9 Healthy Ways to Cope If You’re an Anxious Traveler
Love everything about travel except the actual traveling? If you're like a lot of us, there's one major drawback to our trips: A lot of us really (like, really) don't like to fly. A significant number of Americans feel increased stress — or outright fear — about air travel. About 18 percent of adults report being “anxious" about flying, and 12 percent say they're actually fearful. And with the added stress from COVID, we can understand if you'd rather have a summer staycation.
Often, these feelings have to do with placing our bodily safety in others' hands: “It's a lack of control and having to trust someone else to get you where you need to go in a safe and secure manner," says therapist Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC. But it's not just the time wheels are up that stresses us out. The headache of schedule changes, the yo-yo of hurry-up-and-wait, and the embarrassment of the dreaded security pat-down can all contribute to our heightened tension in airports.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that a new survey found that one in 10 airline passengers have snuck illegal substances (including marijuana, illicit prescription drugs, and even cocaine) aboard a flight — often to relieve anxiety. But you don't have to resort to trippy gummy bears just to keep your cool in the air. Instead, try some healthier coping methods. Here are nine techniques to consider before you hop on your next flight.
1. Take your meds. First, if you have a diagnosed anxiety (or other mental health) condition, don't let the hustle and bustle of travel get in the way of remembering any prescribed medications you regularly take. Hurtling through the sky in a metal bird is the last place you want to be without this critical component of your mental health self-care. Add “take meds" to your pre-flight to-do list or packing list to be sure you don't accidentally forget.
2. Allow plenty of time. The sneaking fear of missing the flight underlies many travelers' stress. Not making it to your destination and losing out on the money you paid for your ticket is seriously not cool. Giving yourself more wiggle room by arriving extra early at the airport early might allow you to breathe easier throughout your travel day.
3. Walk before you fly. Exercise is a well-known stress reliever, but when you're waiting to board, you might feel a bit self-conscious jogging through the concourse or busting out a downward dog. A better option (if time allows — see the previous entry) is to go for a walk. “Walking around before you get on the plane can be helpful to get rid of some of your pent-up energy," notes McBain.
4. Try aromatherapy. Okay, so maybe you can't run your aromatherapy diffuser while squeezed in the middle seat in coach class, but that's not to say you can't carry on a discreetly sized vial of an essential oil you find soothing. Hold a calming lavender scent to your nose when anxiety hits, or dab a few drops on your wrists or temples before heading to the airport. For other passengers' comfort, just stay mindful of the strength of any scents you plan to pack.
5. Bring a comfort object. A comfort object doesn't have to be a grubby old teddy bear from when you were five. (Though research indicates that hanging on to beloved childhood toys into adulthood can actually ease certain mental health difficulties.) Bringing along any object that makes you feel at home — your pillow, perhaps, or a favorite blanket — can help establish an environment that feels safe, even on a plane.
6. Journal. Not all journaling is created equal. When turbulence starts up, it's probably best not to put your freakout on paper. (So not just writing “OMG I'm gonna DIE!" over and over.) Instead, probe a little deeper. Why is the bumpy ride scaring you? Compare any fears with the facts. Write about all the times you've traveled before and have been just fine, or that 2.6 million other Americans fly on any given day.
7. Meditate. Nearly every kind of meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, from mindful breathing to visualization. Fire up a meditation app or listen to a quick guided talkdown on YouTube while sitting in the terminal. “One easy grounding technique is to focus on your five senses," says McBain. Take a few moments to tune in all you're seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting, and see if it doesn't help anchor you peacefully in the moment.
8. Get educated. For those whose flying fears have to do with all that could go wrong from takeoff to landing, getting educated about the safety of air travel can allay these concerns. According to FlyFright.com, a site devoted to helping people overcome fear of air travel, the chance of being involved in an airplane accident is one in 11 million. And though turbulence can certainly be uncomfortable, it's extremely rare for it to cause any damage more devastating than coffee spilled in your lap. Stay buckled up to ensure safety and let your fears just… fly away.
9. Get help. Finally, don't be afraid to seek help from a mental health pro for your feelings around flying. Says McBain: “If severe travel anxiety is keeping you from going on the trips and vacations of your dreams, a therapist who specializes in anxiety might be able to help you work through your anxiety at a deeper level to make these dreams a reality in your life."
This post has been updated.
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