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6 Stay-Calm Strategies for Dealing With Anxiety Before a Trip

By Cassie Shortsleeve

Jan 6, 2020

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Photos courtesy of Unsplash and by Kelsey McClellan; design by Emily Blevins

Have a calmer trip to the airport with these relaxation techniques vetted by psychologists and designed to help when you’re feeling anxious.

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Travel can bring about all sorts of anxious feelings, whether it’s because you procrastinated about packing, you have a fear of flying, or because you’re sitting in gridlocked traffic en route to the airport.

Most of our worries about travel are nothing to, well, worry about. “We have a tendency to pathologize everything,” says Lily Brown, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “But it’s important to realize that if you feel jitters, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything weird or wrong; some amount of anxiety around travel is healthy and probably normal.” Stepping outside of a comfort zone can be daunting for anyone, even the well-traveled, and it’s natural to stress about packing or missing a flight.

However, if you’re spending the days or hours before a trip ruminating on things that could go wrong, there are ways to soothe your anxious mind. Some strategies offer in-the-moment relief; others require a more long-term mind-set shift. All of the following suggestions are backed by psychologists and research. Hopefully, they’ll help you feel more at ease before and even during your trip

[Editor’s note: If you are experiencing ongoing anxiety, or if it is interfering with your day-to-day activities, please seek help with a trained medical health professional.]

Remember your purpose

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If you feel your mind racing or your temperature rising when you think about your departure, it can help to remember why you’re traveling in the first place, says Julia Martin Burch, Ph.D., a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program. Maybe you’ve always wanted to go to Spain or you’re traveling to see your grandchild. “Checking in with your values and reminding yourself there is a reason you’re doing this, even though you might be fearful or uncertain, is one piece of overcoming anxiety,” she says.

Recall past successes

“Anxiety will often anticipate all kinds of dire things,” says Martin Burch. But, she notes, chances are your flight will land safely, you’ll make it on time, and you’ll be able to get through the TSA line calmly.

Thinking back to past successful travel experiences can provide evidence that you coped with an anxiety-provoking situation previously and help you understand that you’ll be able to handle this trip, too.

A few coping techniques can help you deal with travel anxiety and have a more relaxing vacation.

Soften your body

Mindfulness and meditation experts often suggest softening your body, or relaxing places you feel physically tight, when you’re stressed. It sends a message to your brain that you are OK and calm, explains Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind.

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“Body scanning,” or noticing clenching muscles when you become nervous, is a technique you can use throughout your trip. If you can recognize anxiety’s physical manifestations, you can name them (“oh, this is just anxiety”) and by doing so, you put yourself back in the driver’s seat, helping you more objectively handle your emotions, Goldstein says. “I always tell people to be on the lookout for when their body is tensing because catching the body when it starts to fall into the automatic reaction of stress can be quite effective for overcoming anxiety.”

Change your focus

Goldstein explains that anxiety is a nervous-system reaction that occurs when your mind focuses on something. That’s why he suggests trying to identify what you’re focusing on when you feel anxious. Are you worried that you’ll get into an accident on the way to the airport? Or are you short of breath (as can happen when you experience anxiety or panic) and preoccupied with it?

If you are fixating on anxious thoughts or negative possibilities, your emotions will go there, Goldstein says. Instead, try thinking about how your trip might go well or what you’re most excited about. That kind of focus, he explains, will likely bring positive emotions along with it.

Plan slow-down times

“Slowing down is hard,” says Goldstein. “The brain gets used to a certain level of stimulation.” But doing so can help infuse calmness into your day—whether that means slowing your breathing, or other meditation techniques including focusing on one thing at a time, or simply moving more deliberately.

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Before you leave, plan a few things that might help you slow down during your travels. Can you arrive at the airport an hour earlier to meditate in a yoga room? How about committing to a phone-free day on your trip? “Giving your brain some direction and being able to see those calm moments in your mind allows that emotion to motivate you,” says Goldstein.

Keep traveling

When you’re consumed with anxiety, you may want to cancel a trip out of fear. “Avoidance helps us feel better and is very effective at decreasing anxiety in the short term,” confirms Martin Burch. The problem: “In the long term, avoidance gets us stuck and keeps us from being able to live the life we want to live.”

So remind yourself of why you travel and follow the strategies outlined above. “It’s by approaching and being brave and facing our fears that we actually push back on anxiety,” says Martin Burch. “The way to decrease anxiety, in the long run, is by doing the hard things and going on the trip.”

>>Next: What to Do When You Have a Panic Attack on Vacation

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