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

Fear #4: You're worried because you don’t speak the language.

This is the bane of all perfectionists. You think if you aren’t fluent with a great accent to boot, you’ll be laughed all the way home. Not so. All you have to do is look like you’re trying. Commit a few key phrases to memory: “Where is the bathroom?” “Excuse me.” “Please,” “Thank you.” And of course, “How much is this?”

“I would like” combined with pointing and “please” will get you through any menu, bakery case, or farmer’s market. Throw in the numbers one through ten for addresses, phone numbers, and cost, and you’re golden. In most tourist destinations, you’ll be the hundredth bumbling tourist the waiter, store clerk, or taxi driver has encountered that day anyway. As long as you bumble with a smile, you’re way ahead of the game.

For worries about flying or driving, check out these from the archives:

How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying, Part 1

How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying, Part 2

How to Conquer Your Fear of Driving

And finally, a comprehensive tip:

Make a plan, but remember the 80/20 rule.

Anxiety occurs when things are uncertain. And unfortunately, when traveling, many things—from the weather to street closures to your immune system’s robustness are uncertain.

On any trip, something probably will go wrong, whether it’s as minor as a lost in translation order at a restaurant that nets you pasta in squid ink (this happened to me), or as major as getting evacuated from your hotel due to a flood (ditto).

But guess what? You can handle it. If you have a mental merry-go-round of a few big concerns, come up with a plan for each of them. If your luggage got lost, what would you do? If you got lost, what would you do?  For my client Andre, who was worried about getting sick, we talked about what he would do if he got sick in a faraway locale. It seemed simple, but once it dawned on him that most resorts and hotels have a clinic, or that he could simply ask hotel staff to help him get to a local hospital, he felt more at ease.

Now, here’s the catch: by safeguarding against mishaps, you may be able to reduce your anxiety. But anxiety is slippery. Solve one problem, and another “but what if” often pops up.

Enter the 80/20 rule. You can prepare for 80% of mishaps with 20% of the effort. Read travel blogs and reviews to find out where to go, photocopy your passport and credit cards, get trip insurance if it makes you feel better, and don’t get rip-roaring drunk and then wave your money around. Totally reasonable, right?

But then, draw the line. If you find yourself on Google Maps mapping out escape routes from Roman piazzas in case of a terrorist attack, or programming the addresses of Hawaiian hospitals in your phone, you’ve probably gone too far. Ask if you’re preparing for something likely, or if it just feels likely because you’re scared (or because of the four reasons from Fear  #1).

Here’s a good litmus test: would you instruct a friend to do the same thing? In Andre’s case, I asked if he’d advise a friend, “Hey man, make sure you only travel within an hour from home in case you get sick.” Andre actually laughed, and the next time I saw him, he had booked a trip to the Bahamas in February.

To bring it on home (or away from home, as it were), anxiety makes you feel incapable. It tells you the world is dangerous. As a result, it keeps your world small. So instead, do what you want, not what your anxiety wants. The next time you get packing, you’ll be able to send your travel anxiety packing, too. 

how to be yourself ellen hendriksen bookPre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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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 was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She 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. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.