Wednesday 22 March 2017

Overcoming Travel Anxiety

I think it would be fair to say that I travel a lot. Going away to different countries and experiencing different cultures plays a huge part in my overall enjoyment of life. Sometimes I even feel that travelling and booking that all important next trip is an addictive compulsion. I often feel as though I am not truly living if I am not exploring what the world has to offer and enjoying new experiences. I would even go as far as to say that I am at my happiest when I am somewhere else. I do however find it difficult to say the words 'I love to travel' and here's why...

When my world got turned upside down with anxiety problems in 2013 one of the first things that it stopped me from doing was travelling. At it's worst I couldn't even leave the house let alone travel to anywhere new. I couldn't drive my car and I struggled just as much as a passenger. I had a once in a lifetime trip booked to Asia which was going to involve being away from home for five weeks and a total of nine separate flights. At the time I couldn't even comprehend how I was going to manage this but I also wasn't prepared to give up a trip that I had been planning and saving for for over a year.

My anxiety issues couldn't have really come at a worse time for me and looking back now I don't know how I survived that trip. Every flight started with me in a flood of tears and resulted in a panic attack.  I was convinced that I was going to get sick in every place I stayed and consequently refused to eat very much. Most nights I struggled to sleep and I couldn't even relax during the day time around the pool or at the beach. What should have been one of the most happiest experiences of my life was ruined by what was going on in my head.

One of the first things I did when I returned home from Asia was discuss with my husband about booking a Summer holiday. I think he was quite surprised considering what we had just been through but I knew that if we didn't then I wouldn't get on a plane ever again. One of my only real passions in life was at risk of being stolen away from me and I wasn't prepared to let that happen. 

Fast forward the calendar another three years and I can honestly say that I almost feel back to my former fearless self when it comes to travelling. I've reflected on my most recent trip to Copenhagen and how at ease I felt the whole time I was away and how well I managed the flight. I felt calm, I looked out of the window during take off and most importantly I looked forward to the  days ahead of us without imagining any worst case scenarios which would usually cause me to spiral into a pit of fear.

So how have I got myself here? 

Well, I would primarily say through persistence and perseverance. I learnt pretty early on with anxiety that the more you avoid the things that are making you fearful, the bigger those fears will become. In my opinion, as an experiencer of anxiety and panic attacks, it takes time and baby steps to get yourself out of that vicious cycle of impending doom. There's no point in throwing yourself in at the deep end and trying to do everything all at once because that just won't work and you may end up doing more harm than good.

Over the past couple of years I have always made sure that I have little holidays booked up and things to keep me in the habit of travelling, being away from home and outside of my comfort zone. I would say that going on numerous short haul flights over the past year has really been the best thing I could have ever done for my anxiety. Stockholm, Majorca, Ibiza, Edinburgh, Finland & Copenhagen were all really successful flights for me and were all under three hours. Doing the same thing over and over again, and surviving, has slowly but surely convinced myself that there's nothing to worry about.

It also hasn't just been about going abroad to other countries. Recently I have holidayed more in the UK than I have ever done before. I've really enjoyed visiting new places closer to home and losing my Air BnB virginity. Sometimes my anxiety was just as difficult to deal with being away anywhere different to home and I often found myself paranoid about how clean facilities were, not wanting to eat out anywhere I didn't trust and long car journeys would often be very triggering for me.

I am very fortunate in that i've been able to go away with someone who understands and is considerate to my needs. I have a really understanding husband who has been an absolute rock during some of my darkest hours. He has seen the behaviour patterns in the past and the warning signs, he can read me like a book. He knows that choosing our seats beforehand makes me more at ease on a flight and he doesn't mind paying the extra. If I do feel wobbly he holds my hand and tells me that everything is going to be ok. He reminds me of past events where everything has been ok and he does a marvellous job at talking common sense to me.

They could be referred to as 'safety behaviours', or mere comforters, but there are a few routines that I have got into the habit of which I have found to be really helpful in reducing my anxiety levels when travelling. 

Whenever we fly I always have my little 'flight bag' with me and on me at all times. It contains all of the small things that help to make me feel more comfortable on the flight. Tissues, wipes, hand cream, lip balm, headphones, my phone, pain killers etc. Because it's so small I never get asked to put it in the over head compartments too which is something that used to cause me some anxiety. To be honest i've never been a fan of that whole feeling of being locked in on a flight and not being able to get to my stuff just makes that even worse.

Distraction is also a very useful tool when working on blocking out any unhelpful patterns of thought so I generally always make sure I have some things to do on the journey. Usually this would take the form of a book or a podcast. Sometimes I like to download a film or tv episode to my laptop to watch and I always make sure it's something I am excited about watching. I also like to download travel guides into my iBooks library for wherever it is we may be travelling to so that I can read up and work on my itinerary on the way. I've learnt the hard way that being left alone with my thoughts can be risky so I always go prepared.   

Whenever I travel now I make a conscious effort to make it as stress free as possible. I have found in the past that having to rush around to get somewhere and putting myself under pressure is setting myself up for a disaster. I never book early morning flights anymore. Sometimes we even book an airport hotel the night before we fly just to alleviate those worries about getting from point A to point B. More often than not we might hire our own car in the country that we're travelling to as it takes away the stress of public transport and we feel more comfortable taking things at our own pace surrounded by less people. It also gives you a little more control which is a big thing for me and is probably what got me into the mess in the first place.  

As well as challenging myself on a regular basis I also take the anti-depressant Venlafaxine which I have been on now for just over a year and a half. This drug got me out of a serious relapse I had towards the end of 2015. I did not envision myself back on medication again having already successfully come off Citalopram at the end of 2014. I was very reluctant to take what seemed to me at the time like a huge step backwards. But I was also on the verge of agoraphobia again and my choices suddenly found themselves very limited. On reflection Venlafaxine has been a real life saver for me and I am grateful that my GP encouraged me to accept this help. 

I also always carry Diazepam in my handbag although I really can't remember the last time I had to take it (which is a great feeling by the way!). Diazepam, or Valium as it's also known, is in my experience very effective when it comes to alleviating travel anxiety. I also find great comfort in knowing that it's there if I need it. My GP only ever prescribes me 10 tablets at a time and knowing in the past that I had to make them last made me save them for only the really bad times.

As well as medication I have over the past four years been through three separate courses of CBT. I have never felt that CBT has been hugely beneficial to me but with the limited options available via the NHS mental health services at present I would advise to take up whatever is offered like I did. And who knows, maybe it did help me more than I have ever given it credit for.

I haven't been on a long haul flight since a disastrous one I took to Mauritius in 2015. Deciding to take a twelve hour flight at a time when I already felt anxiety making a reemergence in my life was probably not the best decision I ever made and it ended up being a catalyst for a pretty severe relapse. I am however now at a stage where I feel some confidence in perhaps trying long haul again.

I dream about spending a few weeks on the West coast of the USA and road tripping from LA to San Francisco. Swimming with the wild pigs in the Bahamas is still on my bucket list, as is staying in a water bungalow in the Maldives. I do feel that I have already been to some pretty amazing places but there are still so many more adventures I often find myself mentally planning for the future. 

For now though I am looking ahead to our Summer holiday in June which we shall be spending in Santorini. At 3 hours 55 minutes it will be the longest flight I have taken since that dreaded Mauritius experience and, for the first time in a long time, I can actually say that I am really looking forward to it.      



  1. Thanks for sharing this, I'm so glad you're on the mend and getting back to long haul flights!
    I get panic attacks on every flight and I've been trying to do a couple of trips a year, anywhere with a flight time of 2 hours or less. I'm not sure I'm getting to the point where I could do long haul, but I'm definitely facing the fear!
    Hope your next trip is awesome :) xx

    Effi |

    1. Thats so great you are facing your fear and making effort to change the anxiety and panic you feel about flying. I have found regular small flights so helpful! The more you do something the easier it eventually feels. I have a four hour flight at the end of June which will be the longest one ive done for a couple of years. I don't feel nervous at all which is amazing! xx

  2. All your travel photos are so stunning! You should be super proud of yourself for pushing through the anxiety and not letting it stop you travelling :) weirdly travelling is one of the things I don't get too anxious about, it's my time off away from all the things that do cause me anxiety!

    Amber Love Blog

    1. Ahh thanks so much Amber! I do feel proud of myself for not giving in to it and letting it win but it's nice to be reminded by others too :-) xx

  3. Hey Sarah, beautiful blog post, thank you for sharing such private insights! I have been also battling travel anxiety for a bit, but it is as you say, just go out and do it and the worst case scenarios in your head won't come true. To be honest, the bad experiences we had while traveling (disgusting hotels, missed flights, sickness...) have not been something I would have anticipated anyway and there was always a solution! I'm also very lucky to have a very calm, very steady husband, aren't they the best? :-) And I also feel I'm truly alive when I'm traveling... good thing I'm not the only one with that feeling!

    1. Yes calm steady husbands help a lot! :) It can be so difficult to think so logically when you're highly anxious but once you feel able to and stronger it really helps to face the fears and keep moving forward. To travel is to live! x

  4. I've never experienced severe, debilitating anxiety like this but I do get anxious when travelling. I'm glad to hear you're getting over it and I hope you enjoy your trip to Santorini

    1. Ahh thanks so much Stacey! And sorry for the late response, all my comments had been moved to a spam folder :( I can't wait for Santorini and at present I have no anxiety around flying which feels a good place to be! xx

  5. I literally could be writing this myself, your experience is so similar to mine. I'm so relieved to hear you have come out the other side and are enjoying your travels again. I'm petrified of flying and suffer with anxiety which compounds the problem. I have so many places I want to visit too, I'm going to try small journeys first but more regularly like you suggest. I manage one short trip a year but it takes me weeks to get over the stress of it. Thanks for writing winch an open honest piece, it's very comforting x

    1. I'm so sorry to hear that you're suffering with travel anxiety Amellia - it really does suck! I definitely think the more you do it the better you will eventually feel but it does take practice and a lot of effort. It will also take time. I'm so glad I done all those short trips over the past couple of years because it really got me into the habit of flying again and now I dont feel any anxiety about my upcoming 4 hour flight to Santorini in June. Keep going - you will get there! xx


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