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Ease Pre-Travel Anxiety

by Debra Bokur

Apr 17, 2020

Photo: Artinun Prekmoung | Dreamstime.com

Travel Tips

Pre-travel anxiety is a common condition affecting countless travelers — even seasoned vacationers who have been around the world and back again. With chaos surrounding travel these days and worldwide concern over coronavirus, even low-level anxiety can quickly elevate to full-blown panic.


While individual fears beyond catching an illness are too many to address, there are ways to successfully deal with pre-trip anxiety, including downloading a meditation app and soothing music, learning calming breathing techniques, and preparing mentally by getting as much information as possible on your destination and how to navigate its transportation options.


The Centers for Disease Control website has up-to-date COVID-19 information. For anxiety related to this or to other aspects of travel, we asked Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City, for her best tips on how to ease pre-trip jitters and stress. An expert who frequently appears on CNN and The Dr. Oz Show, Hafeez is a teaching faculty member at Columbia University Teacher’s College, and the founder and clinical director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. in Manhattan and Queens. She offers the following tips:


Read About Your Destination

There is nothing worse than fear of the unknown. Read about the area you’ll be traveling to. Learn if public transportation is safe to take and at what times of day, and what areas of the city you should avoid. Find out about local dress customs, especially if you are a woman. If you have concerns about healthcare, find out how close the nearest hospitals are. Ask your doctor at home what to do if you have a medical emergency in the area and what medications would be helpful to pack.


Travel With A Buddy

Having a friend or loved one who has empathy and understanding of your anxiety can go a long way toward having a non-anxiety-provoking travel experience. For some people, just knowing they have a “security blanket” to fall back on keeps their anxiety at bay.


Traveling together. Photo: Mirko Vitali | Dreamstime.com


Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This form of therapy is also known as CBT. If you change your thoughts, you can change your response and behavior. Addressing general anxiety can reduce the intensity during triggering moments, like being on a plane. The CBT therapist may suggest exposure therapy, where your first assignment is to drive to the airport and walk into the terminal. The second assignment might be to take the shortest flight possible from your home with a trusted friend or loved one. The third time might involve a longer flight alone until the fear is de-escalated and flying begins to feel normal. This type of practice is known as exposure therapy.


Monitor Your Media Intake

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning: Avoid airplane disaster movies, news coverage of plane crashes, terrorist attacks, shows about people getting sick or being imprisoned, or other scary media images. Remember the vast majority of travelers arrive safely, and only the big problems make the news.


Learn to Breathe Properly

Belly breathing entails slow, controlled breaths into the diaphragm. Think of the number 10, then inhale through your nose slowly, counting to 10 as you do so. Think the word relax. Count to 10 again as you breathe out through your mouth. Try this in traffic, security lines and whenever necessary to calm your nerves.


Bring An In-flight Tool Kit 

Distraction is key to staying out of fear/panic. Pack crossword puzzles and coloring books in your carry-on, and download books or movies that are “light.” Don’t watch or read anything that can trigger fear. Anything you read, listen to or watch should conjure pleasant thoughts. Brain games are great because they keep your mind occupied, and that’s the goal. Also, avoid caffeine, which can make you jittery.


Talk to the Senior Flight Attendant Before Boarding

If flying is what makes you nervous, ask to board early by telling the gate attendant that you suffer from fear of flying and wish to talk to the flight attendant in the pre-boarding phase. They are accustomed to dealing with nervous flyers. Explain your fears and tell them your seat number and ask if they could come and check on you. If you’re traveling alone and your seatmate seems friendly, perhaps you could ask them to engage you in conversation during takeoff, landing or when your fear is most easily triggered to keep your mind off things during this phase of the flight. Strangers can be surprisingly nice.


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