Support Systems

How To Be There For Someone With Travel Anxiety

If you're traveling with someone who tends to get anxious before or during a trip, here’s how you can help ease their worry.

by Adam Bulger
Family of three rolling luggage through airport

Traveling means a break from our routines and encountering unfamiliar sights and experiences. Shaking things up and going someplace new can be refreshing and reinvigorating. But if you’re prone to it, traveling can be a big source of anxiety. Planning a trip, dealing with transportation, adjusting to a new environment, and being in a place with unfamiliar habits, customs, and expectations puts a lot of people on edge. And if your partner struggles with travel anxiety, talking them down from that stress isn’t easy.

“Different aspects of traveling can be distressing,” says Dawn Potter, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Highly anxious people, she notes, often engineer their lives to minimize coming into contact with things that trigger their phobia. When they travel, they’re at much higher risk of encountering something that makes then uneasy. “It's just difficult to be out of their comfort zone,” Potter says.

Travel anxiety isn’t a single, narrowly-defined anxiety, like panic disorder or agoraphobia. While there are specific phobias related to aspects of travel, including the relatively common fear of flying or less common ones like gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges, travel anxiety can mean different things for different people.

“Sometimes people have a specific fear and those things tend to come up more when we travel,” Potter says. But if your partner has generalized anxiety disorder, the demands and uncertainties of travel exacerbate their normal levels of anxiety.

So, how can you be helpful to someone struggling with travel anxiety? From finding the perfect balance of preparation to the importance of well-timed distractions, here are some of the most effective ways to help a loved one manage travel anxiety,

1. Help Them Prepare

When a trip is coming up, it’s easy for anxious people to spin into speculation and worry about what lies ahead, particularly if they’re going somewhere new. They’ll effortlessly conjure up millions of worst case scenarios and ceaselessly innovate the perils, disasters and discomforts the trip could possibly entail.

Much of that frantic energy can be grounded by taking an orderly and calm approach to packing, researching your destination and planning for possible emergencies. Trip prep can give the anxious partner a sense of control over their journey that will help them feel more relaxed about traveling.

“Preparation can help because it can encourage someone to at least feel in control of what they can do now versus later as they are traveling,” New Jersey-based therapist Samantha Nusom says. “Since we cannot control what happens later, preparing for a trip can help someone feel more ready to travel.”

2. Discourage Over-Preparing

Trip preparation is a double edged sword. For those with anxiety, information and planning is calming and empowering. For others, it has a fleeting effect and they want a constant stream of reassurance. Over time, that demand becomes overwhelming for you and unhealthy for them. You can't prepare for everything that could possibly go wrong. But you can accept that things can go wrong and be confident you’ll be able to deal with it and get through it. Gently remind your partner that forgetting a toothbrush or packing the wrong sweater isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it’s a very solvable problem.

But, as Becca Smith, Chief Clinical Officer at Texas mental health treatment center Basepoint Academy, notes, too much preparation for a trip can actually increase stress.

“It’s important to plan ahead, but trying to plan for every single eventuality can be overwhelming and take away from the excitement of the journey,” she says. “Instead, focus on the essential elements of your trip and make sure you are prepared for emergencies. You should also be flexible with your plans, as some things may change while you’re on the road.”

3. When There’s No Solution, Try Distraction

If the trip is underway and your partner is on the verge of having a panicked moment, telling them to take a deep breath or to calm down won’t solve anything. Now, mindfulness techniques like breathing or grounding exercises could help them out — but they must be their idea.

“Telling someone to just breathe can sometimes feel condescending,” Potter says. A far more effective strategy, per Potter, is to try to distract them. “If there’s a problem to be solved and you can assist, that’s great,” Potter says. “And if there isn't a way to solve the problem, then let's read a book, watch a video, or play a game.”

4. Remind Them No One’s Watching

If your partner has social anxiety, unfamiliar settings can be challenging. “They might feel extra anxiety because they're going somewhere where they don't know the culture, they don't know what's expected of them and they're not sure what to do,” Potter says. “They're worried about embarrassing themselves.” But there’s good news you can share: people are by and large too self-absorbed to care about you at all. “With social anxiety, people often feel like everybody's looking at them or judging them,” says Potter. “And that's not really true. Most people are really just wrapped up in their own heads and what they've got going on in their own lives and are not sitting trying to judge other people all the time.”

5. Don’t Use Alcohol To Take The Edge Off

When you see your partner struggle with anxiety or become gripped by panic on a plane, there’s a strong temptation to hand them a cocktail to take the edge off. Unfortunately, Potter says, that’s almost certain to hurt more than help. “Using alcohol to cope is always a bad idea because anxiety can lead us to consume more than we intended to,” she says.

If the problem is social anxiety, being intoxicated could make anxiety far worse. Your partner might not be sure if we're saying the right things and could inadvertently say something embarrassing that they’ll agonize over later.

“Of course on vacations, some people might want to responsibly enjoy alcohol,” Potter adds. “That's fine, as long as you're not using it as a medication.”

When it comes to being there for a partner with anxiety, patience and understanding are key. Simply knowing that you are there for them and accepting of their particular worries can serve as a source of calm. Of course, they need to take proper steps to manage their anxieties as well. But a little bit of preparation can help make traveling a bit better for everyone involved.