4 Strategies to Navigate Travel Anxiety and Cultivate an Experience of Personal Growth & Joy

Here are four mental strategies to help manage anxiety on the road and embrace the unexpected joys of travel, setting the stage for personal growth and discovery. 
Navigating anxiety for personal growth

Here’s my travel confession: Even though I’ve been to more than 30 countries and love to travel, there’s almost always a moment right before I board the plane where my anxiety gets so bad I want to turn around and go home.

It’s not because I have a fear of flying. It’s due to my anxiety disorder, an ever-present condition that means even on relaxed, low-stress days, I often feel a thrum of unease. When my stress level is considerably higher – like when I’m about to board a jumbo jet and fly off to a foreign country alone – my anxiety can feel overwhelming.

I’m not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. For people who suffer any degree of anxiety, travel can be particularly challenging. But anxiety doesn’t have to stop you from experiencing the thrill and fulfillment of personal travel. 

With preparation and practice, it is possible to reframe your thinking to better manage travel anxiety. Here are four mental strategies to help manage anxiety on the road and embrace the unexpected joys of travel, setting the stage for personal growth and discovery. 

Personal Growth Strategy: Practice Mindful Travel

Personal Growth Strategy #1: Practice Mindful Travel

When traveling, it’s easy to worry about what’s next on your agenda – how you’ll get from your airport to hotel in an unfamiliar city or what will happen if you miss a flight connection, for instance. The American Psychological Association notes that anxiety is often “a future-oriented” response, meaning that your brain is trying to anticipate and plan for what’s ahead.

Mindfulness helps pull you back into the present. It involves intentionally directing your attention to what’s happening now, versus what might happen in the future. Mindfulness can take practice, as it involves paying deliberate attention to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and your surrounding environment in a non-judgmental way.

But there are simple ways to incorporate mindfulness into your travel experience. One is to pause and take several deep, slow breaths to calm your mind and reduce stress and anxiety. This is especially helpful during moments of travel-related tension, like waiting to board a plane or during delays. 

Another option: try going for a walk or a swim with the intention of immersing yourself in your surroundings. Pay attention to each step under your feet or every splash you make. Focus on the sights, smells and sounds around you. The point is to bring your attention back to what’s happening right at that moment. 

Not only is this great for easing anxiety by bringing you back to the present, it’s also a wonderful way to absorb the beauty and magic of being in a new place.

Personal Growth Strategy: Focus on what Could Go Right

Personal Growth Strategy #2: Focus on What Could Go Right

When I contemplated a solo trip to Africa last year, I worried about what might go wrong. I was planning a complex journey alone to remote areas. What if nobody met me at the airstrip in the bush for the safari I’d planned? What if I got sick? What if I ended up somewhere unsafe? 

Our anxious brains work overtime to protect us from danger, real or perceived, and they’ll often conjure up worst-case scenarios. But the reality is that most of what we worry about never actually happens. A 2020 study by Penn State University found that 92% of the things people worry about do not come to pass. 

Still, when you’re prone to anxiety, it can be hard not to fixate on what might go wrong while traveling. A great way to reframe that thinking is to focus instead on what might go right.

I used this technique to snap myself out of my anxiety spiral about that safari trip. I consciously decided to assume the safari lodge would arrange the airport transfer just as they promised. That I’d stay healthy. That I’d use my common sense about safety and be just fine. 

Then I imagined how the trip would be if it all went off without a hitch: ten days of watching baby elephants and lion cubs scamper after their mamas, witnessing a thousand wildebeest crossing the Mara River, basking in the red glow of the most glorious sunsets on Earth. I imagined having the trip of my dreams.

It worked. Visualizing what could go right, instead of fixating on what could go wrong, helped me challenge my anxiety. Visualization can be as simple as picturing a successful trip in your mind or as fun and creative as making a vision board

This strategy also creates a sense of anticipation and excitement, which a Cornell University study found can substantially increase a person’s happiness. For me, this approach also reminded me of what I’d be missing if I let my anxiety win and stayed home.

While there’s never any guarantee that a journey won’t have some hiccups, focusing on what can go right can help alleviate stress and anxiety and make for a more enjoyable and meaningful travel experience.

Personal Growth Strategy # 3: Trust Yourself to Troubleshoot

We all have that friend who always has at least six routes to the airport mapped out “just in case.” (Some of us are that friend). That’s our brain working overtime to keep us safe. But trying to create a Plan B for every situation when you’re traveling is exhausting. And trying to stay one step ahead will almost certainly keep you from enjoying your experience in the moment. 

Try this approach instead: Do your research on your destination so you have an idea of what to expect when you get there. You don’t need to know everything – remember that half the fun of travel is allowing yourself to discover a place. Just familiarize yourself enough to have a solid Plan A. When you’re prepared, you’ll feel less of a need for a back up plan. 

Chances are, you’ll also pick up tips through research that could help you create a Plan B on the fly. For example, when planning a train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto last year, I read that the service desks in the station ticket offices often have agents who speak English exceptionally well – a tip that came in handy when I missed my train and needed to find a last-minute hotel.

It’s also smart to create a few common-sense plans for true emergencies or delays, like making a copy of your passport, bringing an extra credit card if you have one, or having a few extra days of any daily medications you take in case you need to extend your trip. Travel insurance is also usually worth purchasing. I find that knowing I’m covered for the big things can help me stress less about trying to plan for smaller “what ifs.”

But once you’ve done that basic preparation, don’t go overboard trying to prepare for every possible scenario. Instead, trust yourself to troubleshoot. Think of all the times you’ve run into problems in the past and figured it out – and trust you’ll be able to do it again if you have to. 

Personal Growth Strategy # 4: Build your Travel Confidence 

One of my first solo trips nearly 20 years ago was when I drove from New Hampshire to Prince Edward Island in Canada. I remember feeling anxious about driving in another country and the way my heart thumped as I crossed the border. I steered white-knuckled through an area with dozens of “moose crossing” warning signs. My chest was tight as I had to drive up a very narrow, steep ramp onto the ferry. 

But I also felt exhilarated. I was so proud of myself when I drove onto that island. Not only had I made it to a beautiful place I had always wanted to visit, but I had done it despite my anxiety. It was a true goal achievement.

That trip fueled my desire to travel and boosted my travel confidence. Today, I have more than 50 stamps in my passport and I barely recognize myself as the young traveler who was once anxious about driving to Canada. But I only got to this place by intentionally building that confidence through experience.

Travel confidence is a powerful antidote for travel anxiety. The more you travel, the more you learn to trust yourself and the world, making it easier to manage anxiety and step out of your comfort zone. Building your travel confidence doesn’t mean you have to solo travel, or that you even have to plan your journey yourself. 

But the burst of personal growth that comes from setting a travel goal and achieving it can make you feel more confident in your ability to navigate unfamiliar places – and remind you why it’s worth tackling your travel anxieties in pursuit of those goals.

Anxiety can sometimes make it challenging to explore the world. But with the right tools and techniques to help manage travel anxiety, navigating unfamiliar places can become an incredible source of joy.

Ready to learn how Create Joy’s approach to travel preparation and goal setting can ease anxiety and elevate your experiences? Schedule a chat today.

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