Five tips for dealing with travel anxiety

The idea of packing a bag and going away is making many people in Australia anxious right now. If this applies to you, take some time to consider why that is, and think about ways you can begin to overcome it.

As soon as state borders began to open after months of closures due to the COVID pandemic, people quickly began planning trips overland and by air. Domestic flight bookings boomed. Yet around the same time, people in Australia reported feeling anxiety about travel and border closures.

Associate Professor Jill Newby, a clinical psychologist from UNSW and the Black Dog Institute, says this is understandable.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around travelling,” she says, “spanning everything from worry about catching COVID to the prospect of border closures or changes, which we’ve learnt from recent experience can happen quite quickly and without a lot of warning.

“People are concerned that they’ll get stuck somewhere, separated from their friends and family and their work, or will be unable to return home at the drop of a hat if they need to.”

Factor in the different requirements for documentation and COVID testing depending on where you’re travelling to, and there’s no question that travelling is significantly more complicated these days.

Newby says it’s pretty normal for people to be nervous about travelling, whether interstate or overseas.

“And it goes without saying, but if those feelings of worry or uncertainty progress into actual anxiety, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to enjoy your trip.”

The following strategies may help you cope if you want, or need, to travel soon but feel hesitant.

1. Be open about how you’re feeling

“If you’re feeling pressure from family or friends to travel before you’re ready, be honest in your communication with them,” says Newby. “Work on explaining and helping them understand why you don’t feel ready, but that you might feel differently in a month or two if things open up a bit more or if there’s a bit more certainty. Aim to find a compromise rather than feeling pressured to do something you’re not comfortable with.”

2. Build your confidence

If getting on a plane feels like a step too far at the moment, Newby suggests setting your sights a little lower to start with.

“One idea is to take things slowly by travelling within your own state or even your own city first to see how that feels. And, if it works out well, from there you can then step things up as you feel more confident.”

3. Stay in your comfort zone

“Consider how you can travel, and enjoy it, while still feeling safe. This will be different for everyone, depending on how worried or tolerant you are about the risk of catching COVID.”

For instance, if you’re nervous about being near big groups of people, you could plan to stay with friends and family instead of a crowded hotel. And research locations and destinations that tend to be less populated.

4. Tolerate the uncertainty

Finding solutions to problems you anticipate may be helpful if it gives you some sense of control. But the reality is you can’t plan for everything. “And for some people there’s also a risk that thinking about all the ‘what ifs?’ will only increase the worry and anxiety around travel. What may be more useful is consciously deciding to tolerate that uncertainty.”

To do this, Newby suggests thinking back to times when you were travelling pre-COVID and encountered the usual hiccups.

“If you can remind yourself how you’ve coped with uncertain or changing situations while you’ve been away in the past, you’ll probably realise that even though the pandemic provides different challenges, you’ve done this before and you’ll get through it.”

5.Focus on the fun stuff

“This can be really helpful. Sure, travel may be more challenging and can come with more unknowns right now, but what are you looking forward to about your trip? Shifting your focus from what you’re worried about to what you’re excited about can help take travel from a scary thing to do to something you still really want to do.”

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