With the holiday season coming into full swing, many people are getting ready to travel back home to see family and friends. It is the time of year for coming together, seeing one another and celebrating, but getting from one place to another can actually be quite a stress-inducing experience. For some people, this may be the first time they are getting on a plane to come home from college for the winter holidays. For others, they may be traveling to a whole new city or state to meet their future in-laws. What should be a joyous, memorable time can sometimes be overwhelming for people who do not travel on a frequent basis. Even those who travel all the time may still suffer from the effects of travel anxiety. The prospect of sitting in an unfamiliar airport, riding a new bus, or being in a new environment can be distressing. If you or someone you know struggles with feeling anxious around traveling, you are not alone. Traveling can be a stressful experience within itself, and in this blog we will discuss travel anxiety and different ways that you can ease these fears for yourself or someone in your life.
What Is Travel Anxiety?
While travel anxiety is not a diagnosable mental disorder on its own, it can comprise a variety of different emotions for different people. For a person with generalized anxiety disorder, the way that travel anxiety manifests for them may depend on their past experiences and previous thought patterns related to anxiety. Anxiety exists on a spectrum.1 Some people are mildly anxious while others’ lives are crippled by constant worry and fear. How a person experiences their anxiety varies completely and can be triggered by just about anything. When it comes to travel anxiety, a person’s pattern of anxiety may become apparent. For example, if an individual tends to become anxious in rooms full of crowded people, then being in a busy airport may trigger their anxiety. If a person who likes to be in control is suddenly thrown into a TSA line where they are unsure if their passport needs to be out now or later; if their laptop needs to be in their backpack or taken out, or if they can leave their shoes on or not, anxious thoughts may occur.
Travel is meant to be a relaxing, exciting way to get around, but for some people it can be absolutely terrifying. When people find themselves traveling in new modalities, like a train, airport or bus, it can be daunting and hard to navigate. Especially when it seems like everyone else already knows what they are doing, individuals may feel like it is more difficult to speak up if they are confused about a gate number, seating arrangement, or delay. Traveling can be quite a variable experience, and this can lead to discomfort when things don’t pan out right.
Triggers of Travel Anxiety
Risk and Uncertainty
When it comes to traveling, there is always an element of risk involved. Especially if you are not the person behind the car, bus, train, or plane, there is even more risk involved in trusting another person to get you to your destination. Fear of the unknown can be such an overwhelming experience, and it is especially understandable within the context of travel. Traveling to an unfamiliar place may be a given, but what about the other parts of the trip that are stressful as well? What if there is a delay to a flight and you have to stay in a hotel or even the airport overnight? What if a road you were planning to take gets shut down? What if the plane goes through scary turbulence? What if you’re seated in front of someone who constantly kicks your seat? Not knowing if and when you will come into roadblocks is anxiety-inducing, and can even prevent some people from traveling at all. Even for trips that people make on a regular basis, the ‘not knowing’ of how exactly a trip will go can cause anxiety.
According to an Air Travelers in America survey in 2023, over 60 million Americans aged 18-24 years old have never flown in their lifetime.2 The same survey showed that about 20 million Americans aged 55 years and older had also never flown.2 What this means is that a large number of people in America do not have experience with flying or the process of making their way through an airport. For some people, traveling by plane is a piece of cake, but for a lot of people, the whole process is confusing and intimidating. Maybe you are traveling by train for the first time, but you do not know where to drop off your car. What happens next? Traveling comes with so many unexpected questions that we don’t or can’t always prepare for. Not always having a solution right away can trigger anxiety for people who just want to keep things rolling smoothly.
Sometimes we romanticize traveling in our heads. Seeing a bunch of new places, trying new foods, meeting new people sounds like such a great time! But wait — how long is the flight to get that place, and what if I actually don’t like the food there? What if the people there don’t understand me? For people who are more anxious in social settings, traveling can set off feelings of anxiety. Being in a different place may mean that you will have to communicate with others in an unfamiliar language, or maybe eat with cutlery that you are not used to. Maybe you are put in the center of attention when speaking to people in that new place, and being out of your element can cause worrisome thoughts and even panic.
Aerophobia, or a fear of flying, is an anxiety disorder that is another major cause for travel anxiety.3 Aerophobia is a common phobia, with over 25 million U.S. adults suffering from its effects every year. There are many things about flying that can trigger a panic attack or extreme anxiety — the take off, landing, and fear that they will never get off the plane. For a majority of those with aerophobia, individuals do not necessarily have a fear of the plane crashing or something as severe as that, but they are more concerned with everything else to do with the flight. Feeling nervous about the plane taking off and landing, turbulence, thoughts of emergencies ensuing while up in the air, or having a fear of heights or confined spaces can trigger aerophobia. Sometimes, those with the phobia never fly in order to avoid any anxiety that may come along with the risk of being in a plane.
Just About Anything Else
The truth is — just about anything can trigger travel anxiety. In exactly the same way generalized anxiety works, people can experience travel anxiety as a result of just about anything. The key to remember is that you are not the only person and you will not be the last person to be put in an uncomfortable situation when traveling. Things do not always work out according to our plans, but that is the risk that comes with traveling! In the next section, we will discuss different ways to prepare ourselves for anxiety-inducing situations related to travel and how to handle the stress when it inevitably comes.
Tips for Handling Travel Anxiety
- Minimally plan. If you are going to a new place to sight-see or visit for the first time, less is usually more. Try to think about the most important things you want to see, do, and eat. When you figure out the big things that need to happen, let there be room for other things to happen. If you jam pack your schedule with so many things to get done, you might wound up feeling overwhelmed and stressed when they don’t happen. Let yourself have downtime and flexibility for plans to change. That’s what makes an adventure anyway!
- Create checklists. Packing for trips can be such a headache. Making sure you have all the right clothes and toiletries is one thing — but what about all the other documents that make sure you get on that plane, bus or train? Writing everything down and checking them off as you pack is important for simplifying tasks and giving you peace of mind.
- Research beforehand and familiarize yourself. If you are going to the airport for the first time, go online and find a video that goes over the outlay of that airport to show where everything is. Knowing the process of how to check in a flight or go through customs might make it less daunting when you go through it yourself.
- Contact people right away when things don’t go to plan. If a flight gets delayed or a car breaks down, call someone you trust right away. Dealing with the unforeseen parts of travel are stressful enough to carry on your own, so don’t try to. If a friend was supposed to pick you up at 7 but your flight was delayed to 10, let them know right away. Sharing updates with your support people will reassure you and give you peace that you will get to where you need to go no matter how long it might take.
Remember that while traveling can be a stressful experience, it can also lead to the creation of the most amazing, formative memories for you and your loved ones. Getting out there can be so good for our mental health, and if your anxieties associated with traveling become too much, there is always help available. If your fear of travel prevents you from ever leaving your comfort zone, professional help can get you to where you want to go. So many other people feel the same way you do, and you can do anything and go anywhere you want to!