Traveling during the holidays can be intense. There are more people in transit than at any other time of year, and for every charming "home for the holidays" story, there’s an over-tired passenger who’s had two flights canceled and is panicking about the third. If you also happen to experience travel anxiety, it’s likely not your favorite time of year — but, experts say, there are tried and true methods to help you get through transit and end up at home for the holiday season (or on a remote beach somewhere sipping a cocktail).
Travel anxiety itself isn’t uncommon. "Travel brings with it an inherent degree of uncertainty and unpredictability," psychiatrist Steven Levine, M.D., previously told Bustle. "This is part of the allure for some who experience it as an adventure. For others, the break in daily routine and potential for novelty elicits anxiety." The fact that you can’t be absolutely certain of what will happen when you travel is often what triggers anxiety. "If you can’t picture it, you can’t plan ahead for it, and that can trigger the body’s ‘danger’ signals," Levine said.
The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers explains that people with travel anxiety can experience symptoms from nervousness and difficulty concentrating to "muscle tension, heart palpitations, nausea," or panic attacks. If that fits your experience, you may have travel anxiety — and here’s what you can do to combat it during the holiday travel rush.
1Understand What Your Travel Anxiety Triggers Are
Studies show that travel anxiety is not only common, it’s also triggered by a lot of different things. A study in 2005, for instance, found that the predominant worry among anxious travelers that year was terrorism and "sociocultural risk," whereas back in 1998 another study found that travel anxiety was more focussed on take-off and landing, flight delays, and lost luggage. Everybody’s different. What are you particularly concerned about? Locate the triggers of anxiety around traveling in your mind: whether it’s luggage, missing a flight, getting sick while away from home, or something else, it will help you target your response.
2Practice Relaxation Techniques
The Center for Anxiety & Mood Disorders recommends that if you begin to feel the symptoms of panic and anxiety while you’re traveling, you already have an arsenal of calming techniques to help. "Practice relaxation techniques before your trip, so you can use them the minute you start to feel anxious," they advise. Different techniques can help different people. They have a selection of possible ideas: distracting yourself with a favorite book or movie, focusing on "a calming image," using affirmations like "I am safe," or meditation are all tried-and-true options.
Breathing is also important. "Long, slow breaths have been proven to reduce anxiety and it’s worth it to learn deep breathing techniques," says the Center. "Breathing in slowly through your nose, then exhaling gradually through your mouth helps keep you from taking the short, hurried breaths that can trigger a panic attack."
3Use Your Catastrophizing For Good
Catastrophic thinking is a common feature of anxiety: what if the worst possible thing happens? Clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen is an expert on managing those thoughts. “Keep that scene playing out until you’re in a safe place where you’re OK," she told Self. If you worry about getting 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." Your imagination, in this case, can help you.
Hendriksen also wrote in Scientific American that if your catastrophizing seems to be taking hold early, prepare before travel by using "the 80/20 rule."
"You can prepare for 80 percent of mishaps with 20 percent of the effort. Read travel blogs and reviews to find out where to go, photocopy your passport and credit cards, get trip insurance if it makes you feel better, and don’t get rip-roaring drunk and then wave your money around."
4Download Anxiety-Busting Apps
Consider getting an app that helps with anxiety more generally to use while in transit. Apps like Calm and Headspace are good for managing all kinds of anxiety through meditation. If you struggle with flights particularly, the Center for Anxiety & Mood Disorders recommends the SOAR app, which was put together by an ex-pilot, monitors your own flight to reassure you of your safety.
5Make Coming-Home Preparations
Aarti Gupta, PsyD, writes for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America that travel anxiety can be eased by coming-home prep. "Take a few small steps before you leave to allow yourself a more comfortable transition back to routine," she says. "Wash your bed sheets and make your bed because once you are back home, clean sheets will be like music to your ears when you’re completely exhausted. You should experience so much less stress." Making sure your home is tidy before you leave and your cupboard is stocked with a nonperishable comfort food you can make right when you walk in the door can also help.
6Challenge Your Anxious Thoughts
Anxiety can involve spiralling thoughts that drive what-ifs out of control. If you can, psychologist Dr. Lauren Hazzouri, PsyD, told Teen Vogue, talk back at those thoughts. “Instead of buying into what your anxious thoughts are telling you, challenge your thoughts and replace them with more realistic truths; for example, you’re statistically more likely to experience a car accident than a terror attack or plane incident," she says. Don’t get caught in an anxiety-loop with your thoughts, but if challenging them helps, do it.
7Avoid Drinking While In Transit
Drinking can seem like a tempting way to calm yourself when you’re anxiety on the move, but experts say it’s a bad move. Dr. Tania Elliott told Healthline, “Even though it makes people relaxed, it’s never a solution. It doesn’t stimulate REM sleep, and it’s a depressant that will make you groggy and tired. The other downstream effect is the hangover. Drinking is dehydrating, and that’s the last thing you want to happen on the plane.”
8Put Faith In Exposure
Travel anxiety, like a lot of other kinds of anxiety, can be helped with exposure. Being exposed to the things that trigger anxiety, realizing through repeated evidence that they’re not dangerous, means eventually your anxieties may dissipate. “When it comes to anxiety and related problems, we really get the most enduring benefits and learning from exposures,” psychiatrist David Austern told VICE. “One of the benefits that’s so important is the increased sense of confidence and mastery. It generalizes.”
The more you travel, the less anxious you’ll feel, because you’ll have increased evidence that your worst fears won’t happen — and that even if they do, you can handle it. Get out there and take that plane, boat, bus, or canoe this holiday; you’ve got this.