Travel anxiety: how to manage a panic attack on the road
Your eyes dart around the plane. Your chest hurts a bit and you feel like it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. You’re not sure if it’s in your head, or if you’re in real danger. Having travel anxiety or a panic attack whilst you’re away is an awful and sinking feeling (one I know a little too well) and it’s made even worse because you’re already outside of your comfort zone when travelling. I had my first panic attack at the airport: I was on my way to Sri Lanka, and suddenly, I thought there’s no way I can get on this plane – I’m not getting stuck in a flying tin can for 12+ hours! My body started to shake, and my face grew super-hot. My legs wouldn’t work, and I had no idea what was happening at the time. I finally plucked up enough courage to tell the woman at the front desk that I was freaking out, and she was so amazing in letting the flight attendants know. One wonderful woman sat with me during take-off, slipped me a free glass of bubbly and kept me distracted until the panic subsided.
So many people get the normal nerves involved in travelling, while many others have full-on travel anxiety that can come in the form of panic attacks or even longer term, mild depression on the road. These roadblocks are not fun while you’re trying to have a good time, and luckily, they can often be addressed and overcome with time and practice… so let’s get to work!
Recognizing panic and anxiety
The first thing you’ll need to know about feeling anxious while travelling is the signs of distress. We all feel nervous sometimes, but that snowballs into a real imbalance or panic when certain receptors in your brain aren’t firing correctly. It can make your body and mind feel like you’re in serious danger when, in reality, things are perfectly fine around you.
It’s also important to know that there is a difference between having an anxiety attack and a panic attack. Anxiety attacks are often short-lived and can have lesser symptoms such as a racing heart and shortness of breath. They usually pass quickly and cause a feeling of unease from an outside stressor. However, a panic attack is often unprovoked and less predictable. These are caused by a mental health issue and are not a ‘normal’ body response to stress. You can have chest pain, dizziness or a nauseous feeling, but physically be perfectly fine. If you’ve experienced one of these attacks relating to flying, travelling or simply because you’re not home, they can start to make you grow fearful of trips, even if there isn’t a connection to attacks and travel.
The good news is, with both scenarios, symptoms are treatable, and reactions can be managed. Travel is fun, safe and something you can do whether you have anxiety or not. Preparing for your experience and recognising your own levels of comfort are great ways to battle the nerves dragon that is travel anxiety.
Planning for your trip
Organise, organise, organise! There’s nothing like a chaotically packed bag or a flight missed thanks to your old mate – travel anxiety. I say this and I’m terrible at planning, but I know I always feel much better when I am prepared and have everything I need. Make sure you have the right clothes and gear easily accessible in your backpack. Arrange backup documents and even keep a printed itinerary handy. If you take medications or anything else necessary while travelling, pack extras and keep them readily available.
Once your bag is packed and you’re good to go, the next thing you should do is practice what you might do if you start to panic while on the trip. If I start to feel wobbly, I personally will say to my seatmate on a plane, “Hey, I’m sorry, I’m prone to panicking on flights. Would you mind having a little chat to distract me for a bit? I’d appreciate it.” Try learning some breathing techniques that will help calm the body and mind, and/or have a mantra that will help you realise that the panic isn’t real, and it will pass. I have found it’s extremely helpful to have an idea of what you might say to a passer-by or even a medical professional in case you find yourself in a situation where you need some help.
During your trip
While much of travelling is spontaneous, having a small routine will keep your mind fresh. If you like to start your day with breakfast, make a point to enjoy a tasty breaky at the same time every day. Perhaps you like to exercise or do yoga? Try planning 30 minutes of exercise every morning/afternoon and don’t plan anything else during this time. If you know you’ll be missing your loved ones when you’re away, have a plan where you check in with your family and friends to keep up with life back home on a regular basis. If you know your mental health is better when you interact with others, make it a priority to meet people on your trip, or even take tours with others so you’re with fellow travellers.
After your travels
It sounds a bit backwards, I know, but the routine you have after you’ve finished your big adventure can set you up for success with the next part of your life. It’s essential to take some downtime after all the excitement of being on the road, especially if you travel frequently. If you can take an extra day off work, or even half a day upon your return, do it. Even the most balanced of people can crash hard after a trip and feel bummed out that it’s over. Recognise this and be ready for it by having other fun things to do – or better yet, the next trip booked already!
Self-care: the good kind
Wouldn’t it be nice if a bubble bath could just rid you of all the worry and nerves that you have around travel? Getting your nails done or bingeing a TV series is fun, but that’s not the type of sustainable self-care that can lead to truly alleviating travel anxiety. All these tips go back to taking care of yourself and no I’m not talking about the Pinterest-yoga-bath-bomb-way, but in a real way. Checking in with loved ones on the regular, keep your body healthy with good food and taking time to yourself to allow you to reflect and refocus are all imperative to good mental health. Caring for your appearance, your nutrition and your relationships are key, inside and outside of travelling. If you feel yourself slipping and not feeling well, ask for help. Better yet, talk to fellow travellers, as chances are we’ve all been there and can help give you a boost.
About the author
Eileen Cotter Wright is a world traveller and a hot mess. Despite this, she loves having new experiences and has challenged herself to explore more than 30 countries and 100+ destinations. You can find her on the group travel blog Pure Wander and on Instagram @CrookedFlight.
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