Travel and anxiety: Fighting the fear

Travel and anxiety

A while back I came clean about my travel confessions, but there was one I missed off the list, and that’s my fear of flying. Despite hundreds of flights over the years I still can’t get through the plane doors without an attack of sweaty-palmed nervousness. But it’s not just flying, other phobias in my collection include motion sickness, boats, spiders and confined spaces. And a couple of weeks ago in Canada I had to do something which combined them in one horror-filled package – a seaplane flight. I spent days worrying about it but in the end the pilot was entirely capable, the sky was calm and the views were amazing. One of our group asked me afterwards if it was all worth it – why did I travel if it made me so anxious? But the thing is that it’s always worth it in the end. Travel has added so much to my life that fear is never going to stop me doing it. The amazing memories I have are well worth any moments of pain it takes to get there.

Seaplane Victoria Island

Seaplanes, not quite as scary as they look!

I never used to be so much of a scaredy cat though – I’ve flown in helicopters, climbed a 50-metre high tree, kayaked and wild-camped along a river in Western Australia. But a few years back I got sick on a trip to Bali. Unlike your usual food poisoning this just didn’t go away, instead it slowly took over my body and got worse and worse over the years until I had days where I couldn’t leave the bathroom long enough to get out of the house. Being that anxious becomes a bit of a habit, and although I’m much better these days it’s been a hard one to shake off. But I’m not the only one who gets anxious about travelling. When you look at some the most common phobias – flying, heights, confined spaces, spiders, snakes, dogs, injections, germs – they’re all things you’ll end up encountering if you love to travel. Anxiety might be an inevitable part of my travelling life for now, but I’ve found a few ways to make it more bearable.

Ord River

Kayaking down the Ord River in north-western Australia

Preparation

So much of anxiety is anticipation – worry that the plane might crash, worry that you’ll get bitten by a poisonous snake, worry that you’ll fall and hurt yourself. But being prepared for the possibility of the worst-case scenario usually makes it a little bit less scary. I’m scared of getting motion sick when I travel, so I’ve packed a little pouch with pills, acupressure wristbands and ginger sweets which I always have on me. It’s a really easy thing to do and I rarely have to use it, but it makes me feel much better to have it there just in case. There are similar preparations you can make for other phobias too. Read up on how a plane works so you don’t get freaked out when it makes a strange noise. Look up what poisonous snakes look like so you know which to watch out for. Though steer well clear of Google if you’ve got any health phobias as it’s a sure-fire way to convince yourself you’ve only got days left to live.

Sailing out of Santorini

Getting over my fear of boats on a Mediterranean cruise

Distraction

There’s nothing in the world guaranteed to make you obsess over something than trying not to think about it. Ideally we’d all be able to slip into a peaceful meditative state at any time, but I can’t manage longer than 20 seconds before the thoughts come pushing their way back in. So that’s where distraction comes in – being absorbed by doing something else means there’s less space in your head for the anxiety. My favourite distraction is a good book – preferably something easy to read with a gripping plot, this is not the time to tackle those literary classics. But yours might be listening to music, watching a film, doing a crossword, writing or sketching, or sometimes just a good conversation with someone. Anything which takes your mind into a state of ‘flow’ where you’re not conscious of your surroundings any more. Or at least as near as you can be – if it just takes your anxiety down a notch or two it still helps.

Kindle ebook reader

My Kindle – the best distraction ever

Go easy

I won’t lie, there have been times on my travels when I’ve had a bit of a meltdown and decided I’m never leaving home again. It never lasts though, there’s always something new to remind me how much I love travel. But it helps to go easy on yourself. Yes it’s good to push your limits and get outside of the dreaded comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time. Travel should be enjoyable too, so there’s nothing wrong with making things easy for yourself some of the time. Yes I could trek up a mountain to watch the sunset – I’d probably even like it if I did – but sometimes I’d just rather watch it from the beach with a glass of wine. If you’re only on a short trip it’s tempting to pack in too much and end up overwhelmed, so I always make sure there’s plenty of free time to see how I feel. Who cares if you feel unadventurous sometimes, so many people never travel at all and would be in awe of you for just being there.

Sunset on the beach at Soulac-sur-mer

It’s hard to beat a beach sunset – at Soulac-sur-Mer in France

Medication

I never used to be scared of flying, until a terrible flight from Vietnam to Laos, complete with bone-shaking turbulence and terrifying drops through air pockets. After that I was a wreck – so much so that on a flight to Australia a few months later I looked so terrified that a neighbouring passenger asked if I wanted some of his Valium. Now I’m not advocating accepting prescription drugs from random strangers, but there’s no shame in seeing your doctor and getting prescribed some anti-anxiety medication if you need it. Like I said before, often the fact that you have it on you helps without even having to take it. My medication of choice when it comes to flying is usually a strong gin and tonic. Although it’s not a good idea to get completely plastered as an anxiety avoidance technique, I do find it takes the edge of the fear.

Gin and tonic

Gin and tonic on a summer’s day

Perspective

It’s easy to beat yourself up about being anxious and fearful, and think you’re the only one who feels that way. But the truth is that everyone is scared of something. My sister is hugely adventurous – the marathon-running, mountain-climbing type – but if a pigeon flaps near her she’ll run off shrieking. I know people who have phobias of everything from velvet to moths. So don’t just focus on the things that scare you, remember the ones that don’t too. I can’t stand spiders, so if I see one in my room I’ll be out of the door in seconds, but I’ll happily scoop up a cockroach if I need to. I’ve held a snake, zip-lined across a rainforest, sat on a mountaintop in a thunderstorm. None of those bothered me at all but for some people it would be their worst nightmare. Everyone is brave in their own way, so don’t forget yours.

Do you suffer anxiety when you travel, how do you get through it?

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Travel and anxiety: Fighting the fear – On the Luce travel blog

Comments

    • says

      Thanks, yes I have a thing about getting sick abroad too, especially if I am travelling on my own. I tend to pack half a pharmacy just in case!

  1. says

    Wow, I had no idea that you are afraid of flying, Lucy, but congratulations and Kudos, that you are a frequent flyer and extensively travelled across Asia and even flew to Australia and New Zealand. It is a lot more courageous to board a plane when you have a fear of flights as when flying doesn’t bother you. I started travelling solo at the tender age of 15 and was afraid many times, but always got over my fears. I don’t mind flying although on my most recent flight from Dubai to Frankfurt my plane got into one of the worst hurricanes of the last decades in Europe and we had the worst turbulences I ever experienced. I als had four terrible flights on my trip across Vietnam last December. I got a nasal Sinusitis while being there and especially during the Take Offs and Landings I had severe pain. I had forgotten specific medication against that kind of disease at home and I was unable to get anything suitable in Vietnam, even with the help of my local guide. It is bad to get sick while travelling, but it’s a nightmare to get sick on a trip and the sickness doesn’t go away for months and years after you get back home. I hope, you are completely feeling well again.

    • says

      Thanks Vanessa. Unfortunately the plane travel is a part of life if you like to travel – I try and do as much as I can within Europe by train though and keep the long haul flights to one or two a year (I have to leave enough time to forgot what it was like before I do the next one!). Sinusitis is really nasty – I had a friend who suffered badly from it and found flying very painful. I’m doing much better now but have to watch what I eat (no gluten and a few other things) – but it’s worth it to be able to travel more again.

  2. says

    I have had severe anxiety in the past, and while its not as prevalent now, I have had some extreme and long lasting episodes in the past.

    The one thing I would say is that in my case, I found that if I had alcohol before the anxiety kicked in, it would be like a sort of medication; but if ever I had it on the rise of a panic attack or during an extremely nervous period, it would only make things worse. I know this wasn’t the case with my friend who had anxiety, so it does vary from person to person, so make sure you test it slowly first! Just wanted to put in a word of precaution 🙂

    Great post though, appreciate it! Some really great advice in there!

    • says

      That’s really interesting – I guess everyone reacts to things slightly differently and you need to try things out for yourself. Glad to hear that your anxiety is better now, it’s a hard thing to completely get rid of though isn’t it.

      • says

        Absolutely, but I found that doing exactly what it was that was triggering my anxiety was what helped – just saying yes, and doing the things I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the confidence to do.

  3. says

    I used to be a bit of a nervous flyer myself but my sister was always petrified of taking off and landing. I used to distract myself by pretending I wasn’t worried to help her. I used to sing songs to her to make her more embarrassed than nervous. I got so good at pretending it doesn’t bother me at all anymore!

    http://www.racheltrieslife.com

    • says

      That’s funny actually as the times I’ve been flying with another nervous person it does help distract me as I’m focused on reassuring them instead!

  4. says

    I think a fear of flying is one we all have deep inside us somewhere, after all it’s not natural for us as humans…but I guess some cope better than others, sounds like you’ve got your techniques down to a fine art, and hats off to you for not letting it stand in your way. My phobia is space (as in galaxies far far away), so I guess I’m lucky in that I’ll never have to experience it. Oh, and I’m with you on the spider thing 🙂

    • says

      Yes I think there’s something really unnatural about being that high in the air that the human brain has trouble in processing. Though a jet is already plenty high enough, I have no desire to head up further to space either!

  5. says

    Great post and suggestions! I will admit that the older I get the more anxiety creeps in. I try to wonder why and I think it is because I am so hoping to make it to see my daughters married, grandbabies, all those family things, so now it seems to worry me when I am not in control of my situation. 😉 Thanks for sharing.

    • says

      Thanks Melody, I remember talking to someone a while back who had kids and said since then she felt more anxious about something happening to her and leaving them. So much of it is about control as you say – I’m sure if I was the one flying the plane I’d feel a lot better about it!

  6. says

    To be honest you really didn’t let it show in Canada, despite the numerous flights and boats we went on in various shapes and sizes! If you hadn’t told me I don’t think I would have noticed anything was up. You were very brave indeed.
    And I know what you mean about not letting it stop you. I suffer from a fear of heights but I seem to be getting over it as I challenge myself to go further. I’m not scared of flying but those float planes were very scary indeed!!
    So pleased you came and didn’t let it stop you 😀

    • says

      Thanks Kathryn – and glad to hear I didn’t look too petrified! I’m so glad I did it all in the end – that’s why trips like that are so good as I doubt I’d have signed up to do it on my own so I need a bit of a push sometimes.

      I’m normally fine with heights but I have to say I did feel a bit precarious on that float plane. Not something I plan to repeat anytime soon!

  7. says

    Thank you so much for writing this post. As someone who also loves traveling, I always feel a strong sense of shame when I get anxious on turbulent flights.

    For me, what helps the most is if the pilots say in advance when we will expect turbulence during a flight so it doesn’t feel unexpected. I don’t like not being in control – so if turbulence is part of the plan, it’s not as big of a deal. I recently flew from NYC to SF where the Delta pilot mentioned before takeoff that we’d hit some bumps as we flew over a storm in the Midwest. The announcement really helped calm my nerves.

    That said, you got it right – never under-estimate the power of a good distraction!

    • says

      Thanks Eliz, it’s always nice to hear that you’re not the only one. That’s definitely true that it helps to be prepared and know if you’re likely to hit some turbulence. It’s such a horrible feeling but I try to remind myself that it’s the plane equivalent of a bumpy road and not actually dangerous, which helps a bit!

  8. suereddel says

    Thanks for sharing your story. I don’t have fear of flying but admit to thinking occasionally on long flights what am I doing in the metal tube hurling through the clouds. Then I go back to my book or movie and hope we get there soon. I’m wondering if you ever tried hypnotism, might help ease your anxiety.

    • says

      Flying is such an unnatural thing to be doing it’s definitely one not to think about too much! I have thought about hypnosis but not really looked into it, but I know it can help so maybe I should.

  9. says

    Another nervous flyer here. It really helps to know that other frequent travellers feel the same, as it seems a bit lame to admit it sometimes. As the commenter above has said, I also find it reassuring when the captain announces that there is turbulence ahead. I still don’t like it, but at least it’s not unexpected. I also know that it’s going to be bumpy when going through clouds on take-off and landing, so I am prepared for that one too.

    I didn’t used to be afraid of flying until a short 40 minute flight from Rurrenabaque to La Paz in a tiny 16 seater plane. It was shaking violently and dropping through air-pockets, and all the while the peaks of the Andes were visible above the plane. It seemed very wrong to be so close to mountains. A woman on the plane screamed for the entire flight, which didn’t help anybody.

    My coping strategies are: herbal anti-stress pills (I don’t want to get hooked on the medical route), a relaxing sleep balm that I apply to pressure points, noise-cancelling headphones and relaxing music. I also have a hypnosis app on my phone that I use – it’s for losing weight, but I find the soothing voice calms my nerves too. Unfortunately, nothing calms me enough to let me sleep on a plane, but at least I can still board them!

    I hope that you manage to find some peace in your future flights!

    • says

      Yes it’s surprising how many travellers do have a fear of flying! Sounds like your fear started off similarly to mine with my awful Asian flight – I think once you have that association in your head it’s hard to get rid of it and every time there’s turbulence it reinforces it.

      Take off I absolutely hate (it’s the lifting sensation I think) but landing I’m fine – I think it must be because I know it’s almost over. I’ve been meaning to get some noise-cancelling headphones so might have to give them a try, and the hypnosis app sounds good too.

  10. says

    I’m right there with you with flying – I really, really hate it. I don’t have a particular horror story to explain it either, I think it’s just the complete lack of control. And I think no matter how often you do it, it just doesn’t get any easier (as I was reminded this morning on a very turbulent flight back to Germany…)

    • says

      It’s sunny how many of us there are out there! I totally agree on the lack of control too. I’d love it if I could go everywhere by train instead – one of my travel resolutions for this year was to fly less but I did six flights in a week in Canada so it’s not going well so far!

  11. says

    Great post and insight. I have a love hate relationship with flying… I love the views and feeling of being so high up yet it terrifies me at the same time, especially when there is turbulence. Kudos for finding what works for you and not let it stand in your way. Happy travels 🙂

    • says

      Thanks Alyssa, the views can be amazing – I did a short flight between Vancouver and Victoria in Canada earlier this month and we flew over all these little islands, it totally distracted me from the fact it was a small plane and made it a lot more bearable!

  12. says

    Veery nice post Lucy!!
    I’m also afraid of flying, and when I had to fly on board a sea place in the Maldives I freaked out. I was sweating like crazy and got in a very stressed out mood. It was only after flying that I realized that flying on a sea plane is way better than on a normal plane 😀 so the way back was easier haha.

    • says

      Thanks – I think the sea plane was far worse in my head than it was in reality too, though they are so small you do feel a bit precarious! I bet the views over the Maldives were stunning though which would help a lot.

      • says

        Yes, exactly!
        What helped a lot was that my husband reminded me that the worse that could happen was the sea plane land on the water… 😀 made sense, but the view over the Maldives certainly helped a lot!

  13. says

    Good to know that someone who travels as much as you and looks so self-possessed gets the wobbles too sometimes, Lucy 🙂 I really love being up in the sky and looking down at our incredible earth but I always squeeze Mick’s hand and mutter a swift prayer when we take off. Who doesn’t? I was once in a really bad spell of turbulence with the dropping through clouds routine and I was petrified. I was gripping the chair arms so tightly that my back locked up and when we got off the flight I could barely walk. All while trying to look super cool, of course 🙂 Bit wary of clouds these days.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      Thanks Jo, I do wish I was a bit better with flying as I’ve been doing a lot of it recently. The first long flight I ever took though was to New York and we came down through an thunderstorm and I remember thinking it was incredibly exciting – nowadays I’d be a wreck! But until teleportation takes off I’ll have to put up with it (or go by train as much as I can!).

  14. says

    I don’t so much have a fear of flying as much as a strong dislike for it! Much prefer train and car journeys..well done to you for dealing with it so well and not letting it stop you from travelling 🙂

    • says

      Thanks – yes I’d much rather be on a train or in a car a bit closer to the ground. I love travel too much to let the fear stop me but I do wish there was an alternative to long-haul flights!

  15. says

    My husband is afraid of flying, but he has a good reason – some of his classmates in the college exchange program in London were on the “Lockerbie” plane. Good thing he was flying back home at a different time, but he still can’t shake it. I try not to think about airplane or car accidents. If I allowed myself to constantly worry about what might happen, I’d be afraid to leave the house. Good post, though. It’s hard to share your fears. Especially if you’re worried about something happening again…

    • says

      Wow that is scary, it would definitely put me off flying. Though funnily enough I had a similar thing in that I was on a train behind one that crashed (the Paddington train crash in 1999) where 31 people were killed and it never put me off train travel – I think you just feel so much more precarious and unsecure in the air.

  16. says

    I try not to think too much about the dangers of travelling – or even just crossing the road! I’d never go anywhere otherwise. So glad you can manage your fears so that your love of travel isn’t curbed.

    • says

      Yes I think denial is a very good plan – there are so many potential dangers out there you could drive yourself completely mad if you obsessed over them all!

  17. says

    I don’t have a fear of flying, although I have friends that do, but I do usually get panicky before each trip – that something will go wrong, that I’ll be faced with some problem while I’m with my daughter… I often land and feel quite overwhelmed by it all, and want to cower inside. But, like you say, if you push through and try it, the rewards are always worth it. I make back-up plans, I force myself out and once I have my bearings, I have an amazing time.

    • says

      I know exactly what you mean – there have been so many times on the day of the trip that it all feels to much and if someone told me the trip had to be cancelled I’d almost be relieved. Luckily it never lasts and is worth it all in the end but you do have to push through sometimes.

    • says

      I don’t fly on my own that often so I usually have someone I know next to me who doesn’t mind it if I grab onto them or make do with the armrest if there isn’t – but one day I know I’ll forget and grab a random stranger instead!

    • says

      Yes that can definitely help with some fears, but when it comes to the flying it’s the opposite – the more bad flights the worse it gets!

  18. says

    I can definitely relate to you, Lucy. I always feel anxious, but when I travel, my anxieties are more like “Have I packed everything? Have I locked the door? Is the money safe? Are we going to catch the flight/bus/train?”. I like your medication of choice, I too enjoy a nice gin and tonic 🙂 Btw, I am terrified of spiders and hate all cockroaches, haha

    • says

      I’m usually pretty good with the practicalities – though that does mean I save my anxieties for things I can’t do anything about so maybe I should be a bit less organised! A good G&T helps with a lot of things though!

  19. says

    Great post! I’m 100% afraid of flying, but it’s like you said – it’s always worth it in the end. It’s worth suffering through those couple of hours to arrive at a new destination to explore. I never used to be this anxious and I don’t know where it came from but everything about the ‘in transit’ process stresses me out and gives me anxiety. I’ve taken note to have a Gin and Tonic next time 😉

    • says

      It is so worth it, but I would love to be one of those crazy people who actually enjoy flying rather than suffering through it. Though I have a theory that I’d be a lot less anxious in first-class – just need an airline to sponsor me to try that out now!

  20. says

    Yes. There is that fear that it is almost impossible to survive when you fly. Have you watched the airplane crash prank of Paris Hilton? I don’t think it’s funny at all.

    • says

      I steer well clear of anything about plane crashes, it’s so hard not to think about it when you’re on board anyway!

  21. says

    Flying is terrible. I’ve never enjoyed it. There is something about being in a small pressurized cabin that physically makes my body ache. Like most of you, I haven’t let this stop me from flying. I find that earplugs help tremendously. It just helps to soften all the sounds of the plane and people. I also recommend first class. It’s amazing what a difference a little extra space and real silverware/glass can make. Of course it’s expensive but if it’s an option for you…
    I hear that asking to upgrade at the airport checkin can be easier on your wallet and that sometimes, if you look nice, it can be free.

    • says

      Earplugs are a good tip – or I know a few people who swear by those noise-cancelling headphones too. I think first-class would be a great distraction too!

  22. says

    Hi Lucy,
    You have shown in your blog and travel about how a person can overcome their fear and enjoy travelling. Many a time this leads to new enjoyable experiences which are priceless. I found your writing to be truly inspiring and interesting to read. Thanks for all the tips.

    • says

      Thanks so much, yes it is so worth it to get out there and see the world, even if there are moments when it feels like it’s just too hard.

  23. says

    Hi Lucy,

    You have some great tips here! I suffer from Anxiety as well. Your tip about being prepared is the one I use most often. Being very organized, detail oriented and prepared for every situation before I travel makes me feel a whole lot better! It’s like I did all the “worrying” ahead of time, and feel more at ease while traveling.

    • says

      Thanks so much, yes organisation has been a big help for me too – if I feel prepared for as many eventualities as possibly then there’s less to worry about which is always a good thing!

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