait until you’re at the bus station to nab your bus ticket. This will save you from focusing on perfectly following your plans and allow flexibility.
My rule of thumb with this concept while abroad in Asia (after my recent travel experiences) is to book flights, long train rides, and hotels in advance, and save everything else until we’re actually there.
I wrote a whole blog post explaining what I mean by this, and you can go check it out here if you like! To summarize, the idea is that you get inspired on Pinterest when your pre-travel anxiety sets in as a way of building up your courage before you jet off.
I’m not about to discuss diagnoses or medications, but your doctor probably will. If you feel that none of these coping mechanisms work for you, it’s another option.
I’m one of those people who stresses out about the big picture, so this novel about an ancient manuscript and this one about following dreams helped me to put things in perspective. For more practical guides, this book for fearful flyers, and this one about mindfulness may help you out. If you’re looking for a humorous read, something to help you appreciate where you grew up, or a distracting book you’ll be unable to put down during those inevitable travel wait times, check out my list of 8 Books For The Anxious Traveler right here 🙂
“Keeping personal experiences like this secret is what makes them taboo, and it perpetuates the loneliness of going through an emotionally difficult experience alone” – The Latest Kate
Best of luck on your adventures, my fellow anxious traveler! I’ve been daily vlogging from Beijing, so be sure you’re subscribed to my YouTube channel to stay up-to-date on my anxious adventures. Thanks so much for reading, and I’ll talk to you soon!
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Suggested Further Reading/Watching:
- Why I Travel Despite Anxiety
- VIDEO: 5 Emotions Of Moving Abroad
- Ultimate Female Packing List For A Year Abroad