Anxiety is a condition that can appear in many situations, be triggered by many seemingly harmless things and crop up seemingly at random.
And yet, we know that certain things cause anxiety for large numbers of the population. One such trigger? Travel.
Travel plans can cause stress regardless of whether you have anxiety or not, but for anxiety sufferers, pre-travel anxiety is just the first in a series of potentially debilitating points of anxiety along the travel path.
Travel anxiety is a major concern for people, though the reasons that you might experience anxiety from flying or leaving your home are more complicated than you might think.
Whether you’re struck by the overwhelming fear of being in the air or adrift at sea, or just worried about leaving your home sometimes, there are treatments available to help you manage your travel anxiety.
They start with understanding what’s going on in your head — so let’s begin there, as well.
People old enough to remember the days before 9/11 are most likely to understand the cultural mood shift that the terror attacks caused in the minds of travelers.
Elevated security, increased scrutiny, and the very real threat of danger that was witnessed on that day in 2001 changed the landscape of travel forever.
But even before that, there were plenty of people experiencing anxiety when traveling.
In its most severe form, anxiety disorder is called panic disorder — an affliction that bogs down someone’s life in frequent, intense anxiety attacks.
Symptoms of anxiety include a lot of obvious things: restlessness, difficulty sleeping, feeling wound up or on edge, etc.
Physiological anxiety symptoms might include things like muscle tension and fatigue, though, along with difficulty concentrating and stomach issues.
It’s a lot more common than you might expect — in fact, more than 30 percent of adults deal with it at some point.
We don’t understand everything about anxiety, but we do know that it can be triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain similar to depression — when the imbalance occurs, you’re more susceptible to increased anxiety levels and panic attacks.
Travel anxiety, then, is simply a form of anxiety that affects people in relation to their travels.
That may mean the destination or the means of travel itself are the triggers — you might fear airplanes or cars, or worry about being in unfamiliar places.
So what’s the difference? Well, it’s complicated.
Travel anxiety is really just a specific version of a situational form of anxiety. Generalized anxiety, for instance, is typically not triggered by any one thing, whereas anxiety from traveling may be triggered by fears of separation, phobias of plane crashes or recurring panic attacks at TSA screening.
Plenty of things can cause travel anxiety — you may have mild or severe panic triggered by the idea of flying or being away from home for too long.
You may be anxious about being in a strange place or surrounded by many strange people.
Keep in mind that some of these traits may also carry links to agoraphobia and other phobias, and likewise may also be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD — a mental health professional will be able to help you make distinctions if you suspect there may be more at play here.
Travel anxiety is also more easily managed with preparation. A person who knows they get anxious when they travel can limit the effects of their anxiety by doing things to protect themselves from an attack.
These things might include creating a battle plan by going over your itinerary multiple times to check for errors or getting to the airport early enough to allow plenty of time for delays.
They may also include making sure you understand the mental health resources available while in transit, as well as in the location of your destination, which may have different cultural norms and medications.
Most importantly, however, people experiencing travel anxiety in a pattern (as in, multiple times) should make sure that they’re getting effective treatment for their mental health condition.
Generally speaking, one of the best ways to treat anxiety of any kind is with a combination of therapies.
Normally, medication alongside therapeutic practices is the most effective way to control your anxiety disorder.
The go-to medications for anxiety are actually antidepressants — these medications are effective for anxiety because they help regulate brain chemical imbalances that contribute to mood disorders.
Commonly, you might be prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, but mental health professionals also see success with serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) for anxiety, because they regulate both norepinephrine and serotonin.
While medication is an effective long-term anxiety management strategy, the fact is that you’re not going to be able to pop a pill before a flight to solve problems.
There are indeed some medications that may accomplish this task, but long-term mental illness treatment is about long-term solutions — you want to be ready for all flights, not just one.
Medication may help you in the long term, but so may coping with anxiety through therapeutic practices. Anxiety disorders (and travel anxiety) generally respond well to techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which essentially helps you take back control of your brain by learning to recognize and regulate unhealthy patterns of thought, such as anxiety spirals.
The travel anxiety treatment journey is a potentially long one. It may be challenging, it may take time and it may necessitate one or more false starts before you find the right path.
Whether you’re finding comfort in adventure for the first time or readjusting to exploring the world after a flare-up of newfound fear, there are resources available to help you reach your destination.
But like any journey, the best time to start yours is now. We’ve compiled a guide on the types of therapy you may be offered, and we’ve also covered anxiety symptoms, medications, and other mental health treatment options in our mental health resources guide.
Reading may be the right next step for you right now — after all, journeys sometimes require planning, and feeling prepared can help you get started.
But make sure you do this for yourself. There’s a lot of life to live; if online psychiatry or other mental health support systems can help you live it to the fullest, then it’s the smartest first step you can take.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.