As memorable and exciting as travel can be, it may also sometimes feel like an anxiety-inducing experience. For some, it’s the unpredictability of their destination that brings about anxious thoughts. For others, it’s having to sit through the flight that will take them there. In any case, it’s difficult to fully enjoy all the marvels of a new place if the mind isn’t exactly at ease.
While not considered to be an official type of anxiety disorder, travel anxiety describes an intense feeling of anxiousness surrounding the many variables involved in taking a trip. Before COVID-19, an estimated 40% of the population reportedly experienced travel or flight anxiety in some capacity. In the aftermath of the global pandemic, many are stepping back out into the world while also figuring out how to manage these anxious feelings for the first time.
Whether travel anxiety is a new experience or an old foe, understanding how to mindfully manage it can help us get the most out of our next trip, whenever and wherever it might be.
Meditation can help with anxiety before travel and with flight anxiety
Incorporate routines to feel less anxious while exploring a travel destination
Try 6 meditations to help with travel anxiety
While the days and weeks leading up to a trip can be invigorating, they’re also when pre-travel anxiety tends to kick in. During this time, there are many variables we might begin to consider: what time should we arrive at the airport? Where will we stop on that multi-day road trip? Did we remember to pack all the essentials? What happens if we forget something?
This can be a great opportunity to start doing daily guided meditation. Dedicating time to sit with the mind leading up to a trip is one way to defuse anxious thoughts — we simply learn to observe them and let them go, without allowing them to cause worry or catastrophizing. By bringing awareness to our thought patterns, we can better manage travel anxiety.
Often, our anxiety is triggered by an old storyline or past event that we project onto our next trip. Meditation shows us how to stop letting the past affect the present, and this can cause a dramatic shift in perspective that allows us to reframe our whole approach to travel.
Meditation isn’t overly time-consuming, either. A short 10-minute guided meditation in the morning, before bed, or during a lunch break has been shown to effectively help to reduce feelings of anxiety by up to 31%. So we can still pack, prep, wrap up loose ends at work...and look after the mind.
“Like any kind of anxiety, a fear of flying is self-reinforcing,” says Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. “You begin with the sense of danger — maybe just the sensation of the plane taking to the air is enough to set you off. This feeling of fear sets the mind racing. You might start to consider how far up in the sky you are, wondering how firmly the wings are bolted on, or how many times the pilot has made the trip. But ironically, this sequence of thoughts, which you perhaps intended to reassure yourself, exacerbates the feeling, which in turn produces more thought.”
Those who struggle with flight anxiety (sometimes referred to as aviophobia), might consider these 2 mindfulness exercises while en route to their destination:
1. Take deep breaths.
When anxious thoughts take hold in the mind, they often cause a physical response in the body. Those prone to anxiety attacks or anxious episodes may be familiar with an uncomfortable tightening in the chest or experiencing shortness of breath. Studies show that practicing a deep breathing exercise can not only help to reverse hyperventilation, but minimize feelings of anxiety overall.
In highly anxious moments during the flight, perhaps during takeoff or during any bouts of turbulence, consider trying a specific breathing technique called box breathing: Inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, wait at the very end of the exhale for a count of 4, and repeat. This very deep breathing exercise has been shown to calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system. Slowing down the breath and allowing CO2 to build up in the blood stimulates the response of the vagus nerve to produce feelings of calmness throughout the body.
2. Practice guided imagery.
In most cases, the reason we’re willing to face flight anxiety in the first place is so that we can enjoy the destination we’re traveling to. Picturing that place in the mind may help us to feel more relaxed while still up in the air. Studies show that using a mindfulness practice called guided imagery can significantly decrease feelings of anxiety in the mind.
The key to successfully reaping the benefits of guided imagery is not to simply close the eyes and picture the destination like a postcard, but to evoke all the senses. If we’re traveling to Italy for example, we might think about how the cobblestone streets feel beneath our shoes, how it smells as we wander into the focaccia shop below your hotel, how the water in the nearby fountain sounds as it gently splashes onto the pavement … As we get specific with mental imagery, the mind has trouble discerning whether an image is real or imagined. So if we can aptly imagine ourselves in a relaxing and pleasing environment, the mind and body will swiftly begin to feel calm.
We’ve arrived at the destination safe and sound. But now we need to navigate a new place and perhaps even a different culture or language. These unpredictable and uncontrollable elements of travel are often what sets vacation anxiety ablaze. For those who tend to struggle with these factors, consider bringing certain elements of a daily routine on vacation. Studies have shown that the predictability and control of a regular routine can significantly help to manage stress and bring about a sense of calm.
This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no room for spontaneity or exploration while on a trip. These travel-sized snippets of a daily ritual might be something as simple as having a cup of coffee in the morning or taking some time to read before bed, just like at home. It only takes a little bit of familiarity to anchor and settle the mind.
Additionally, those mindfulness techniques that helped us feel calm throughout the flight can also be used anytime during a trip. Whenever we’re beginning to feel anxious or overwhelmed, we might look for a quiet place to take ourselves through a brief deep-breathing exercise or a few minutes of guided imagery. With this quick timeout, we’ll reset the mind and body so that we can get back to enjoying our time away.
Looking for meditations and mindfulness exercises to help have a calmer trip? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses, single meditations, and activities that can help us manage travel anxiety and feel more present, including:
Fear of Flying meditation. Prior to boarding the plane, focus your attention on a part of the body, to root you in the present moment and interrupt the loop of anxiety before takeoff.
Panicking meditation. Anchor your mind and body in the present.
Managing Anxiety 10-day course. Cultivate a new perspective on fear and anxiety.
Remember the Blue Sky guidance. The calm we’re looking for is already there.
Travel Day workout. Move your body and stretch your muscles before or after a long journey.
Letting Go of Stress 10-day course. Learn to reframe negative emotions and let them go.
Having the right mindfulness practices at the ready may help travel anxiety begin to feel less like an impassable roadblock and more like a manageable (or even minimal) part of the overall experience. If and when anxious moments do arise during a trip, we’ll know how to check in with the mind so that these thoughts only feel like a small bump in the road.