Traveling with Anxiety: A Survivor’s Guide
Traveling with anxiety is a nightmare. There is the stress of planning, the hours needed to overthink everything, the absurd amount of packing, and the lovely worst-case scenario tape playing over and over again in your head. It can make you wonder if planning your next trip is even worth the effort.
My husband and I recently got back from a weekend trip to celebrate our 1st wedding anniversary. We had a wonderful time. My anxiety, however, not so much. As I’ve reflected on the trip, I realized there were some things I did right, and some things I could have done much better. So here are my tips for traveling with anxiety in tow and surviving to tell the tale.
1) Consider the Costs
If you have anxiety, then you know that spending time on new experiences and environments, however fun, inevitably has a fallout. When you have anxiety, your body and mind are on high alert, taking in stimuli, looking for threats, trying to keep you safe. In a new environment, the energy needed to take in all this new stimuli goes up ten-fold. This is exhausting and the post activity crash is for real.
But I don’t want to spend my life living in my apartment, never going outside or having new experiences. So I’ve learned to weigh the costs versus the benefits of pushing myself. Visiting my family for a day, having a date night with my husband, even going to the grocery store, all these things have a cost; but it is a cost I am willing to pay for the benefits of time with my family or husband and food on the table.
The longer the outing and intensity of the event, the more fallout I have to deal with. Weekends away tend to create a sizable crater, so these are things I weigh carefully. A weekend away with just my husband to celebrate our marriage, totally worth it. Going out to see a band I don’t really love because I’m afraid my friends will be upset if I say no to the invite, maybe not.
The point is, to be honest with yourself about what a trip will cost you and whether it’s still worth the benefits you will get out of the experience. Don’t do what I did for years and hope that maybe this time you won’t come home as exhausted. Acknowledge that traveling takes a greater toll for you because of anxiety and allow yourself to say no to things that just aren’t worth it for you. It’s okay!
2) Plan, but Don’t Overplan
Anxiety thrives in unknowns. An unplanned trip is like a great big field day for your brain to go into overthinking overdrive. Planning your trip out can help remove some of the equipment for your mind to work with. This will look different for everyone. I lean toward a ‘P” on the Myers-Briggs, so I’m actually quite comfortable with only some vague ideas. But I still need to know in general what to expect. And the more new or scary the trip, the more of a plan I’ll need. Other people may need a more thorough itinerary to feel comfortable. If you aren’t the one planning the trip, talk to the person who is and get the details you need. Whatever works for you to still the voice of overthinking unknowns.
But (and this is a big but), don’t get caught in the weeds. Anxiety likes to control everything in order to protect itself from harm. It likes to know with certainty and plan for every contingency. There is a difference between creating an itinerary and needing to know every single detail of what you’ll be doing every minute. If you feel yourself going into this hyperfocused, blinders on, irrational mode, its time to take a break, walk away, and ask for some help or find a distraction. Otherwise, you’ve stopped caring for yourself and started feeding the anxiety.
3) Overpack (within reason)
I’ve accepted at this point in my life that I overpack. I always bring too much of something. But here’s the deal, there are some things that are not worth the effort. I could either sit here in indecision for twenty minutes over whether to pack a t-shirt or nice blouse for a day or I could bring both and avoid the whole argument. Plus there are times when it’s simply not worth the extra anxiety I’ll feel over whether I might actually need four pairs of socks for a two-day trip. You never know! Just pack the extra pairs of socks for goodness sake and save yourself the nagging feeling that maybe you won’t have enough.
However, this rule has limits. If you are regularly packing twice as much as you need, maybe its time to do the work of thinking through what you actually use. Again, its the balance between caring for ourselves and feeding the anxiety. If we are spending hours packing far more than we need, then we are feeding anxiety and causing harm. On the other hand, if we are overpacking a few items to spare ourselves extra worry on the trip, this can be taking care of ourselves.
If you catch yourself feeling frazzled, slow down, breathe, take a break and then come back with a clearer head. Sit down and make a list of what to bring. Seeing it written down on paper can help make it more obvious where we are overpacking than if it’s already shoved in the bottom of a suitcase. Lists also help assure our anxious mind that we won’t forget something essential. And remember that unless you are traveling to some remote foreign village, you can probably purchase most things you might forget or (gasp) live without for a few days.
4) Slow Down & Take Breaks
Remember that plan you made back in step 2? Look back over it and make sure you added in room for downtime. This is super important. I know its tempting to pack in as much activity as possible when you are on your trip. After all, you are paying good money to be there and you want to get the most out of it. But will you thank yourself when you have a panic attack or completely crash and go comatose when you get back?
Know your limits and plan for breaks whether that’s twenty minutes to sit and meditate or read a book between activities or two hours to head back to the hotel and take a nap. Give your body what it needs to stay in a healthy place so you don’t come back completely exhausted and on the edge of a mental breakdown.
What if you didn’t plan the trip? Communicate ahead of time with everyone going that you may need to sit out from an outing or two. Explain that you don’t want to hold anyone else back, but you will enjoy the trip much more if you get a few breaks. Is it annoying to be the one left behind? Of course! But its infinitely better to be honest with yourself and others than to push yourself too far. We’ve all been there, and it’s not pretty.
5) Take Care of Your Body
This one is tough. Vacation tends to be a time where we come in late, get up early, eat terribly and have no time for exercise. But anyone who has been actively managing anxiety for any length of time will tell you that sleep, diet, and exercise are all crucial to maintaining a healthy mental state.
I’ll be honest, this is probably the piece of advice that I fail at most often. I don’t sleep well in new environments so that makes getting enough sleep difficult on trips. And I’m usually the first in line for eating way too much ice cream, french fries, and all manner of junk food on vacation. Don’t even get me started on exercise.
We tend to think of vacation as our break from all of these annoying daily routines. At least I do. But they are oh so very important when it comes to managing anxiety. So as often as possible try to make extra time for sleep and napping, forgo the burger and order a salad with lunch, and go for a walk even if it’s around the hotel parking lot.
6) Listen and Communicate
Listen to your body. Sometimes the best-laid plans are still not enough. With all the distractions and excitement of a trip, it can be more difficult to notice when we are on edge. Make a point of checking in with yourself. Ask a spouse or close friend to ask you how you are doing a few times a day. If you notice the telltale signs of overdoing things, take a break. Even if its five minutes in the bathroom to breathe and do a mindfulness exercise, this can do wonders for letting our bodies know they are being heard and taken care of.
Communicate to the people you are with. If you are feeling anxious or panicky, explain if you need to step away for a while or head back to the hotel. Again, it’s better to be honest, than to push yourself into panic mode because you didn’t want to inconvenience someone or ruin the good vacation vibes.
Finally, leave time for recovery. I know some people can get home from vacation late at night and go to work the next day. This is so not me. I usually need at least a full day of recovery time between a trip and getting back to normal life. Some of this day may be spent unpacking, doing laundry, and getting groceries for the week. But I also find myself needing time to make up lost sleep, restock my alone time meter, and just unwind from new activity and experiences.
Know what your recovery time is and plan accordingly. Yeah, it’s nice to extend the trip as long as possible, but not so nice when you have to immediately go back to life and it takes a week or more for your anxiety levels to go back down. The goal is to be back to normal functionality so you can go into your week in a healthy and relaxed state, not overwhelmed and burned out.
These are my tips for managing anxiety while traveling. The hope is that instead of seeing your trip as the thing that almost lead you to a mental breakdown, you’ll be able to look back on it as a fun and worthwhile experience.