“Oh, the places you’ll go!” exclaimed Dr. Seuss, as he he hoped to inspire children to live a vigorous life of travel, exploration, and discovery. But for people with severe anxiety, travel could be considered the ultimate discomfort zone. A variety of unknowns can cause a cyclone of negative thoughts: “How will I get there? Will I be able to adjust to an unfamiliar environment? How do I deal with anxiety while I’m away from home?”
Thankfully, an anxious traveler can take steps before and during a trip that can ease worry and allow you to focus on what’s really important: living life outside the parameters of debilitating anxiety.
1. Prepare for your return.
It may seem counterintuitive, but take a few small steps before you leave to allow yourself a more comfortable transition back to routine. Tidy up your home and lock up your valuables so you don’t panic while you’re away. Make copies of your passport to take with you if you're traveling internationally. Wash your bed sheets and make your bed because once you are back home, clean sheets will be like music to your ears when you’re completely exhausted. You should experience so much less stress.
2. Set expectations for getting to your destination.
Once you have committed to the idea of getting away, it’s important to set yourself up for success — and understand there will be failures along the way. Prepare yourself mentally for possible delays, crowds of people, and things generally not going as planned (for example, flight delays, rain at your destination, luggage arriving late). These scenarios are par for the course and it is expected you will experience a few hiccups.
For the train or plane, choose a comfortable seat and equip your distraction arsenal: Download movies, load up on magazines, build the ultimate zone-out playlist, or pay for Wi-Fi. If you’re traveling abroad, bring along a guidebook to learn key phrases in the local language. Give yourself many options so you are not accidentally left to the devices of your worrying thoughts in a moment of boredom.
And remember that other travelers are in the same boat; just like you, they are simply trying to reach their destination safely, People generally understand that travel can be a wearisome process, and they usually work together to make it as smooth as possible. If you’re nervous that you might be outed as an anxious traveler, keep in mind that others will be focused on watching movies and surfing the net, so it’s not likely that they’re interested in judging or criticizing you.
3. Understand that while on vacation, you are not expected to be an expert.
Upon arrival, you will be meeting a lot of people: fellow travelers at your hotel, waiters in restaurants, locals who will help you with directions, and others. You may be nervous that you will misstep and say or do something that might be disrespectful to the host culture, or perhaps you'll fumble your way through reading a map and end up getting lost.
During those anxious moments, remind yourself that you are not expected to know everything. Go easy on yourself. It’s highly likely that the locals are kind and are happy to facilitate your adventure. Feel proud of the fact that you expanded your comfort zone, and be present with the sights and sounds — because you deserve it.
Dr. Gupta specializes in CBT for OCD, panic disorder, anxiety, and related disorders. She is Clinical Director at TherapyNest, A Center for Anxiety and Family Therapy in Los Altos, California.