By The Way (a PSA): Managing Travel Anxiety

Friends taking a selfie while traveling

Travel insights from Taylor Coulson, associate editor of The Compass

For travelers with anxiety and panic disorders, jet-setting on trips wasn’t always high on their to-do lists, even before COVID-19. Since post-vaccine and post-pandemic plans to travel require more preparation than ever before, it’s safe to say that even frequent flyers and travel enthusiasts who may never have experienced travel-related anxiety before might struggle with finding their best antidote to re-entry stress.

According to a recent study from the American Psychological Association, almost 50% of adults are anxious to return to in-person activities. That said, mental health professionals say “reentry anxiety” continues to rise. In fact, Destination Analysts’ Update on American Travel Trends and Sentiment report from late June 2021 shows that more than 40% of travelers say that concerns about the safety of others and ourselves, as well as worries about COVID-19 variants, are the most important considerations that keep Americans from traveling more right now.

Bethany Teachman, psychology professor and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia, says that travel-related anxiety can change within different historical contexts. Think, after Sept. 11, there was heavy fear and anxiety surrounding plane hijackings. Nowadays, it’s the breath — or worse, the cough or sneeze — of fellow travelers that has people anxious about traveling. Afterall, travel — whether it was out of town, state, or country — was one of the first restrictions put in place during the initial phase of the pandemic. Add to that today’s lockdowns, unemployment rates and social distancing, and experts say the trend of travel-related anxiety is understandable, especially since we’ve been told home is the safest place to be for the last year. Teachman also says that travel-related anxiety usually fits into one of three categories:

1)      Mode of transportation (i.e. flying, sailing, driving)

2)      The destination itself and its challenges, like language barriers

3)      The idea that something is being misled or mismanaged at home

American Society of Travel Advisors’ key findings from the first joint research project between ASTA and Sandals Resorts state that after the pandemic is over, nearly half of travelers (44%) are more likely to use a travel advisor. Travel anxiety is typically triggered by lack of control during a trip, which leads to the fear of the unknown. Lily Brown, the director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety, says, “Some people who might have had anxiety about social situations or travels earlier in their life pushed themselves to overcome those fears, basically, by putting themselves in anxiety provoking situations and learning about their ability to tolerate it.” She goes on to say that, “Since people are out of practice, anxiety is likely to appear again as we get back to travel.” So, it’s important to stay in the know and be equipped with strategies to help manage possible travel anxiety moving forward.

Here are a few guidelines and antidotes to consider for dealing with travel-related/reentry anxiety:

  • Learn your triggers. Many travelers that identify their triggers ask themselves what they are worried about when it comes to traveling.
  • List what is within your control. Making a list can help manage reentry anxiety right away. Plan by listing out what you’re going to pack and leave behind, read up on local guidelines wherever you’re traveling to and put as much of the trip in your control as possible.
  • Ease into travel again with a trial run. Consider a trial run trip closer to home before a bigger, more expensive trip. Picking a staycation or familiar place closer to home offers the chance to practice dealing with the specific travel activities that lead to anxious thoughts on a smaller scale. Plus, this is a more approachable level to rehearse going through the airport, flying on a plane and planning for bigger trips.
  • Stay connected. To combat loneliness and stress that follows along on solo trips, schedule a video or phone call with a friend or family member for when you anticipate needing support on the go.
  • Pack tools to reduce anxiety. Be mindful about what you pack when you return to travel. Stash a few extra tools in your suitcase that will make a difference in your travel anxiety. Some items might include books, music, a journal, contact information to refer to when you’re connecting with supporters, and medications if needed.

It’s important to note that these recommendations might not be helpful for every traveler. In this case, we urge you to connect with professional help if needed.