Travel Anxiety

  • Regina Lopes Senior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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Introduction

Travel anxiety is defined as the unsettling feeling or fear of travelling and going to new places. It can be triggered whilst planning a trip or may not come into effect until you are sat on the plane. Each individual suffers from different symptoms that can be triggered by specifics or may change on each occasion. This article will discuss how to identify travel anxiety, your own triggers and a variety of methods to ease the symptoms. There are ways to overcome it.

We understand the huge importance of addressing travel anxiety and want to help every individual to travel freely and live their travelling life without restrictions. By living with travel anxiety you may be preventing yourself from seeing new cultures and missing out on events such as family holidays. You are also adding, potentially avoidable, stress that nobody wants in their life! In order to fight the battle it is important you have a strong understanding of travel anxiety and how to identify it. 

Understanding travel anxiety

Causes

Travel anxiety can be caused in many different ways, specific to the individual. It may be a combination of different factors that contribute to your anxious feelings, or just the thought alone of travelling. 

  • Fear of the unknown. Travelling to a new destination can be overwhelming as until you are there you may not know what to expect. You will be unfamiliar with the surroundings, you won't know where the local supermarket is and may not even speak the local language.
  • Previous experiences. A previous experience such as a cancelled flight leaving you stranded for an evening or some extreme turbulence encountered could result in travel anxiety when next travelling. You do not know whether this trip may end in the same result. 
  • News. Consuming news articles about other people’s previous negative experiences can put ideas into your head. So many ‘what ifs’ and ‘what if that happens to me’.
  • Fear of flying. Aerophobia, the fear of flying, is a common cause of travel anxiety affecting 3-8% of the global population.1 Many are scared of flying due to being out of control; particularly when on a long-haul flight. In addition many of those suffering from other phobias such as claustrophobia (fear of small spaces), germophobia (fear of picking up unwanted germs) or acrophobia (fear of heights) also suffer from aerophobia.
  • Separation anxiety. Travelling away from an area and people you are familiar with may induce travel anxiety. It can be unsettling when you become so comfortable in a certain location.
  • Generalised anxiety disorder. Those who suffer from a general anxiety disorder are also more likely to suffer from travel anxiety. 

Common symptoms

Much like anxiety, travel anxiety presents itself in everyone differently. Symptoms can vary from case to case and in severity.

  • Increased heart rate and/or chest pains
  • Diarrhoea and nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Panic attacks
  • Muscle tension
  • Shaking 
  • Sweating
  • Unable to focus
  • Trouble sleeping

Impact of travel anxiety

Personal impact

Anxiety commonly impacts an individual's personal life by causing them unnecessary stress. Many think and over-worry about things that haven’t or may not ever happen. This can be exhausting and take up time in the day. Further, you may alter plans to avoid these travel commitments. For instance, you may decline to see a friend as they have suggested a cafe that requires you to take an unfamiliar bus route. This can be fixed!

Over a duration of time, this will slowly grind away at your mental health as it is likely your life will become hugely isolated. You are likely to distance yourself from places and people. It may also affect your relationship, especially if your significant other doesn't suffer from travel anxiety and therefore can’t relate.

Professional impact

Travel anxiety has the potential to not only impact your personal life but also your work life. Travel is becoming more and more common within a variety of industries and the anxiety may prevent you from attending work obligations. In one piece of research, a staggering ¼ of interviewees avoided public transport and prioritised job relocation over commuting using public transport.2

For many, travelling is the perfect time to quickly catch up on work emails or assignments. When dealing with travel anxiety this performance may be impaired or avoided. 

Finally, you may be limiting your career options by letting travel anxiety win. Travelling for work is more likely as you climb up career ladders and become easier with how the world is so connected. However, do remember that not all jobs will, or ever will, involve travelling and there is nothing wrong with these careers. If you do want a job within one of these travel-heavy sectors it is important to not let travel anxiety dictate your life. 

How do I cope with travel anxiety?

If symptoms still persist after trialling and testing these methods, it is time to visit the doctor. Medical professionals are able to work together with you to develop a treatment plan that may involve anti-anxiety medications.

Pre-travel preparation

  • Research and planning. Many people find the unknown unsettling. By running through step by step, ensuring all bases are covered such as taxis and accommodation all being pre-booked, should help calm nerves. In addition, ensure when you are researching accommodations, have check where the local town or beach is and know how you are going to get there. Creating a timetable with each day’s activities including things such as timings, booking references and travel plans will allow you to relax more when on holiday.
  • Packing essentials. Ensuring you are prepared for an array of situations that could occur should help relax you. Packing a bag of ‘just in cases’ is a great solution. It should include things such as: suncream, pain relievers, a torch and spare cash in the local currency.
  • Familiarising with the destination. This comes into the research mentioned earlier, but use things such as travel guides and Google Maps to familiarise yourself before you get to the destination. Recognising certain buildings or features you have previously seen, even just via the internet, will help you feel a sense of familiarity. 

During travel

These strategies can allow you to try and cope or minimise symptoms of anxiety during the actual travelling sector of the trip. For many, this is the dreaded section of the trip, which should be the most exciting, you are on your way to a holiday!

  • Breathing exercises. A simple yet effective method to calm you down when travelling. An effective breathing method that lowers the heart rate called the 4-7-8 breathing technique lowers your heart rate, putting your body into a state of relaxation.3 To perform this technique you simply breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 and then further exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat these steps 4 times and you should begin to feel more relaxed.
  • Distraction techniques. Bringing along activities or items to help distract your mind from anxious thoughts such as books, puzzles or TV shows downloaded onto an electronic device. There are also many sensory distractions you can bring such as stress balls or fidget spinners to engage your senses. 
  • Seeking support. Either from travel companions or professionals. Travelling alongside friends or family who understand your struggles could be a huge support. They know you the best and will be able to distract you with different conversations and talk through any emotions you may come across. 

Professional help

Remember that professional help is always available. Your local GP may be able to help with diagnosing you and creating a treatment plan. In addition, there are many hotlines if you are in urgent need to speak to a professional.

Conclusion

To conclude, travel anxiety is a common form of anxiety experienced by many over the world. It is most commonly induced by holidays being booked but can also be as simple as catching a bus into the town centre. Through familiarity and careful planning, the symptoms are likely to be relieved. However, many find that anti-anxiety medications are the solution which reduces symptoms such as increased heart rate and panic attacks. Always remember to seek professional help if you haven't been diagnosed with travel anxiety and the doctor will also be able to come up with a treatment plan which may involve additional support such as psychotherapy. There is a whole world out there for each and every one of us to discover and we shouldn't let our brains prevent us from living the life we want to live. Go explore and worry later!

References

  1. Grimholt TK, Bonsaksen T, Schou-Bredal I, Heir T, Lerdal A, Skogstad L, et al. Flight Anxiety Reported from 1986 to 2015. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2019 Apr 1;90(4):384–8.
  2. Ratering C, van der Heijden R, Martens K. Moving around with an anxiety disorder. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour [Internet]. 2024 Jan 1 [cited 2024 May 31];100:493–506. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S136984782300270X
  3. Valenza MC, Valenza-Peña G, Torres-Sánchez I, González-Jiménez E, Conde-Valero A, Valenza-Demet G. Effectiveness of controlled breathing techniques on anxiety and depression in hospitalised patients with copd: a randomised clinical trial. Respiratory Care [Internet]. 2014 Feb 1 [cited 2024 May 31];59(2):209–15. Available from: https://rc.rcjournal.com/content/59/2/209

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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