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How to overcome travel anxiety

August 29th, 2018 by Joe Lofts

What is travel anxiety and why is it such a problem?

As advances in technology, transport and communication make the world a more accessible place than ever before, many of us are itching to get out there and discover new environments. For others, however, the very thought brings a wave of stress and anxiety. For an even smaller number, such a level of anxiety renders long-distance or long-term travelling almost impossible.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, an intense, persistent fear of travel is known as hodophobia. This has affected many prominent people, including the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. While his life’s work was spent voyaging around the inner psyche of the human mind, he hated physical travel with a passion.

Travel anxiety takes on many guises, whether it’s full-blown homesickness or feeling mildly anxious on a busy commute to work. Many people will even have travel anxiety without even realising. Let’s face it: we’ve all been in the situation where you feel a little sick before travelling.

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The most well-known type of travel anxiety (of which many of you are doubtless already thinking about) is the fear of flying. This fear, also known as aerophobia, affects millions of people across the world and can be incredibly disruptive to the lives of those who travel frequently for work or pleasure. One such notable example is former Arsenal and Holland striker Dennis Bergkamp, whose fear was so intense that he’d have to travel to international matches on an alternative mode of transport, away from his teammates.

While Bergkamp’s phobia is at the extreme end of the spectrum, a host of celebrities including Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Miley Cyrus, Megan Fox and Gary Barlow all admit to having a fear of flying. Even though the Aviation Safety Network (ASN) estimate that the accident rate for passenger planes is one fatal accident per 7,360,000 flights, a third of Brits fear for their safety on planes. Travel anxiety, then, is extremely common.

This is a huge problem for business. According to the Global Workforce Forecast Update 2017-2023, business travellers make up over a third of the total global workforce. (By 2022, the global mobile workforce is forecast to be 1.87 billion, accounting for 42.5% of the global workforce.) Common issues stemming from frequent travel can include:

Such symptoms can have a massively negative effect on workplace productivity: in 2016/17, 12.5 million working days in the UK were lost to stress, depression or anxiety (HSE, 2017). With figures like these, it's time we started treating travel anxiety as a major public health concern.

What causes travel anxiety?

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Because the condition manifests itself differently in almost every person who feels anxious at the thought of travel, it’s difficult to pinpoint a singular cause of travel anxiety. What’s more, while some people have it throughout their entire lives, others may develop it suddenly or only have it for a brief amount of time.

But why do even the most seemingly mundane forms of travel causes feelings of stress, fear and anxiety for some people? For a start, travelling by its very nature denotes distance and disruption from the comfort of everyday norms and routines. Unfamiliar environments can trigger a state of panic, and many people will either put off travelling as frequently or try not to travel altogether.

What’s more, mental health conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic disorder can be exacerbated by travelling, especially if your mode of transport is uncomfortable or you have troubling thoughts and emotions swirling around your mind.

People who already have agoraphobia are also likely to have travel anxiety. According to the NHS, agoraphobia is the “fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.” If you’re agoraphobic and travelling in a busy Boeing 747 at 35,000 feet, there’s a strong likelihood that this situation may cause your phobia to flare up.

All in all, travel anxiety has many disparate causes that make each individual case different. There’s no need to feel demoralised, however: the manifold causes mean there are a number of strategies for coping with and beating travel anxiety. After all, every cloud has a silver lining.

Top 10 tips to beat travel anxiety

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Quivering at the thought of a long-haul flight to Qatar? Despondent at the prospect of half a day’s drive to Devon? Don’t worry if you weren’t born under a wandering star: here are some handy tips to ensure your travel plans won’t be scuppered.

1) Plan your trips in advance

We’re not saying sweat the small stuff, but little provisions here and there will reduce the stress on your journey. Check you have all the necessary documents (such as your passport, visa and debit cards) well in advance. If you have an e-ticket on your phone, have the tab open ready to quickly whip out when it needs checking. Apps such as Citymapper let you know when and where you need to change modes of transport, giving you that extra peace of mind.

2) Stick to a routine

Anxiety - and travelling - can often feel like you’re not in control, so something as simple as incorporating small but regular habits into your day (like setting your alarm at the same time every morning) will better allow you to take control of the situation. Doing so will also allow you to retain a semblance of familiarity in an alien environment. Don’t set yourself difficult targets, however - be kind to yourself and do things that make you feel happy.

3) Tell a friend or family member

Although mental health issues can be difficult to open up about, letting someone you trust know about your struggles before you leave for your trip will feel like a huge weight off your mind. Importantly, it’ll allow someone else to help you prepare for travelling - ensuring the night before your trip is less likely to be filled with an ominous sense of foreboding. If you know someone who suffers from anxiety, offer them the support they need.

4) Try talking therapies

This is all part of learning to reprogramme how you think and how you respond to anxiety. Anxiety stems from your body’s evolutionary response to perceived danger (also known as the flight or fight response). Although modern society doesn't have the large predators and everyday existential threats experienced by our Paleolithic ancestors, our brains still trick us into thinking we’re in danger. Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you acknowledge thoughts and emotions, as well as identify triggers to mental health problems.

5) Learn calming techniques

Learning meditation, visualisation or breathing techniques will allow you to focus on the moment and slowly bring you out of a panic-like state. Deep breathing will firmly ground you in the situation - by focusing on the breath, your worrisome thoughts and panic-like state will start to dissipate. These methods can be practised every day in any location, and act as a useful grounding tool.

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6) Learn to identify anxiety triggers

People with anxiety often assume that avoiding the triggers altogether is the best way to cope. Instead, accept the fact that triggers will come, and make preparations for what you’ll do in case they appear suddenly. Being aware of what sets your anxiety off will allow you to enter potentially fraught situations feeling more prepared. Whether these are negative thoughts or external stimuli, understanding your anxiety is the first step to conquering your fears.

7) Speak to a health professional

If you are concerned about how an upcoming trip may impact your health, visit your GP or pharmacist before you travel. Aside from nerves about travelling, it’s possible that you may be suffering from underlying issues or conditions. If your anxiety is severe, your health provider may prescribe you anti-anxiety medication such as alprazolam, diazepam and lorazepam. Likewise, if your travel anxiety causes diarrhoea, getting the correct medication will save you a lot bother indeed!

8) Stay on top of your meds

Of course, some people (especially those with serious anxiety disorders) will not be able to manage their condition without anti-anxiety medication. If you take antidepressants or any medication to treat anxiety, make sure you have a sufficient supply for your travels. Using Echo reminds you when to take a dose, shedding some of the stress in the process. Our article about managing medication when you travel or go abroad offers some in-depth advice on preparing your medication before a trip.

9) Step outside your comfort zone

It’s almost become a cliche, but slowly stepping outside of your comfort zone can help you overcome your fears. When practiced with direction from a health professional, this method is known as exposure therapy. If you have anxiety when travelling in a car, for example, doing a two-minute journey down a quiet suburban cul-de-sac is still an example of overcoming mental obstacles. Start small, and be proud of yourself for facing up to the triggers of your anxiety.

10) Enjoy the ride!

This may take time, but by grounding yourself in the moment and practicing all the tips above, you may just find yourself switching from being bugged by travel to catching the travel bug!

If you liked this article, you might also like...

Have meds, will travel: everything you need to know about going abroad with your medication

Getting help and support for mental health problems

Depression and anxiety journal: why you should keep one


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