Anxiety looks different for everyone. I have difficulty with regular tasks, but it’s fairly minor and I’m still highly functional. However, when I travel to new and unfamiliar environments my anxiety goes into hyper drive. This is frustrating as travel itself is already fairly stressful, and having panic attacks in the middle of the airport security line is awful. I have almost missed my flight in the past because I just couldn’t make it through the queue, and nearly every plane I’ve been on has involved some level of freak out in the cramped bathroom. Despite things being pretty under control at this time, I still could not keep myself from having a melt down 2 hours into a 12 hour flight to Shanghai.
Here is a list of things that I have found helpful to reduce my anxiety while travelling.
1. Be as organized as possible.
Know what your trip is going to look like! Use a site like booking.com to find a hotel that is close to where you want to be and that has a private bathroom if that’s what you need to feel comfortable. When I am having an anxiety attack all I want in the world is a private toilet haha.
Arrange transport from the airport to your hotel so you can seamlessly transfer without much confusion. Select your airplane seats ahead of time to be in the part of the plane that feels best for you. I prefer to be on an aisle (so I can get up without disturbing anyone or getting trapped) and as close to a washroom as possible. I also find it helpful to be near the flight attendants because being able to see them calm and comfortable really helps me.
When selecting a destination keep in mind what things will be like when you get there. Ho Chi Minh was really busy and was challenging for me. Maybe if you have social anxiety don’t go to somewhere that you will be surrounded by people and caught up in a serious hustle and bustle. I’ve always wanted to go to India but in looking at the street life I realized I may not be able to keep it together there, so that plan has been back-burnered until I feel like I am in a stronger place mentally.
2. Bring the comforts of home with you.
I always pre-load my iPad or phone with my favourite songs, movies and TV shows and have a big pair of noise cancelling headphones. Wear clothes you are comfortable in and bring a pillow or blanket to sleep in or cover yourself with if you need to hide.
Of course it is also extremely helpful if you have a travel companion that you trust and can be honest with about how you feel, and that can provide you with support when you feel unwell.
3. Embrace your anxiety, rather than fight it.
The most helpful thing I have discovered, hands down, is that to control my anxiety I have to accept it. Acknowledge that I have anxiety and that I might freak out, and that it is ok to freak out.
Since I have started to be candid with other people about my anxiety I have felt a lot better about it. The worst is when I start feeling anxious over the possibility that I might feel anxious. I am afraid it will be embarrassing, people will judge me, that I will mess everything up or inconvenience the people I am travelling with. So before I even actually experience any anxiety, I feel anxiety about the fact that it might be coming, then suddenly it is happening and I can’t stop it.
Tell yourself it is ok to have a panic attack. You won’t die, you’ll just be uncomfortable for a bit, but likely in a way that is sort of familiar to you by now. When I get to the airport I have to tell myself it is ok to puke. I make a deal with myself that I can puke as much as I want after I get to the loading gate. There are washrooms everywhere in the airport and if you are open with people about being a terrible flyer I think it takes away some of the potential embarrassment. People understand! So allow yourself to feel terrible. I find that 90% of the time eliminating the need to “fight off” an anxiety attack helps me to relax and then the anxiety never really comes.
4. Bring some back up tools with you
So what happens if you do find yourself with that sinking feeling while you are trying to sleep mid-flight? I always make a quick trip to one of the bathrooms (and they are usually right there because I pre-book my seat!) and do some deep breathing exercises.
Download the mindfulness app Stop, Breathe and Think for your phone and listen to your favourite meditation with your headphones on. This app is great, I learned about it from a friend when I woke her in the middle of the night due to my anxiety in Los Angeles. She was all “There’s an app for that” and she was so right!
On my last flight I found myself repeating “My anxiety does not control me” into the mirror and thinking about how I was going to force myself to have these experiences because staying home out of fear my whole life is just not an option. If I have to feel terrible for the entire flight it’s still worth it in the end because I will have seen a new country, taken lots of pictures, spent some quality time with my partner.
Other back ups include speaking to your doctor about medications that would be appropriate to help calm you. I get Ativan for my anxiety but have never actually taken it in a true anxiety situation because in that moment I’m way too afraid of sudden allergic reactions, overdoses and other dramatic crap. I have honestly never been able to take one out in public, but sometimes having them and knowing that I could is enough to comfort me.
In the end it’s important to remember that you are not alone in living with anxiety. If part of the reason you feel anxious is because you fear the plane will crash, remind yourself you are statistically more likely to be killed by a goat or struck by lightning. If new places make you anxious, travel to as many new places as you can until the feeling wears off, or pick your destination based on what you feel comfortable with. If you have to start with a 1 hour flight and work your way up to 12 hours or more, then do that! Be kind to yourself. Your body doesn’t know that it’s not the right time to put you into fight, flight or freeze mode, it thinks it is preserving your life somehow. There is no shame in exploring medication options to help with chemical imbalance if you are unable to control your anxiety with deep breathing and mindfulness. There are lots of options out there and lots of people you can talk to about your anxiety. I hope this is helpful 💞