Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist & Founder
Travelling has many psychological benefits but it also comes with challenges. It involves facing new situations that we may be unsure how to navigate. This can be great for our personal growth, however it can also be stressful and anxiety provoking. To help you to understand and cope with this, I’ve created a series of Travel Anxiety guides.
In this post I’m going to talk you through how to deal with the fear of something bad happening on your trip.
Why do we have thoughts about something bad happening?
Our threat system or flight/flight response is our body’s way of responding to situations that we perceive to be a threat. This is a primitive response that we, as humans developed during our evolution. It’s purpose is to keep us safe in life threatening or potential dangerous situations.
When we are faced with new situations where we don’t know what to expect, our threat system can be activated. When this happens, we will tend to think of possible negative outcomes. In primitive times, this was a way of keeping us safe. However often these fears about potential negative outcomes are not realistic, and we substantially overestimate the possibility of something wrong. These unrealistic fears lead to travel anxiety.
When we are anxious we may avoid experiences that would have been safe. We lose out in two ways when this happens. Firstly we don’t get to learn that the situation would have been ok by facing it, which can contribute to anxiety in the long term. Secondly, we miss out on an experience that would have been enjoyable or beneficial for us.
Why are some people more anxious than others?
We all vary naturally in our levels of anxiety due to our personality and temperament. However that’s not to say that you can’t learn to cope or manage better if you are someone who tends to experience anxiety.
Life experiences are also very important. If you have experienced something ‘out of the blue’ and traumatic in the past, then it makes sense that your threat system is more reactive to potential threats. Again that’s not to say you that you will always feel like this. There are very effective treatments for people experiencing the long-term psychological effects of trauma. Read more in How to cope with post-traumatic stress while travelling
Childhood experiences can have an impact on our levels of anxiety in adulthood. For example, if you grew up in an environment where you did not always feel safe or if your emotional needs were not met or were invalidated. This kind of environment can effect your ability to feel ‘safe’ and this can contribute to feeling anxious as an adult. As you might expect there is a cumulative effect of negative experiences, so those who experienced abuse throughout childhood will understandably struggle to feel safe in the here and now. Again therapy can be effective in helping you with these kinds of difficulties.
Can travelling make anxiety worse?
In the short term, yes. If you are someone that experiences anxiety then putting yourself in new situations can increase your anxiety in the moment. This is because new situations often activate our threat system.
Whilst short term increases in anxiety are to be expected, over time by facing situations you will learn that you can cope. This will help you to gradually increase your confidence and decrease your anxiety. Think of it as a process of gradually expanding your comfort zone. It is important that you don’t push yourself too far, especially at the beginning. Aim for situations that stretch you but don’t go as far as pushing yourself info situations that terrify you.
How can I manage travel anxiety and thoughts about something bad happening?
Be aware of the genuine risks and take appropriate precautions
Whilst travelling is generally safe, there are some dangers that it is important to be aware of so that you can take appropriate precautions. This includes the danger of being pickpocketed in many busy cities and possibility of unwanted male attention and advances for women travelling abroad.
Be aware that pickpocketing often targets those who are new to an area and disoriented, so it is important to be vigilant to this in major cities.
For women travelling solo, I would recommend joining a solo female traveller community online. These communities are fiercely protected and are a great place to meet others in a similar situation and to gain advice on the best ways to travel safely across different countries and destinations.
To help ourselves feel safe, It is important to recognise when we are ‘thinking the worst’ and when these thoughts are not an accurate reflection of the genuine risk. Another name for this is ‘catastrophic thoughts’. An example is the thought that your plane is going to crash. Another example would be believing that there will be a terrorist attack at your destination when you are travelling to a peaceful country.
When you notice these kinds of thoughts, remind yourself that they are inaccurate. As long as you are travelling to a safe destination and you take appropriate precautions, there is a very low risk of something bad happening. You can check that your destination is deemed to be safe by your own government on their website. In the UK information can be found here
Of course it is not ever possible to completely rule out something bad happening. This is as true at home as well as when you are travelling! This should not be a reason to avoid travelling if this is something you want to do.
Challenging ‘catastrophic’ thoughts does not mean dismissing them. It means recognizing when they are inaccurate and where they have come from. When we have catastrophic thoughts this is often because we are facing a new situation and threat system is not sure what to expect, so will automatically think the worst. Your experiences and history may also be relevant. When we recognise where these thoughts come from, it is easier not to ‘buy in’ to them and to choose to let them go.
Techniques such as mindfulness can be very helpful in allowing us to let go of these kinds of unhelpful thoughts. Apps such as Headspace can be a great way to learn these techniques.
Re-adjust your perception
Our threat system is often focused on the dangers and potential threats. This mean we usually don’t notice or remember when things have gone well. We call this a cognitive bias, which means that we hold on to certain information and form an inaccurate impression of the world. To correct for this bias, it can be helpful to consciously notice and remember when things go ok. As an example,
“I was really worried about going to that square because I’ve heard that it can be very busy. I was nervous but I made sure to keep my bag close by and it was actually fine. I’m glad that I was brave enough to visit”
A good way to do this is to keep a journal of when things have gone well and/or times when you have managed your anxiety. Looking back on this can help you to remember all of the difficult feelings that you have overcome. This can help you to build confidence.
Breathing and relaxation techniques are an important way of reducing anxiety and bringing down our threat system response. These techniques are very effective, which is why they are top of every therapist’s recommendation list. Practise is super important because you need to build skills in order to use them effectively. Try the Headspace app to build these skills.
Distraction can be an effective strategy for preventing you from getting overly focused on unhelpful thoughts. This can be particularly helpful when you travel and may be waiting around at airports or bus terminals. Have a range of activities that you can use to keep you occupied; a book to read, some films to watch on your phone, puzzles, the Duolingo app, and a journal are all good examples.
Ask for support from your travel companion
If you are travelling with a friend, partner or family member let them know in advance how they can help. It is helpful to be clear about your needs so that they can best support you.
For example, sometimes sharing your catastrophic thoughts can help you to gain reassurance.
You can also let you travel companion know what will help a at times when you are likely to feel anxious. For example
“I get a little anxious waiting to board the plane and it really helps me to watch my favourite show at that time. It would really help me if you just leave me to it. It would be nice if you sit next to me but please be aware that I don’t usually feel like talking when I’m anxious”
Being clear helps your travel companion to support you and means that they will understand if there are times when you don’t seem your usual self.
Be intentional in what you want to gain from your trip
Having a clear aim or goal can help you to manage anxiety when it arises. Be clear for yourself about why the trip is important to you, so that you can remember this when anxiety shows up. It might be something like “I want to build my confidence” or it might be something specific like “I really want to see the Eiffel Tower in person”. Each person’s intention will be different but being clear on your own can help you to overcome feelings of anxiety.
Most of all enjoy your trip!
If you found this helpful please see our series of Travel Anxiety guides