A psychiatrist offers actionable tips for curbing stress and anxiety before and during your trip.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated July 18, 2019
6 Practical Ways to Deal With Travel Anxiety—Because ‘Taking Deep Breaths’ Doesn’t Always Cut It
Credit: Getty Images

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could snap your fingers and arrive at your destination—no packing, airport crowds, or customs lines required? If you're prone to worry and frustration, travel—particularly airport travel—is more than just a necessary inconvenience; it’s often a multifaceted catalyst for (sometimes crippling) stress and anxiety. Whatever potential travel stressor sets you off, find helpful solutions to soothe your mental unease on your next trip, straight from Indra Cidambi, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist, addiction medicine specialist, and medical director at the Center for Network Therapy.

1. The Stressor: Delays Drive You Crazy

“Studies have shown that 50 percent of travel-related anxiety relates to delays,” Dr. Cidambi says. This is namely due to the fact that travelers often have no control over the weather, aircraft maintenance, or other unexpected factors. Knowing this, frustration and uneasiness are completely understandable reactions when you’re at the mercy of something you can’t control.

How to deal: “The best way to address this stressor is to build a slack day around a vacation or ensure there are no critical deadlines to meet at work the day after return,” Dr. Cidambi suggests. While this won’t always be possible, it’s smart to do as much as you can to give yourself a buffer in case travel timing doesn’t go according to plan.

2. The Stressor: You’re Petrified of Losing Your Luggage

The fear of losing your possessions in the abyss of baggage transport is real. Even if you thoroughly label all of your luggage with tags and contact info, there’s always a chance something could go awry along the way.

How to deal: Take control of the things you can. Dr. Cidambi recommends dividing your clothing evenly between your checked and carry-on baggage (instead of packing all underwear in hand baggage and all nice clothes in the checked baggage, for example). That way, even if your things do go missing or get delayed, you’ll be able to dress and groom yourself for a day or two in the interim.

3. The Stressor: Airport Security and Customs Lines Incense You

“Going through airport security and customs can also be a stress-inducing process, either due to long lines, anxiety over potential questions asked, or language barriers,” Dr. Cidambi says. Endless airport lines may simply drive you insane, or maybe it’s the nagging worry that waiting in a long line will make you miss your boarding time.

How to deal: Giving yourself enough time is an obvious solution (again, take control of what's in your power by arriving earlier than you think you need to). But that, Dr. Cidambi reminds us that knowledge is power: “Familiarize yourself with the process and types of questions they may ask and you’ll be less anxious and less likely to be caught off guard.” That way you won’t spend your time in line ruminating on everything that could go wrong.

4. The Stressor: Turbulence Is Your Personal Nightmare

“Turbulence can be a major trigger for most people,” Dr. Cidambi says. Seriously, anxiety-prone or not, who likes a bumpy flight? Before you burst into tears, Dr. Cidambi says to remember “air travel is still one of the safest ways to get from point A to point B.”

How to deal: “You can strategically select your seating, as locations over the wings often experience fewer bumps than those at the rear of the plane,” Dr. Cidambi says. Worried about nausea? Bring ginger candies and mints to suck on—or, even stronger, Dramamine and motion sickness patches—in case you or your travel companions need it.

Your reaction to turbulence might be more emotional than physical, in which case, use this calming technique: “If you do experience unexpected turbulence that makes you anxious, resist the urge to turn to alcohol to self-medicate—that often exacerbates anxiety,” she says. “Instead, try to focus on deep breathing from your diaphragm: Place one hand on your heart and close your eyes, then begin counting five for each inhale and five for each exhale.”

If you feel like you’re on the cusp of a real panic attack while traveling, don’t ignore it. “Excuse yourself and head to the bathroom on the plane,” Dr. Cidambi says. “Ask for a small paper bag from a flight attendant, put your head between your knees, and focus on deep breathing, using the bag if necessary. This will help to calm you down quickly before returning back to your seat.”

5. The Stressor: Long Flights—With Your Kids—Seem Impossible

Any parent knows the struggle of getting through a flight with young kids without losing their cool. Dr. Cidambi says it’s all about coming prepared to keep them busy.

How to deal: “Be sure your child is armed with activities to keep them from growing restless in-flight (which causes major anxiety for parents),” she says. Coloring books, games, pre-downloaded TV shows and movies are all great ways to keep them settled and entertained.

6. The Stressor: You Can’t Stand When Things Don’t Go According to Plan

No matter how hard they try, no one can force themselves to be spontaneous and flexible—and that’s perfectly okay. “Going to a new destination can be thrilling, but can also cause anxiety since you don’t know what to expect once you arrive,” Dr. Cidambi says.

How to deal: It may be that making a plan A, B, and C is the only way to give yourself peace of mind. Having a little foresight goes a long way. For example, “arrange for an airport transfer with your hotel, and have a backup plan like Uber or a local car service on hand should something go awry,” Dr. Cidambi says. Research your destination for restaurants and activities so you’re not put on the spot when you get there. And when in doubt, leave it to the pros: “Call the hotel ahead of time and see if some events or tours can be facilitated directly through them to take the planning out of your hands.”

Anxious about flight cancellations? Here’s what to do if your flight gets cancelled.