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4 Ways to Deal With Anxiety and Still Enjoy Traveling

My heart pounded, and my thoughts raced, as I leaned over in my airplane seat with my head in my hands, waiting for takeoff. I tried to appear calm and controlled in front of my fellow passengers, although anxiety riddled my inward confidence with doubts and fears like so many tiny bullets. How am I going to survive a whole 12-hour plane flight feeling like this, much less my four-week stay in Indonesia? I inwardly groaned. Thinking of the weeks ahead in a strange place — the exciting, out-of-my-comfort-zone activities I would be involved in and the sleepless nights that would undoubtedly accompany them — only made me feel more desperate to jump off the plane and run all the way home. As the plane began rumbling down the runway, my head started spinning and familiar waves of nausea hit me, one after another.

Why would I put myself through such mental and physical turmoil? Sometimes I have wondered the same thing. If this had been my first time experiencing anxiety, I may have walked off that plane and never traveled again. But, fortunately or unfortunately (I’m not sure which), this was no new experience for me. I had been dealing with anxiety for over eight years by then. Granted, each time anxiety crept over me it expressed itself in varying symptoms and in different degrees of severity.

But, I had to make a choice. Was I  going to let anxiety rule my life and keep me from traveling and from going outside my comfort zone? Or, was I going to step out and face my fears? This was no one-time choice, but a decision that hounds me every day. In the end, though, I personally try to decide each day that I am not going to let anxiety keep me from enjoying life and seeing the world.

Anxiety is an unpredictable companion, but not impossible to deal with. It is not the occasional, healthy worry, but the continuing state of agitation and apprehension. At times, the anxiety is triggered by a certain situation or event. It causes indigestion, nausea, sleep problems and even debilitating panic attacks. Fortunately for me, my anxiety is generally manageable and usually triggered by not feeling in control of my circumstances, by experiencing overwhelming noises and sensations, or by traveling.

I love learning about new cultures, trying new food and seeing new sites. Since I realized I have anxiety, I have experimented and discovered what does work and what doesn’t for me while traveling. I particularly have focused on finding ways I can still enjoy traveling despite my anxiety. No method is foolproof, but I have found four ways to make traveling with anxiety more manageable.

1. Travel with trusted friends, family members or your soulmate.

This may seem like an obvious one, but traveling with other people who understand where you’re coming from and who know how to support you through your anxiety is relieving. Many times, the feelings of being alone and isolated can magnify anxiety disproportionately. In addition, isolation can make you feel like you’re out of resources and like you have to struggle all by yourself to survive anxiety. This can be overwhelming and make you feel helpless and out of control.

Alternately, traveling with inconsiderate, dismissive friends/people can be even more stressful than traveling without anyone. Not only do you end up feeling isolated, since your friends are not listening to you when you express your needs and feelings, but you end up feeling hurt and betrayed. Often, I personally feel like I have to pretend like everything is wonderful and hide my anxiety, which makes it more difficult to manage my anxious feelings than when I can accept and deal with them openly.

But, if you travel with sympathetic people, they can offer encouraging words to you so you don’t feel alone in your struggle. In addition, a trusted person can help you recognize the reality of your situation when your anxiety is causing you to think illogically and comfort you with the reality that you are safe and loved. At times, just having someone you trust physically near you can help ease anxious thoughts and feelings.

2. Keep a familiar routine when you travel.

Whenever I travel, I take along my colorful fleece blanket and pillow, if I can. I usually perform a similar set of activities before bedtime as I do at home. Before I turn the lights out, I brush my teeth and wash my face, apply my facial medications, lip balm and lotion, check Facebook, and read a devotional. I’ve learned over the years that I feel more comfortable and less anxious when at least some of my surroundings and activities are familiar.

Especially for the anxious mind, familiarity can bring comfort and peace.

– Keep the same bedtime routine as you have done for the past 10 years.
– Write in your journal like you do every other night of your life.
– Bring the plush blanket along that you use at home on a cold day.
– Take your own comfortable pillow along.
– Grab your favorite bag of snacks when you head out for a long day of sightseeing.

You get the idea. Anything familiar can bring a sense of safety and can help put the anxious mind at ease.

3. Plan out the details of the trip ahead of time.

Unless I am going on a relaxing vacation with no specific goals to meet and no events to attend, I have realized I am much less stressed and frantic when I can plan out the details of the vacation or business trip ahead of time. For instance, when I traveled to Puerto Rico for an orchestra tour, I felt much more apprehension and anxiety than I did when I traveled to Europe because I knew very few details about sleeping arrangements, food and concert performances. In Europe, my fellow travelers and I had gathered specific information on scheduling, accommodations and daily activities.

Similarly, planning the details of a trip ahead of time can help take a load off the mind of an anxious person. You don’t have to worry about finding a room to stay in when you arrive at your destination late at night. You don’t have to wonder whether you need to pack a lunch or eat out for supper. You don’t have to figure out which parking garage is cheapest as you rush to arrive on time. Instead, all these details can be cleared up ahead of time to ensure a more enjoyable, relaxed trip.

4. Consider medications or aromatherapy.

A misconception persists in our culture that medications should only be used for extreme, dangerous mental illnesses or symptoms. As a result, I felt for many years that my anxiety wasn’t bad enough to warrant medications. I’m not suicidal or out of control, I thought. I can handle this! Yet, secretly, I wondered if medication could make trips more bearable for me. I couldn’t sleep for nights in a row on trips because of my anxiety. As a result, I felt constantly lethargic and exhausted during vacations. I had always loved going on vacation with friends and family before I developed anxiety. So, it was very difficult for me to accept that I felt too anxious to go on trips. Anxiety was keeping me from going to the places I wanted to go and seeing the sights I wanted to see.

Finally, I broke down and asked my doctor about medications for anxiety. He suggested I take a beta-suppressing medication that would suppress the physical expression of my anxiety while leaving my mind/emotions unaffected. “This won’t take away your anxious thoughts, but it can help you manage the physical symptoms such as your elevated heart rate and shortness of breath,” he said. “It may be just the boost you need to feel in control of your anxiety when you travel.” So, the next time I traveled, I armed myself with my new medication. Just as my doctor said, my anxiety was more controllable, and I was able to sleep soundly most nights on my two-week vacation, though I still worried sometimes. Even when I had to sleep in a university chapel instead of a hotel room, I was able to get decent rest because the medication relaxed my body from its uptight, anxious state. I realized medications can make anxiety more manageable for even those with mild anxiety.

Similarly, aromatherapy may be helpful to some people who live with anxiety. Scents such as lavender may cause people to feel more relaxed and less uptight in stressful situations. I have found aromatherapy to be quite soothing when used right before bedtime during trips. Aromatherapy is available in many different forms such as pillow/sheet sprays, room sprays, candles, hand and body lotions, and diffusers.

While the medical efficacy of the various forms of aromatherapy is uncertain, many people have found aromatherapy to be relaxing and soothing.

Everyone is different.

Always keep in mind that what helps one person may not help another person. Research your options and try different suggestions to figure out what is most helpful for you. Only you know what your anxiety is like and what triggers or soothes it. Furthermore, you may have to plan your trips to avoid anxiety-inducing situations.

Find out what works for you. But, most importantly, don’t give up. Don’t let anxiety keep you from doing what you want to do and traveling where you want to go. You have options and resources. Have fun traveling!

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Thinkstock photo via YakobchukOlena

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