Travelling With Anxiety
Sharing my experience, practical tips and advice on dealing with anxiety when travelling.
I recently went on holiday to Gran Canaria and as I've not been away anywhere in a while I had forgot all about the anxiety that I feel with holidays. This has always been the case for me but for a long time I didn't really recognise it as anxiety and just put it down to excited nerves of doing something that was out of my ordinary everyday life. It's only recently as I have learnt more and more about anxiety and am much more able to recognise my thoughts and feelings that I have realised I do experience some levels of anxiety when travelling.
For me it usually starts not long after booking a trip, I find the intrusive "what if" thoughts slowly start to creep into my mind. These thoughts can differ from slight worries such as "what if I don't like the hotel or food", to more catastrophic thinking such as "what if the planes crashes, what if I get attacked by someone" etc. These thoughts are all just the anxious messages creeping into my mind and I have learnt how to deal with them in different ways. Another thought I tend to have niggling in the back of my mind is "what if I feel anxious when I'm there", when I recognise this thought popping into my mind it kind of makes me laugh a little because it makes me realise that I'm anxious about feeling anxious which is just a circle of anxiety in itself.
The morning that I was getting ready to head for the airport I recognised all the typical symptoms of anxiety that I usually experience, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, heart pounding and stomach cramps. I was expecting it and it didn't surprise me at all. These are the exact same feelings I get every time. The good thing was that as soon as I sat down on the plane the anxiety melted away on it's own and I knew that it was going to be fine.
During my holiday I was curious to see if I experienced any anxiety while away, this isn't something I would usually think about but recently (especially over Christmas) I've experienced anxiety when I've found myself out of my normal routine with nothing much to fill my time with, it's felt like a vast emptiness which completely scared and unsettled me. Luckily while away I didn't feel this and I was so pleased even though I had prepared a back up plan just incase I found myself anxious with nothing to do.
I had got through the holiday with no anxiety, which felt great, but the journey home was a different story. I had 3 hours sleep before my alarm went off to get me up at 3am and ready for the flight home. I hadn't eaten breakfast as it was so early and I had been busy packing and making sure to get the transfer on time. I got to the airport and started to feel hot and faint. I often suffer from low blood pressure and I don't do well if I skip a meal, I could feel myself start shaking and I knew I needed to sit down and eat. After I had eventually eaten and started queuing up to board the plane (still feeling ill and faint) the anxiety hit me. "What if I pass out on the plane?" "What if I need oxygen?" "What if I have a panic attack?" "What if this isn't my blood pressure but something much more serious?" "What if I'm about to die?" Within a matter of seconds I recognised my thoughts, it was the anxiety fuelled "what ifs" coming back again and I started to realise that the way I was feeling would most likely be down to anxiety and no longer my low blood pressure.
I sat down and decided to draw upon the skills I've learnt to get me through the bout of anxiety, and after only a few minutes of doing this I felt almost completely back to my normal self again.
I couldn't believe it, it proved to me that all the knowledge and tools I now have really do work and it made me want to share them so that other people can use them through anxious times.
My Top Tips For Dealing With Anxiety When Travelling
1. Practise mindfulness and focussing your attention
Like anything this takes practise, but I always find it helps if I'm able to bring my focus to something other than my anxiety. In social situations I find this particularly helpful, as soon as I recognise that I'm feeling anxious or have those intrusive thoughts I redirect my attention and really try to focus on something else, usually it will be something that I'm looking at or a conversation that I'm having or can hear. This works by getting you out of your mind and grounding you by shifting your focus away from the worries and anxiety and onto something more real and present.
2. Pack with a plan
This is something I only did for the first time on my recent holiday but I was so glad that I did! Packing for your trip is so important as it allows you to be prepared and have things accessible to you. For example in my hand luggage I decided to take my iPad to watch a film on the plane as a good way to pass time and also to hold my focus and attention. I packed this so it was easy to grab while on the flight and had it preloaded with a variety of films and tv shows so I had a few options to switch up what I was watching incase a particular film wasn't keeping me interested enough, (I recommend downloading Friends, I found it difficult to feel anxious while laughing at Ross getting the most hilarious spray tan!) I also packed a variety of magazines, a lavender pulse point oil for relaxation, lots of food, snacks and drinks, I had music downloaded and a fan to cool me down as anxiety makes me soo hot! Another idea is to find some podcasts that you can download and listen to offline, often you can find mindfulness sessions and guided meditations that would be perfect.
3. Question unhelpful thoughts
As I mentioned above, I often get plagued with intrusive anxious thoughts ranging from mild worries to catastrophic thinking. I deal with these in different ways. With the catastrophic thoughts I am more able to notice these as they are quite extreme and more out of the ordinary for me to think about, so being able to recognise them is easier but still very important. Once you've noticed the thoughts I find it helpful to question them. I ask myself "how likely is it that the thought would actually happen?" Realistically and statistically it's actually extremely unlikely. "What proof/evidence do I have that the thought might happen?" I have zero proof/evidence. "What proof/evidence do I have that the thought won't happen?" Honestly quite a lot, I've had the thought many times before and it's never happened. "Why am I having these thoughts then?" Because I'm feeling anxious and that's exactly what anxiety does. Questioning my thoughts in this way helps me to realise what my mind is doing and helps me to see my thoughts for what they really are, which allows me to relax and feel much more grounded.
With the milder worrying anxious thoughts I take a slightly different approach. I still question the thoughts I'm having but in a very different way. Say for example my thought is that I won't like the hotel or food, my question would be "Yeah maybe you won't like them....so what?" Even just this question alone starts to make me realise it's not a big deal but my mind will still try to back up the thought. If I don't like the hotel or food then I won't want to be there and might not have much to eat. "So what can you do to fix the problem?" I suppose I won't be spending much time in the hotel anyway so I could just use it as a base to keep my stuff and sleep. For the food there will probably be other places to eat, cafes, restaurants etc. "So what are you worrying for?" I don't know, it's just my anxiety.
4. Plan your time wisely
Planning ahead for travelling is obviously what we all naturally do anyway, but planning ahead for times when we might feel anxious is something more to consider, but also be careful not to plan ahead so much so that you end up anticipating and bringing on your anxiety. So for me, I was aware I might become anxious if I had too much time on my hands and nothing to fill it with. This is a common anxiety trigger for a lot of people but it's a fairly new one for me but luckily I feel I am able to deal with it now. I love a holiday filled with laying out in the sun, long walks and lots of relaxing, I've never really had an activity filled holiday. This one was slightly different for me in the sense that I was aware I'd previously started to feel anxious at times when I had nothing to do or focus on. So I thought it would be a good idea to make a back up plan and research things to do before I got there so if I was ever in need of something to fill my time with I could just go and do it. Good things to plan could be water sports, day trips on a boat, iconic landmarks to visit, towns to explore, historical places to see etc, you get the idea. Having these things figured out in advanced helps so much just in itself to know that if you find yourself anxiously twiddling your thumbs, you have a back up plan prepared.
There have been countless times in my life when I've tried focussing on my breathing after reading so much advice and evidence supporting how using your breathing helps dissolve your anxiety away. After trying and failing many times I gave up on it for years and assumed it was either a load of rubbish or for some reason didn't work for me. Oh how wrong I was! A couple of months ago I read another article talking about breath work and how to use your breathing in times of anxiety. One night shortly after this laying in bed I was hit with a bout of anxiety out of nowhere and decided to give breathing another go. I breathed in a deep breath and made sure to exhale much more slowly and repeated this sequence for a couple of minutes while I allowed all my thoughts to just come and go. After only a few minutes I realised the anxiety had melted away completely and then I began to worry that because I had noticed it would return. I carried on my breathing exercise and didn't feel any anxiety creep back. I cannot tell you how happy it has made me. This was the exact same technique that I used in the airport just before my flight home during that unexpected hit of anxiousness. I think understanding more about how it actually works helps a great deal. In one way it works as a focus for your attention, as I mentioned earlier, finding something to focus your attention on is a very useful skill. And also something I only learnt recently is that by taking in a deep breath, not only does it allow your body more oxygen, it also gives you more air to be able to exhale slowly. The slow exhale is very important as it is the exhale part of breathing where your body relaxes and sends messages to your brain signally that there is no danger and that you are in a calm state. I use this breathing technique so often now and it never fails me. If you struggle to find relief with breath work please keeping practising as it really does work.
6. Give yourself a break
Finally I just wanted to talk about the importance of not beating yourself up about struggling with anxiety. I've been there and it does absolutely nothing to help you it just makes situations feel so much worse. When you give yourself a hard time over feeling anxious take note of your inner voice, how you speak to yourself and the things that you say. My inner voice used to be so critical and harsh until I realised I needed to change it. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life and yes there are people who struggle with it more, me being one. But that's even more reason to show yourself some compassion and give yourself a break. Stop any negative inner voices as soon as you hear them and turn them into something positive and supportive. I always used to find it helpful to ask myself, "would I speak to a friend this way" almost always the answer was no, so I knew I had to change it. Accepting anxiety is not an easy thing to do as the default reaction in us is to fight with it, or avoid it but unfortunately neither of those things work. The best way to deal with it is to accept it, and even to accept that you might always feel anxious from time to time but the important thing is to learn skills and tools that you can draw upon whenever needed and also to work towards a future where anxiety doesn't play as big a part in your life.
I really hope you've found this post helpful, I didn't realise how much I had to say until I started typing! If you do experience anxiety you are definitely not alone and there is always help available in so many different ways. Always talk to someone, you can even message me!