Anxiety. It’s a word I’m tired of saying – bored of saying. Like a worn-out record, it’s played its scratchy tune in the corner of my brain since its unexpected arrival in 2011. Since then, its volume has risen and fallen: sometimes barely audible, but often loud and deafening. It’s a tune I’m familiar with, one that I know every note of. Yet when played, it’s a tune that still causes me to catch my breath. You see, as well as I know this song – its screeching introduction and staccato middle – I still worry about those final few bars. Will this be the time I finally go mad? The time the song ends with a dramatic clap of some cymbals and a puff of smoke, as my sanity all but disappears?
Travel anxiety, you see, is a trickster. The Boy Who Cried Wolf of mental illness. Despite rationally knowing that its tune will eventually fade – tailing unspectacularly off like a deflating balloon – its cries of ‘but, what if?’ still fool me each time. What if this time it’s different?
As a travel blogger, having travel anxiety and a fear of flying is far from ideal. With flights to catch, overcrowded airports to navigate and unfamiliar cities to explore, the threat of looming insanity is more than a small inconvenience. Yet, travel I will. And travel I must. If there is one thing I’ve learnt over the years, it’s to push through anxiety’s smoke and mirrors; to stick your fingers in your ears and to march onto that plane even if flight anxiety is telling me otherwise . Because, and as difficult as it is to imagine, it’s possible to travel with anxiety and to enjoy it. Love it, in fact.
As my own far from melodic journey with mental health has played out, I’ve put together a small toolbox of tricks and tips for travelling with anxiety or managing flight anxiety. Whilst I can’t guarantee that I won’t feel anxious before a trip or experience flight anxiety, I do know that it can be at least managed; the ending of its song brought to a calm finish, rather than a dramatic climax.
The methods listed below are those that I employ religiously to help manage travel anxiety, ensuring that not only is my anxiety kept in check, but that it doesn’t dominate my trip. Anxiety or a fear of flying should never stop anyone from travelling, and I hope that I’m living proof of this.
Now, before you imagine the answer to defeating your travel anxiety is to calmly visualise a ripened fruit, let me explain. For most of us, anxiety’s calling card comes in the form of intrusive, irrational and often catastrophic thoughts. Before we travel, these can often reach fever pitch: What if I panic and faint on the plane? What if I get sick and can’t get home? They are the flashing neon signs of thoughts; the whirring sirens inside our headspace. They demand our attention and beg to be taken seriously – after all, they’re only telling the truth. Or are they?
Imagine you’re walking down the road and the thought ‘I am a banana’ pops into your head. What would you do? Frown slightly before letting the thought pass you by? After all, if there’s any certainty to be found in this life, it’s perhaps that you are not a popular household fruit.
Or would you opt for the alternative? Would you stand frozen in the road, stricken in terror at the possibility that your arms and legs are in fact nothing more than yellow peel? Would you go home and ruminate for hours – palms sweating – that your entire existence has been a lie? That you’re nothing more than a mushy (albeit delicious) snack? I guessed not.
The same goes for our irrational thoughts. We must not believe all that they have to tell us. Yes, the thought that something terrible might happen whilst on your flight is distressing and certainly provokes in us a response. But it also nothing more than a thought: neither a prediction nor a fact. In fact, it deserves no more attention than your banana thought – a collection of words and sentences that can be lightly considered, before being gently batted away.
Next time you find yourself worrying over ‘what if’ thoughts before you travel, try to therefore imagine each as a ‘banana thought’. Harmless and innocent, all we need to learn is how not to slip on them.
‘Banana thoughts’ are detailed more in this fantastic book, The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, which is well worth a read.
As we’ve established, travel anxiety or flight anxiety is irrational. But when do we truly meet it with rationality? When do we demand that it explains itself: proves to us that it’s not a fraudster or one of life’s slippery con artists? When do we hold it to account? Not all that often, is my guess.
Rather than believe all of its wild claims, I’ve learnt to get tough with anxiety: to put my Hat of Rationality on and to give it a grilling. I’ve also made sure to write down each of these interrogations – something I’d recommend doing.
Next time you have an anxious thought about your travels, write it down. E.g. I will have a panic attack on the plane, I won’t be able to calm down and they’ll have to abort the flight because of me. This is your prediction. Next, your job is to then take that flight, which (I guarantee) is likely to pass without too much drama (sweaty palms and palpitations aside).
Once you’re through to the other side, you need to return to your prediction and write next to it what really happened. E.g. I felt nervous and frightened at the start, but then I distracted myself and felt OK. This is your result.
Finally – and here comes the satisfying bit – I want you to draw your conclusion regarding your flight anxiety and its initial prediction. Was it right? Did it predict the future? Or was it a being a little over-dramatic, like that drunk friend on a night out?
By logging each of these instances in your phone, or in a notepad, you’re building a valuable Book of Reason that you can turn to each time you become anxious. By recalling all those times in the past when you’ve been anxious about travelling, and when your predictions have been proven wrong, you’ll be better able to reason with your anxiety moving forward. For me, this has been one of my most effective methods for coping with anxiety whilst travelling, and has allowed me to shelve anxiety’s worrying predictions with ease.
When beginning to employ this tip for travel anxiety or flight anxiety (used widely within CBT therapy), I used these two workbooks to help me get the hang of things.
I remember when I had my first panic attack as a result of travel anxiety and a friend told me to breathe. ‘Just exhale and it’ll pass’, she said. I remember ignoring her entirely. I was being dragged into a cold, dark underworld of panic; the sort of place those kids from Stranger Things inhabit. With my brain apparently moments from insanity and my face now completely numb, just breathing seemed completely futile.
The only thing going to save me now was a lobotomy.
Yet, breathing is exactly what I should have done. For the seasoned anxious amongst you, you’ll perhaps have twigged by now that anxiety – whether it be a panic attack or a night of swirling thoughts – passes. It always passes. Nobody (that I know of) has ever been left inside the vortex of a panic attack for life. The product of those prickly chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, anxiety has a limited shelf life, with the very worst of panic attacks tending to burn themselves out after twenty minutes.
So, with this in mind, why not try to help the storm pass a little faster? Or, indeed, prevent it from climaxing at all? Why not use your breath to help manage your flight anxiety?
Related reading: Five Ways to Deal with an Anxiety Relapse
I always find airports a challenge. The crowds, the inability to leave quickly and the aggressive seriousness of the staff, increasing flight anxiety all tend to rile my anxiety. To keep it a bay, I therefore depend entirely on breathing exercises.
When we are anxious, we tend to breathe in shallow gulps from our chest: something that only intensifies our feelings of panic. To counter this, we should not only breathe from our bellies, but breathe rhythmically – restoring calm and order. Rhythm breathing exercises have proven instrumental in relaxing the body and counteracting the flight or fight response. Acting as a natural sedative, they stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (anxiety’s arch enemy) and encourage the release of nitric oxide, lowering blood pressure.
In short, if your breathing is relaxed and rhythmic, you cannot panic.
Although there are many variations of these exercises available, I tend to breathe in through my nose for a count of four, hold my breath for three, and exhale for six. I then continue this on repeat for as long as I can, often until I board my flight Not only does it keep me calm and prevents hyperventilation, but it gives me something to focus on; distracting me from any nerves.
In 2014, before a trip to New York, I’d spent weeks stalked by the thought that I’d panic in Times Square and would end up on the floor, gripped by some panicked delirium. Strangers would stare at me wide-eyed, wondering what I was doing, as I publicly embarrassed myself in one of the world’s greatest cities.
The thought (a classic ‘banana thought’, of course) was persuasive, and one I mentioned to my therapist. Her solution was not what I expected.
‘Why don’t you see if it comes true then, Laura? Why not egg it on? Why don’t you will it to happen and see if you collapse?’ I remember staring at her with a mixture of panic and regret, filled with the dawning realisation that I was in the company of a sociopath. I left feeling even worse.
However, what she said stayed with me: her challenge still front of mind as I entered Times Square just one month later. Feeling a little surreal to finally be there, I planted my feet firmly apart and looked down, hands clenched. ‘Come on then, anxiety’ I muttered to myself (discreetly), ‘do your worst’. I waited, ready for my imminent collapse. Yet it seemed that anxiety hadn’t heard me. Continuing to stand there, I swayed a little under Time Square’s flashing lights, looking for any sign of anxiety’s arrival. Nothing. I was beginning to feel a bit awkward.
Eventually, I gave up waiting and went to join Claire, taking obligatory ‘selfies’ on our GoPro. It seemed anxiety had refused to rise to my challenge: in fact, it had made a run for it. ‘All talk and no trousers’, as my Grandma used to say.
Related reading: Microadventures and Generalised Anxiety Disorder
This method – let’s call it the ‘Bluff’ method – is incredibly effective in combating panic disorder i.e. that relentless cycle of fearing fear. The more we cower to anxiety, accommodating its every wish and demand, the more powerful it gets. However, if we stand up to it – inviting it to do its worse – we immediately take away its very kryptonite: our own fear. Without this, anxiety cannot operate, its tank is empty.
Whilst calling anxiety’s bluff might initially seem a little nerve-wracking, it is perhaps my most effective tip for travel or flight anxiety. Be brave and give it a go, I promise you have nothing to fear.
Travel anxiety is difficult. Whilst it seems that more and more of us come complete with some sort of careless wanderlust – an ability to float around the globe without a hint of a neurotic thought – the anxious amongst us are left feeling in some way lacking: inauthentic travellers, perhaps. Frauds, even.
Yet this is far from true.
Whilst anxiety or flight anxiety undoubtedly adds a layer of conflict to our adventures, it does not mean that we are unable to enjoy travelling, or indeed reap its many benefits. In fact, overcoming anxiety in order to travel may make these rewards even sweeter.
I hope my tips for managing travel anxiety or a fear of flying have been a little helpful. Please feel free to share your own below.
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