How to Ease Travel Anxiety

Ah, summer: the crash of waves, the crackling of a bonfire, the sand between your toes...and, well, between everything else, too. But is a vacation truly a break if you’re anxious about getting there, getting back, and everything in the middle? As you unwind this summer, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen puts to rest four common travel anxieties. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #160

I have a client—let’s call him Andre—who works hard all year at a demanding job. He could really use a vacation. But every year, he does the same thing. For one week in the middle of July, he goes to the same waterfront hotel about an hour’s drive from his home. He leaves the rest of his vacation time on the table. After many years of doing this, he’s let months and months of vacation time slip away.

Andre would love to travel more—to get away from the New England winter, to visit friends in his home country in Eastern Europe—but his worries won’t let him.

Andre’s predicament is surprisingly common. For him, the primary worry is “What if I get sick?” He justifies going to the hotel because if he were to get sick, his wife could easily drive him home to their local hospital.

You might worry about getting lost, contracting a foreign disease, or falling victim to a bombing or terrorist attack. You might be wary of being in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar language. Or it might just be a free-floating anxiety that something bad will happen. Frogs, locusts, and boils, anyone?

But no matter what, from leaving your passport in a taxi to leaving your undercooked lunch in a hastily-found restroom, we’ve got you covered like comprehensive trip insurance. Check out these 4 fears and what to do about them.

Fear #1: You’re worried about large-scale tragedy: accidents, terrorists, or other violence.

Plane crashes, public shootings, and trucks plowing into a crowd make worldwide headlines. Why? Not only because they’re tragic, but because of four factors made clear in a 2002 paper that followed the September 11th tragedy.

In the paper, researchers pointed out that in the months after September 11, many people chose to travel by car rather than by air, thus increasing their risk of being in an accident—car accidents are by far more common than air accidents. Then, after the subsequent anthrax attacks, many people took prophylactic antibiotics, thus contributing to the development of treatment-resistant bacteria—again, accelerating future risk. Why did so many of us make irrational decisions that felt safer, but actually weren’t?

The paper points out that we’re much more likely to be irrationally afraid of things that are:

  • Uncontrollable versus controllable
  • Grisly rather than mundane
  • Novel rather than something we’ve lived with for a long time
  • A cause of multiple deaths versus one death at a time

Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes fall into all four of the “irrational” categories: uncontrollable, grisly, novel, and a cause of multiple deaths. This is why these fears are so much more widespread than, say, fear of car accidents or fear of heart disease (which just happens to be the actual leading cause of death).

Here’s the bottom line: these tragedies do happen, but the chances that you’ll be in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time are miniscule. Chalk up your fear to the four reasons and make the rational choice instead.

Fear #2: You’re worried about anti-Americanism or other xenophobia.

It’s not just Americans traveling abroad that make locals roll their eyes—plenty of countries come with their own tourist clichés. No matter where you’re from, instead of worrying about being given a foreign stink-eye, be a positive ambassador from your country. Be an example of a respectful, curious tourist and you’ll not only get a friendly reception, but leave locals rethinking their stereotypes.

Fear #3: You have free-floating anxiety of the unknown.

The great unknowns of traveling breed stress. Each new day brings with it new foods, new streets to navigate, new sights, and new mind-boggling public transportation systems.

To counter all the newness, create your own source of familiarity by sticking with some old routines. Do what you love, just in a new place. Drink a cup of your favorite tea every morning. Write in your trusty journal every evening. Ask at your hotel or hostel for a good running route and pound the pavement in your usual shoes. Even if your circadian rhythms and GI tract are out of their routine, trusted habits can establish a sense of constancy and control amidst the irregularity (pun intended) of travel.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.